The changes Apple made to its App Store through the release of iTunes 9 are being met with a mixture of gratitude and worry by iPhone developers. There's appreciation for changes that improve app exposure but some developers, particularly smaller ones, are seeing a decline in sales.
Beyond the ongoing controversy over Apple's management of the iPhone app approval process -- which culminated in the unusual public posting of Apple's response to an FCC inquiry about the way Apple vets apps -- there's the more mundane difficulty the company faces in managing its success.
In July, Apple reported that the App Store was selling over 65,000 apps. And developers are submitting about 8,500 new or updated apps every week.
For Apple, which gets 30% of every app sold, more applications mean more revenue, assuming they're paid apps. But for developers, more applications mean more competition and more difficulty being noticed. It's a needle-in-a-haystack scenario with more hay being added daily.
iTunes 9 changed the way apps are presented, with a larger scrolling section for new and noteworthy apps and more prominent promotional spots on the App Store main page. This is likely to drive sales for apps that win, or buy, a place in these high-profile areas.
Likewise, the expansion of the top 100 list to 200 and the addition of a "Top Grossing" list expands the potential spotlights that can shine on an app and lift it to prominence and profit. The "Top Grossing" category addresses a long-standing concern about the pressure to make apps that are as cheap and disposable as ringtones. By providing marketing lift to the sort of higher-priced apps that are likely to come from larger development companies, the "Top Grossing" category could become an avenue by which pricier, and ideally more professionally coded, apps see their popularity magnified.
Yet iTunes 9 no longer defaults to browsing by subcategory and no longer shows top apps lists for those subcategories. Though subcategories can be enabled by the user, the default setting tends to dominate. For game developers, this means specific game genres that were once partitioned in different areas now exist in the same area.
"Bad news for game developers -- iTunes 9 removed subcategories for games," lamented an iPhone developer on the Unity3D forum. "So if you were seeing steady sales because you were at the top of a subcategory list, then you might be screwed now. Yup, it's actually HARDER to find smaller, indie games now."
In a tweet on Wednesday, Noel Llopis, the indie developer who created the Flower Garden iPhone game, predicted a 50% decrease in sales for iPhone games this coming week.
Over at the iPhone Dev SDK forum, several developers confirmed the worst, noting that their daily sales figures had declined following the release of iTunes 9. The sentiment wasn't universal however: Several reported better sales.
The fear voiced by some developers is that Apple is throwing more support behind big development outfits at the expense of the little guys.
Some iPhone developers expect that Apple's expansion of its Genius recommendation system to apps will compensate to some extent for the loss of game subcategories. Among others, there's hope that this change is only temporary and that Apple will implement better search and filtering for the App Store to make app discovery a better experience.
Some of that hope may be driven by Apple's apparent attempt to become more engaged with its developers despite its culture of aloofness. Llopis, for example, reported in a recent tweet that he had received an actual phone call from Apple to resolve problems he was having getting a game update approved. This stands in stark contrast to developer horror stories that describe months of waiting for app approval with no feedback from Apple.
While it's not as if Apple has changed its spots and traded secrecy for Facebook-style exposure, there's a sense that at least behind the scenes Apple is paying more attention to managing the iPhone's success and to maintaining the allegiance and support of developers.
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