What is actually an app worth – and what triggers someone to develop an app? Are we today focusing too much on the monetisation of apps? Troed Sångberg, an engineer and researcher at Sony Mobile’s Technology office, adds his personal reflections on this topic in this blog post. Read on for the full post.
A few months ago, over the holidays, I decided to spend some of my saved vacation days doing something real for a change. Today my workdays in research produce all too many documents, but I’ve always felt that code was the language in which I could best express my thoughts.
So I wrote an app. I needed a week to crank out the first version, launching it on the day before Christmas Eve, and was rewarded with a hundred downloads or so during the first few days until its first update.
Since this exercise was meant to be a fulfilling vacation activity for myself, yet something I would be able to refer back to, I decided from the beginning that I wanted to run it as a proper development project. I had a home for it setup with documentation, detailing expected future functionality, a discussion forum and got it listed at the proper places for such applications. Being a true believer in Openness I also opened up a Github account, pushed the source for each new version and took care to develop features in specific branches. You know, all those bits and pieces that are so easy to forget when you’re the only developer and for all intents and purposes the only customer.
And the downloads came. Hundreds. Thousands. People interacted with me on the forum, I received bug reports, numerous feature requests and I was sent translations for inclusion in future versions. I found a number of different video reviews of the app in several different languages, and I saw others talking about it on online forums using words that humbled me.
So I continued on with the project and developed features I had no real use for myself, but that were apparently very popular with others. I extended my testing environment and upgraded the databases used by the app to better handle the increase in usage. I spent another two weeks to get a proper version 1.0 out, before I left my vacation and got back to work.
At that point in time, I estimated my little project to have somewhere around 30000 users. I had spent the better parts of three weeks working on it, and I had most definitely reached the target I had given myself.
And I had been paid nothing.
Money was simply not why I started the project, and it’s not something that was needed for me to reach my goals. Today it’s at v1.1.6, it has an estimated 100000+ users and I’ve been neglecting it for too long due to prioritising my day job. The new SQLite (Ebean) code is still in a branch that needs more work, and even though I’m lucky not having any bugs that need emergency fixing, it seems I need to await my next vacation to get back on track.
So why am I not trying to become an “app millionaire”? I’m sure many of you reading this have released apps on different mobile app stores, and see at least potential in something like what I’ve just described.
There’s no money in Minecraft server plugins, at least not that I know of. My project is known as Courier, a Minecraft Bukkit player to player in-game item based mail system. I estimate the number of users from the number of downloads, since those downloads are done by server admins and servers have anything from one to thousands of users (I use an average of fifteen for my estimate, hoping it’s at least close).
Now why is it that after my revelation about what my vacation project was about we no longer consider it strange that I had no “app millionaire” expectations? If you had any doubts, that’s actually the point I want to discuss with this post From where have we gotten the expectation that all apps, no matter the complexity and the amount of time having been put into them, should be monetarily awarded? After all, a lot of people do throw together quite complex software (much more complex than mine) in a few days or weeks just as I did – and have vastly different intrinsic and extrinsic motivations for doing so.
In my presentation series I often talk about the gold economy vs the gift economy, and one of the books on the topic I truly recommend is The Generous Man by Tor Nørretranders. I had a personal revelation back when I first read it regarding the often misunderstood concept of free when relating to open source development. While not limited to open source in itself, it turns out that humans seldomly do things for free, but still produce things that might compete on the same marketplace as things done with the expection of monetary return.
I believe this very human behaviour produce some of the differences we observe between different software platforms, mobile as well as non-mobile. Understanding these motivations would then be of great importance when deciding on business models, both for those who develop software for a platform as well as for those creating platforms and seeking content.
Monetary reward is but one of all the drivers that make humans create successful things, and is not the only way in which they can be valued. Thus, the answer to the question posed in the beginning of this post would be that it’s … twodimensional. What I don’t know, but would like to see discussed, is how we can become better at recognising those dimensions.
(Oh, and of course. What I write about are my personal views, not official Sony Mobile strategy).