How the iPhone App Store resurrected the lone wolf programmer

Mon, Oct 5, 2009


It’s become pretty trendy, in some tech circles at least, to criticize Apple and its handling of the iTunes app store.  Admittedly, Apple’s actions are sometimes confusing, contradictory, and even downright idiotic every now and again.  But by and large, and especially given the massive number of apps in the app store, Apple has managed the iTunes App Store relatively smoothly, and has opened up an entirely new revenue stream for an innumerable number of developers who, if it weren’t for Apple, would probably never have their work seen by the masses.  The level playing field that the app store provides has given all developers the ability to strike it rich, and much like how the iPhone wrestled away much of the control that mobile carriers had grown accustomed to enjoying, the app store has wrestled away the dominance that a handful of large game publishers exerted over the gaming industry for quite some time.

On that note, David Whatley, who is president of Critical Thought Games and behind popular iPhone gaming titles such as geoDefense and geoDefense Swarm, recently wrote a blogpost explaining that the revolutionary nature of the iTunes App Store is largely being overlooked – namely that it’s resurrected the existence, and more importantly, the relevance of the lone wolf programmer.

Alas, times change.  EA game projects today have credit lists a hundred names long it seems!  Big gambles, big risks, big payoffs, big disasters.  It’s a whole different industry but one thing is for sure: the age of the lone-wolf developer had ended.

And, 20 years later, Apple….  Steve Jobs….  and his team….  Brought. It. Back.

… While so many focus on the small things, like the whole Google Voice rejection mishigoss, it seems everyone has lost sight of the most amazing transformation of the gaming industry in my lifetime.  Not just amazing by what it has achieved, or what it will achieve going forward, but the pace at which this has occurred!  The old vets of the App Store game have about 1 year of experience!

Whatley then addresses the common complaint that the iTunes App Store simply has too many titles to make a developers chance for success feasible.  Whatley astutely points out that the app store isn’t a guaranteed ticket to fast cars and expensive condos, but rather a platform that gives each and every developer an equal opportunity to achieve the heights of commercial success, making it “possible for a lone wolf developer to compete in the same channel as EA, and win!”

I was confronted by the fact that many devs feel a tad helpless in the face of the blizzard of apps appearing on the store each day.  They feel their app is just lost in the wind, and there isn’t much they can do about it.  Fortunately many of the talks at 360IDev focused on this very subject, including mine.  But even still, there seemed to be an undercurrent of “this isn’t fair!”

They are right: it isn’t fair.  But more to the point, it isn’t supposed to be fair!

I will repeat the point I tried to drive home at the conference:

What Apple has done here, what Steve Jobs has done here, is he has stepped up to each and everyone of us and handed us a bat. Stepping aside, he says to us “Swing away!”

Whatley concludes,

If you have the talent, the know-how, the drive, the ambition, then you should be swinging for the fences. It’s not a Lottory; it’s not luck.  It’s about focus, determination and skill.




3 Comments For This Post

  1. Constable Odo Says:

    There are also the vocal few that are complaining the App Store is getting filled with junk due to developers with not that much talent. I don’t see that as a problem, but many people do. The only way you can weed out lower-quality apps is by creating a platform that costs thousands of dollars for developer kits. By default, lesser players won’t even bother. I don’t know how Apple will be able to manage apps when the iPhone platform really kicks in. I would think they would have to find a way to separate the wheat from the chaff. But then again, why should they even care. Any developers that are dissatisfied can always go to another platform. I don’t see their chances being any better as far as making money is concerned. The funniest thing is that people are claiming there are TOO MANY apps. Maybe they mean that good apps are difficult to find? I’m not really sure. I guess you just can’t please everyone, but I think Apple is doing a good job in pleasing most users and that’s why the Apple Mobile platform continues to grow. When the tablet hits, iTunes is going to grow exponentially. Lord help the users and competition. It’s content is gonna be overwhelming

  2. sfmitch Says:

    Thanks for linking to the Whatley’s post – it’s a great read.

  3. Disillusioned Says:

    As someone with a decade of experience as a “lone wolf” developer in handheld apps and nearly the same amount of time leading the development of games in one of those large games production houses, perhaps I can give some unique perspective.

    As alluded to in the article, console games only come from a limited number of select development houses. The markets are tightly controlled by the console manufacturers, who purposefully do not allow unlicensed developers to create apps for their platforms. This was not always the case. They do this now to keep the games market from repeating the “Atari Debacle” crash of 1983.

    In 1983 video games were hot. Third party developers had reverse engineered the Atari and other major consoles, and a plethora of startup companies–lured by the promised of a quick profit–flooded the market with mediocre games. Sound familiar? All the extra software on the market soured customer experiences and watered down everybody’s profits to the point that nobody (even quality companies) could make enough money to stay afloat. The market crashed. It didn’t return until years later, when Nintendo introduced a console with a new software model, one in which apps and developers were carefully preselected, licensed and regulated to keep the market healthy and provide a carefully orchestrated experience for the customer.

    The PDA market repeated many of the same mistakes a decade later. In the late 90’s and early 00’s PalmOS software sales were brisk. Even years before the iPhone came to put the final nail in its coffin, the PalmOS software market was already in decline from over competition and too many crappy apps. Palm only made the situation worse by continuing to court developers instead of supporting the ones they already had. At conferences they’d, proudly advertise the 100,000+ developers they’d attracted to the platform, a fact they saw as a sign of their success but one that developers knew to be of impending doom. Sound familiar?

    It’s scary how the Apple App store is making some of these same mistakes today. 18 months ago, creating an app that didn’t totally suck was all you needed to do to earn obscene amounts of money. A little later, one had to create something unique and engaging to be successful.

    Today, a developer has to not only create a quality, engaging app, but also needs to market it well and even have a bit of luck to stay ahead of the competition–just to turn over a profit. It’s not an impossible market to crack, but it’s getting slowly worse not better. Sure, Apple is growing the market but eventually they’ll reach a point where everybody who might want an iPhone will already have one.

    With almost no barriers to entry, eventually there will be nowhere else to go, and the only way a developer can “up the ante” will be a willingness to lose money. If this happens, of course, it will spell the end for “lone wolf” developers and the only ones left will be big companies that can afford to fund app development strictly as a marketing vehicle.

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