August 1, 2014

The Mobile Software Disaster

Brent Simmons, author of Net News Wire and developer of Vesper, just set off one the most striking and important discussion of the software industry in years. It begins from one modest post in which he asked, “who at this table are indie iOS developers?

What he means is, who among us lives by creating and selling iOS software? Lots of people have jobs building software that other people commission, either as employees or consultants; they get paid every month and it's up to someone else to figure out whether their work is profitable. But who is making a living, or a fortune, from writing iOS software on their own ticket?

It turns out, just about nobody is.

It turns out, products we thought were really successful – products that took years to design and build, that are well crafted and well polished and lavishly reviewed – are bringing in a few hundred dollars a month, and less than $50K over the life of the product. A game developer reports sales of several hundred dollars, total, for several apps that seem pretty attractive. In fact, not only is no one making a living from building mobile software: almost nobody is even scraping by.

This is deeply disturbing. There ares millions of the devices out there. They do amazing things. Mobile apps do incredible stuff, things nobody expected. And these are some terrific apps.

One answer, from Faruk Ateş, is that we are none of us worthy; if developers aren’t making lots of money, it’s because they’re just not good enough.

If you have the privilege of being in a situation where you can pursue your dream of being an indie developer, I strongly encourage you to try it. But if it doesn’t pan out, I guess what I’m trying to say is this: it is by no means a failure on your part, because as Brent’s post pointed out: there is only a very small number of people who are big successes. Many of the “failed” indie devs still make quite a comfortable living doing consulting or freelancing work on the side

This is the programmer as abused child, it’s the flip side of Prosperity Gospel, and it’s pernicious nonsense.

We software creators woke up one day to find ourselves living in the software factory. The floor is hard, from time to time it gets very cold at night, and they say the factory is going to close and move somewhere else. We are unhappy with our modern computing and alienated from our work, we experience constant, inexorable guilt.

Yes: beautiful design and brilliant labels and clever marketing are handy, but c’mon: our ancestors did amazing things with machines that had horrible UI. Ever seen the user interface of a locomotive? Go take a look at the control panel of a Project Mercury space capsule, or a WW2 submarine, or a top-of-the-line radio from the 1930’s. Think for a minute about the editing tools that Raymond Chandler used. Think about John Donne’s pens.

It’s clear that mobile apps have the ability to make people smile, to make people think, to make people get more stuff done., to let people do things they couldn’t do without them. Making software is productive: it creates value for lots of people. We need to be able to capture some of that value, or people will stop making software.

I’m glad to report that things aren’t quite so miserable in the desktop world. Hardly anyone is doing great – we’re in the midst of the Great Recession here – but a bunch of us are somewhere between “scraping by” and “I can’t complain.” I’d thought things were far rosier on the mobile side of the fence. Looks like I was mistaken.

If we want to have good software in the post-PC world, someone had better figure this out.