Interview with David Barnard of The Application Cubby


David Barnard of The Application Cubby took time to answer our questions about developing applications for the iPhone and iPod Touch. The Application Cubby is the team behind Trip Cubby, an AppCraver Editor's Pick. They also have another app in development, Cash Cubby.

1. When did you start developing apps for the iPhone?

David Barnard: I started App Cubby just a few days after the iPhone SDK announcement on March 6th. After a few weeks of learning Objective-C and Cocoa (my programming background was very limited), I had created a partially functioning tip calculator. It was then that I realized I would be requiring the services of a professional programmer! After finding an incredible programmer and several great artists, my role shifted to that of project/business manager. Moving away from the "one man shop" approach was the best business decision I've ever made!

2. What was the inspiration behind your app?

David Barnard: When rumors first started circulating about the iPhone SDK, I immediately started brainstorming potential apps and business opportunities. One of the most obvious things about the iPhone is that people have it with them at all times. In the 16+ months since I bought my first iPhone, I can't think of any specific times when it has been out of reach! So, I started brainstorming apps that would benefit from the ubiquitous nature of the iPhone. I also decided that if I were going to build a business, I wanted to create an app that would save people time and/or money.

It didn't take much brainstorming to come up with the idea of a mileage log. Though incredibly obvious, it's something that my wife and I actually use on a regular basis, and would therefore be something I could develop with a user oriented perspective. "Scratching your own itch" is one of the best ways to develop software, it provides the passion and focus needed to create a truly great app.

3. How did you settle on your price point for the app?

David Barnard: App Store pricing is a very interesting topic. We chose $10 because we're selling a polished app that saves people time and money. On any other mobile platform, Trip Cubby would have been a bargain at $20! For niche apps that wont ever make it onto the top 100 list (and therefore struggle to get exposure) it takes a higher price to justify the investment made in developing the app.

I've toyed with the idea of permanently lowering the price just to get more exposure (and we did put Trip Cubby "on sale" for a few days), but I personally feel that the trend toward $.99 is bad for the platform. The average iPhone user is being conditioned to think that apps should be $.99 or free. In the long run, that consumer conditioning will discourage companies from spending the time and money necessary to develop meaningful apps. Look at what Tapulous decided to do; they had an internal struggle between those who wanted to develop lots of really simple apps, and those who wanted to develop fewer, higher quality apps. The lots of simple apps approach won out as the Tapulous business model, and that's what lots of other developers seem to have decided. Why spend the time and money to polish a fully functional app when iBeer is still making tons of money. Lots of developers are looking for the next big gimmick, not the next great app.

Let's take a look at the numbers for a minute. Brian Greenstone, the founder of Pangea Software, detailed some interesting App Store metrics at the InnoTech conference a few weeks ago. The top selling app in the App Store is currently selling around 8000 units a day. Move down that list just a little ways and #100 is selling between 100 and 200 units a day. So, the vast majority of paid iPhone apps are selling less than 100 units a day. With most apps priced below $5, that means even the decent apps that aren't in the top 100 are making less than $350/day (after Apple's 30%), most are making SIGNIFICANTLY less than that. $.99 apps that aren't in the top 100, are probably making less than $70/day. To an individual programmer coding in their mom's basement, that may sound like a lot of money, but it's not the kind of money that builds a sustainable software company.

Right now, iPhone owners are scared to pay much for an app because so many have turned out to be a complete waste of money (I've heard quite a few people say that they've regretted most app purchases). Unfortunately, some iPhone developers are catering to this by lowering prices to lessen the consequence of a bad purchase. It may lead to more sales temporarily, but as everyone else does the same thing, the market is diluted even further, and the ultimate problem isn't solved. My hope is that as the novelty wears off, and iPhone owners come to depend even more on the iPhone for entertainment and a variety of other functions, they will become more discriminating consumers and seek out polished apps. Apple could help speed that process along by doing any or all of these things:

1. Timed app demos - if people can play with an app, they will purchase (or not) with more confidence and be willing to pay a fair price for a great app

2. Wil Shipley's storefront/warehouse idea - Apple could vet several hundred apps, and created a special *storefront* where only the best apps reside, but still maintain a *warehouse* where any app can get in. The "Featured List" is too small and seems quite random. It includes quite a few apps that end up getting terrible reviews.

3. Better search/sorting - If you've spent much time on the App Store, you probably have several ideas of how searching and sorting can be improved. The fact that the store defaults to sorting by release date has created an incentive to release lots of small releases. Apple attempted to resolve this, but it's far from fixed. Auto-sorting by a weighted system of popularity and star rating would be a nice default (but would be even more helpful once the rating system is improved).

4. Better review system - developers need a way to respond to reviews, and remove reviews that refer to bugs that have been fixed. There are plenty of other ideas I've seen around the interwebs for improving the review system.

5. Quicker Apple review process - right now, if I find a bug (or if one is created by a software update that Apple hasn't pre-released to all developers) it takes around a week to get the bug fix into the App Store. This hurts consumers, and puts developers in a tough situation.

6. Scheduling of releases - This is less consumer focused, but it would sure help developers to be able to time app releases to special promotions, press releases, and other marketing efforts. I bet Mike Lee was pretty frustrated when Puzzllotto showed up in the store at 8:24 PM, when he had sent out press releases and built some buzz around a midnight release.

7. Etc. - this is by no means an exhaustive list, as much of a success as the app store has been, there is still A LOT of room for improvement.

4. Roughly how many apps did you sell in the first month of operation?

David Barnard: Trip Cubby sold 928 copies in the first 4 weeks (net income of around $6,500), but has since settled down to a slower pace. That would be phenomenal if I were doing this part time, coding from my mom's basement, but I've been working 80+ hours a week since April, and have spent lots of money on coding, graphic design, icon design, marketing, web hosting, etc. At the current rate of sales, it's going to take quite some time to pay back the initial investment. Things are looking good for App Cubby long term though... our second app coming out soon, and we have lots of great ideas on how to grow the business.

5. How did you like the developer tools provided in the iPhone SDK? Is there anything missing?

David Barnard: Since I have done almost no coding up to this point, I'm not really qualified to answer that question, but there's a related topic I'd like to clear up for would be iPhone developers. Developing an iPhone app is pretty easy... developing a GREAT iPhone app is just a challenging as creating any other great piece of software. It requires a combination of programming, design, user interface, and other skills in addition to the ability to effectively execute in all those areas. Also, never underestimate the value of good taste. A quick look at all the crap in the App Store should confirm that many people have struggled not just with coding, but in all related skills. There is this sense with the iPhone SDK that anyone can learn to program and make tons of money in the App Store. That can and will continue to happen, but with almost 6000 apps in the store, and more coming online everyday, it's not getting any easier. My personal prediction is that there will be a lot of iPhone programmers looking for work next year after their project didn't take off.

6. Is your company privately owned? Venture backed?

David Barnard: Privately funded.

7. What are some of the other iPhone apps that you like?

David Barnard: The apps I use every single day (almost every hour) are Twitteriffic and NetNewsWire. IMHO those two apps leave a lot to be desired, but they get the job done. If someone would write an OSX native RSS reader that synced with Google Reader, I'd probably ditch NNW on the mac and iPhone. It seems I'm in the minority these days (or maybe people agree, but just wont admit it), but I just don't like browser based apps. Having a native desktop client is what keeps me tied to NNW, and to a lesser extent Twitteriffic.

The apps I like: Zenbe, Five Dice, Now Playing, Labyrinth, NetShare (it hasn't been disabled yet!), Tuner.

8. What kind of features should apple implement in future versions of the iPhone / SDK?

David Barnard: Well, I'd first like to see them implement the features they've already talked about, especially system wide notifications. Overall, I'd like to see the platform open up a bit over time. Right now we have access to the address book, photos, and certain other data, but there's a lot of potential for cross-pollination that's just not allowed. I'd like to be able to create iPhone apps with open APIs; ie. if another app wants access to data from my app, I'd need to give them a private key and a few data access classes, but it would allow apps to integrate with each other in a very powerful way. Right now, you can pass data back and forth via custom URL schemes, but it's just not that powerful.

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  • DominoFect

    I agree taking things into one's own hands is not always the best solution. Outsourcing is the best thing to be invented since the toilet!

  • DominoFect

    By the way, the price shouldn't be set on what you think it's worth. It's always ever about what people will pay!

  • jarhead

    These interviews are a great way to become interested in creating iphone apps yourself.

    I'm sure it has inspired people to start taking action into the field only because they realize they have the resources from reading these interviews.

    It makes it so tangible