How to Stay Relevant on the App Store
I want to look at one product and one person. The app is Drafts for iOS and the person is David Smith. While there is a sentiment out there that it’s impossible to make a living on the App Store, these stand out as shining examples of how to “make it”.
Drafts is a note taking app that first launched on April 7, 2012 for 99¢ and is still sold on the App Store for $9.99. Drafts’ claims to fame are its speed and it’s extensibility. Drafts is not the #1 app on the store, but it’s always in the conversation among the nerdy Apple crowd. It’s widely used, reviewed, and it’s price has gone up 10x since its introduction, so it seems to be doing pretty well.
I think Drafts stays relevant by constantly evolving along with iOS. Drafts was one of the first apps to use the x-callback-url spec and it continued to adopt a new UI with iOS 7, grow up to the new screen sizes of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, come to the iPad, added a custom syncing service, implemented iOS 8’s extension system, came to the Apple Watch, and this week added support for split-view on the iPad. This is all in addition to the many standard feature additions, enhancements, and interface changes over that same time. By my count Drafts has received 48 updates over the past 3 years. That’s an update every 26 days on average (and oh yes, I did the math).
Drafts has evolved over time into a very powerful, yet still remarkably simple app. All of this evolution has caused Drafts to stay in our mind share. There’s always something new in Drafts that makes it better. You simply can’t ignore Drafts because there’s always a new reason to pay attention to it. By extension, hopefully, you also have new reasons to buy the app.
watchOS 2 shipped on Monday. Would you like to guess if Drafts was updated to take advantage of all the new watchOS 2 features? Of course it did!
And then we have David Smith, a guy who has been making a living off the App Store since 2008. You may know David from his very popular Audiobooks app. Or maybe you know him from his great RSS service Feed Wrangler. No, you probably know him from his Pedomerter++ app, or maybe Check the Weather, or My Recipe Book, or Emoji++… I think you get it.
David Smith is the quintessential jack of all trades when it comes to the App Store. He has literally hundreds of apps on the App Store, and while most of these are single audiobook apps (from when that was a thing that would sell on the store), David has a wide swath of apps that are currently maintained and make him money.
The name of the game is diversity with a heavy lean towards simplicity. His latest apps exemplify this by doing one thing, but doing it very well and without much flair. His weather app, Check the Weather does’t have all the bells and whistles that other apps may have, but I challenge you to find many weather apps that make it as easy to simply “check the weather.” His pedometer app is similarly simple, but also proves its worth by doing its job and doing it well.
David Smith released a new app for watchOS 2 called Sleep++ and it is an app for tracking your sleep. It’s dead simple to use and takes advantage of the newly introduced Apple Watch features to create a new experience.
You likely notice a pattern here, as David Smith is also following Apple’s platform as it grows. Unlike Drafts, which is a single product growing, David’s library of apps is growing. Looking at the last couple years, his new apps have been created specifically for the new things possible in iOS updates:
- Pedometer++ - iOS 7, the M7 chip in the iPhone 5S
- Emoji++ - iOS 8, 3rd party keyboards
- Sleep++ - iOS 9, native Apple Watch apps
When you download the new version of iOS or take home the new iPhone, odds are that David Smith will have an app available that you can download to take advantage of those new features.
My big takeaway after thinking through all this is that making a living, or even making serious money on the App Store is hard work. We’re past the days where a hobby app can really make it big. You can’t just release an app and expect people to download it for months or years after that. Step one is releasing your first app, but as soon as that’s out there you need to start working on either version 1.1 of that app or something entirely new. It’s not something everyone can do, but if this is a road you want to go down, it’s what you have to be prepared to commit to.