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The slow death of the small developer

September the 6th was an exciting time for many Apple fans. With the launch of the iPhone 14 Pro, new features were announced. Amongst them, the fancy-named ’Dynamic Island’ as well as a new lock screen where more widgets will appear. While understandably only first party apps will appear on those at launch, the Activity Kit will enable third party apps to make use of them.

Dynamic Island’s promise is to make the notch interactive and useful

While iPhone users might have a lot to look forward to once they get their hands on the latest iPhone, Developers might fret, as this presents yet another feature to incorporate and to make work in the unique context of their Apps. This might be especially the case amongst those smaller developers with fewer resources.

Certainly, this it not the first time that Apple launches new features that developers can incorporate: For many years, each iOS update has been bringing new features with different degrees of complexity of incorporation, or utility. For instance, Dark Mode (iOS 13), Alternate Icons (iOS 10), Widgets (iOS14) to name a few.

As new iOS features are introduced, it is becoming increasingly difficult for small developers to compete with larger, companies with more resources. One reason is due to their Apps arguably becoming less ’useful’, because they might not satisfy the expectations by users that Apple created for them. For instance, a case of live scores was highlighted by Apple. If the Dynamic Island fulfils its promise, it’s difficult to see how an indie sport scores app can succeed without investing resources to follow suit.

The example of sports scores being shown in the Dynamic Island shows the potential usefulness third party apps can bring, as well as the challenges it might present such as not wanting to be aware of the scores.

However, these new features do not always bring genuine utility, but delight for users such as the case of Alternate App icons, which would allow an app like ’The Athletic’ to let users set their team’s App Icon as default with their favourite team’s colours.

The Atletic allows you to choose your team’s colour as Alternate Icon

It’s not just about users’ preferences, but Apple’s too. Understandably, apps that incorporate their latest features are highlighted to ensure other apps implement them too. Having a look at some of the featured app categories on the App Store, it’s easy to appreciate the number of missed opportunities an app has by not implementing features.

This means small developers are bound to get less exposure and ’free downloads’, which ultimately affect their bottom line and ability to compete.

This upwards hill is not just present in terms of tech feature adoption, but also the fact that larger companies have more resources to optimise areas like User Acquisition, Customer Relationship Management with personalised push and in-app messaging, Data Analysis and more.

User acquisition is a case in point. A bare minimum to compete would require correct implementation of tools like Appsflyer or Adjust, and integrating them with automated Apple Search Ads acquisition tools like to ensure CPIs remain below ARPUs. The licences to use the right tools can cost hundreds of dollars per month even at an entry level. Then management (whether calculated in dollar values or hours) and actual acquisition costs need to be incorporated. Yet once this is achieved, it only means the beginning of an ever changing process. For instance, new App Store Ad placements are expected before the end of the year, which means more acquisition areas to be optimised.

Amongst these lower odds to succeed, there are some good news. Smaller developers generating less than $1 million in sales got some relief when Apple reduced their commission from 30% to 15%. This might allow small developers to compete by levelling the playing field to some degree. A slightly more inefficient app could take home the same proceeds as sophisticated developers. However, this is by no means a solution to all problems. Efficiencies achieved by larger developers can by far exceed the benefits from a lowered commission.

Small developers could certainly use free or entry level tiers of tools available such as App Store Optimisation tools like AppTweak or MobileAction, yet this would require (time) resources to be reallocated. Finally, developers could outsource some of their effort to App Store agencies like SaltyPistachio in order to professionalise their efforts. Ultimately, the wide-ranging areas required (from CRM to ASO, UA…) could result in large investments that small developers might not be able or willing to make.

If Apple wants to keep small developers bringing creative and competitive products to its App ecosystem, they need to find solutions like making the ActivityAPI and implementation of other features such as widgets extremely simple to use. They could also create tools that simplify Acquisition, CRM and other areas to create a level playing field. Otherwise, we’ll continue witnessing the slow death of the small developer.

Post by SaltyPistachio

Author avatar
Javier Galan
SaltyPistachio Founder

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