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Are Flappy Birds an endangered species? The perils of indie app developers

Think what you like about Flappy Bird – the pressures of success were apparently too much for creator Dong Nguyen – but it’s hard not to notice that successful apps from a single, motivated developer like Nguyen are getting rarer.

Sure, there are tons of great small apps out there like AfterLight and even HD Widgets, but increasingly the mobile app market is dominated by companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple. Former indie darlings like Instagram have been snapped up by giant corporations (and the big fish are chasing Snapchat too). Old standbys like Instapaper and Flipboard have to be thrilled they’re now competing directly with Facebook Paper. Even games – long the province of risk-taking independent programmers – are now the stomping grounds of major developers like Gameloft, Disney, and Electronic Arts.

Can a code monkey with a dream and a case of Red Bull still conquer the App Store? Or are big software companies with deep pockets too deeply entrenched to rattle? We asked some indie developers what they think.

The dream

“Well, naturally I want to be my own boss,” said Marcus Banning, a UK-based Android and iOS developer who’s about to go independent. “If the concept is mine, the implementation is mine, and the long hours are mine, the risk and rewards should be mine too.”

Can a code monkey with a dream and a case of Red Bull still conquer the App Store?

Fundamentally, the dream of indie developers is to make and earn money from their own apps and directly reap the benefits of their ambition and creativity. No middle men, no supervisors or project managers breathing down their necks, no mandatory meetings – the indie developer commands his or her own destiny. If an app fails, so be it. But if an app succeeds, the creator hits the jackpot – and shares it with no one.

Without huge budgets to worry about or investors to answer to, indie developers are willing to take chances mainstream app makers would never consider. That means innovation – the next great app, service, or game that turns the technology world on its head is likely to come from the guy next door, coding alone in his office.

“If indies have a distinct advantage over large, funded teams, I think it’s in the passion and agility they can bring to a product,” wrote Greg Knauss, creator of the new relationship-reminder app Romantimatic. “It’s a cliché, but the bigger the ship, the slower it turns, and I think that a lot of the really powerful new ideas that come out of software development almost by definition have to come from someone so crazy that nobody else will listen to them.”

The costs

What does it take to get off the ground as an indie developer? Not necessarily much money, but perhaps a great deal of courage.

“It has to be about the cheapest business to get into,” wrote Brent Simmons, a long-time indie developer who is now one-third of Q Branch, makers of the note-taking app Vesper. “You already have a computer and the developer tools are free. After that your investment is mostly time. It takes much longer than most people think to create a great app – and you shouldn’t be shooting for anything less, because then you’re aiming not to succeed.”

“My most significant cost is myself,” noted Banning, “The costs of tools and hosting are meager compared to my foregone income … although just for the time being, one hopes!”


Vesper, a note-taking app created by Brent Simmons

It can be a long time before an app pays off – if ever. Angry Birds – or Flappy Bird – may seem like overnight successes, but apps take time to build audiences. Flappy Bird was first released in May 2013 and didn’t gain serious momentum until the end of the year. Even Snapchat took a while to take off – and, it’s worth noting, still isn’t making its developers any money. And those are the success stories; in terms of sheer numbers, most apps don’t get much traction.

“Can you afford to spend six months dedicating yourself to an app that you’re going to charge a buck for, and that may take months or years to find traction, if ever?” asks Knauss. “If you’re Microsoft, sure. If you’re a guy with a family and a mortgage, probably not.”

And one person may not be enough: after all, there’s a lot more to launching and marketing an app – and running a business – than coding.

“Even 10 years ago I wasn’t an individual developer. My old company had two people; my current company has three people,” wrote Simmons. “I think it’s always been hard for an individual, just because things like bookkeeping, marketing, and (especially) support take a serious amount of time.”

It’s not just the app, it’s the services

Some apps are self-contained. Many games reside almost entirely on your devices (that’s why they take up so much storage), and even Knauss’s Romantimatic keeps all data local to preserve users’ privacy. But most apps are practically required to offer sharing, syncing, messaging, or other Internet-based features. That means an app isn’t just software downloaded from an app store; most indie developers also have to code and operate backend services that run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to support their apps. They don’t run on an old PC in a spare bedroom, they’re hosted by Amazon Web Services, Google’s App Engine, or cloud providers like Jelastic, Engine Yard, and Heroku. How tough is that?

“We like building software, but did not want to become brand-builders.”

“Making good servers is often as much work as making a good app, but small shops can get up and running easier on cloud platforms now than even a year ago, and tremendous free and open-sources tools are available,” said Manning. “Of course, the more services an app consumes the more it costs to operate, but hopefully that’s a problem you want.

“I suspect we’ll start to see more mobile developers think about their app as a beautiful representation of an online service that they create at the same time they create the app,” wrote Simmons. “It’s easy to think that only the big players can create compelling online services that scale. But the more I dig into this the less I think so. The tools and technology have progressed so far so fast, and the price keeps going down.” A long-time developer for Apple platforms, last year Simmons raised eyebrows endorsing Microsoft’s Azure services for powering mobile apps.

Do indies have a future?

It’s getting harder for indie developers to stand out from the pack. After all, mobile users are getting more sophisticated all the time. We expect pleasing designs, elegant interfaces, and robust back-end services. Can indies marshal the resources to be competitive with bigger, better-funded software companies?

“For me, working on my own was meant to be a stepping stone to becoming one of those better-funded shops,” wrote Eveleen Tankel – soon to be Marcus Banning’s former employer in London. (The parting is amicable.) “We did that, so, yes, indies can absolutely compete with big developers. But as our particular business developed the path of a consultancy was more appealing than relying on direct app sales. We like building software, but did not want to become brand-builders.”

“Mobile app development, and Mac app development too, is a way for small teams and individuals to make a living doing what they love,” wrote Simmons. “Striking it rich is a rare thing – rare enough that it’s not worth thinking about. Success, even modest success, isn’t guaranteed. But it’s possible, and it happens.”

Knauss is perhaps less optimistic.

“I think the nature of good apps – with a singular vision and tightly focused on a single function – is suited to standalone developers. That said, there’s so much that’s completely out of a developer’s control that it would be a hard way to make a living. You could have a good idea, implement it well, and have it go exactly nowhere for a million different reasons.”

And what about Marcus Banning, who’s on the precipice of shutting himself in his flat for weeks on end in hopes of writing the next killer app?

“Of course I’m enthusiastic: I think I’ve a brilliant idea!” Manning enthused. “No, most apps don’t make their creators rich. But I’m 24, don’t have to support a family – I think this is my moment to try. At any rate,” he added wryly, “Evie will likely take me back if this doesn’t work out!”

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