Monday, 31 December 2012

Making a living as an independent Android developer

Where I live, every other person is fluent in Java and almost one in 4 works on Android. The other three are more than willing to become Android developers.

Of course, developing little apps that run on our phones and tablets gives us quite a rush. The learning curve is not very steep if you are proficient in Java and XML. The debugging tools and emulators are good, if not great. More importantly, we don't need to spend a dime to get started with Android development (unlike iOS development which usually requires at least some investment.) Everything required for Android development is free, and that means the IDE, the emulators, the documentation and the support (like StackOverflow)

You visit Google Play, and you see so many paid apps that cost anywhere from $0.99 to $5 having tens of thousands of downloads (some even in the millions range.) One doesn't need to be too bright to guess Android development can be a lucrative career choice. But is it? Well, here are a few questions for you,

Are you creative?
If you are entering the market today, you will be competing with millions and millions of apps. Many are high-quality, incredible complex, and yet, free apps. The only way you can get the average mobile user to part with her precious dollar for your app, is if you manage to either give her a sufficiently unique, high quality service (like the SwiftKey keyboard), or connect with her at an emotional level (like the Lonely Tree live wallpaper.) If you are incredibly talented with design and aesthetics, you could make an app that is like a hundred others but offers a great UI/UX combo, and hope for sales.

Are you persistent?
Okay, so you made a beautiful and unique app and put it up for sale for cheap. You will see sales, but they will drop almost exponentially every day, unless you make regular updates.
  1. A user must feel that her dollar is still at work for a long time. If you are to fail at that, you will soon see a flurry of one star or two star reviews which will put off other potential buyers. You can never consider your app complete, unless it is a very basic one. There will be suggestions, feedback and comments from your users, and you better listen to them.
  2. With the speed at which new Android versions are being released, you just can't sit with an out-dated app and expect people to buy it. There are tons of examples of apps that look uglier than a shaved dog on my JellyBean devices. They were built for older versions of Android and the devs never managed to upgrade them. Several times, it is merely a one line change in the manifest file that would do the trick (yeah, just change the android:theme to Holo.) Well, who is complaining. That only leaves room for new developers to fill!
  3. Most importantly, you will see clones of your app. Some will be shitty, but others will be polished with one or two extra features. You can swear as much as you want and shout at the top of your voice from your little room, but that isn't going to stop them. Can you keep your app better than them? Of course you have the first mover advantage, but unless you keep updating and adding new features consistently, the clones will overtake you in popularity sooner or later. But of course, if you think there are too many features to add, you must not hesitate to create a clone of your own app with all those features, re-brand it, and put it up, to attract new buyers. Why? Because users like to download new and trending apps. Just make sure you strike a balance there, as you don't want your existing users to be disgruntled.
Are you thick-skinned?
Yes, this is a very important trait you need to have to survive on Play. Unless you are ready to take some very harsh criticism from (sometimes) ignorant users, you better not release your app. The criticism might or might not be valid, but you can do nothing about it. Google Play does not let all developers reply to users. So if someone writes a bad review, it will just sit there, possibly scaring off other buyers. You should be ready to accept this.
Also, success on Google Play is very hard. Here are some reasons,
  • There are so many new apps that users have a hard time finding the really good ones.
  • Many users don't bother to search beyond the first few pages.
  • The first-movers will have likely taken all your keywords.
  • Your app will be ranked poorly until it has a decent number of downloads.
  • If a big brand releases an app with identical features, a majority of users will shift to that.
Seeing active installs dwindling after a while, no matter how many updates you release, is painful. Why does it happen? Well, users just want to try out new apps, and you can do nothing about it. You just have to bear with it, and set out to release a new app.

Are you social?
This is the most important question. What is the point if you have made the greatest app ever, and no one knows about it. Yes, Play will do some marketing, but unless the app reaches some momentum, and passes that threshold of about 10000 downloads, your app will be largely unknown in the market. You must have a good following, or a large circle of friends (maybe contacts is a better word) who will be the first to use and share your app. This is the key. Unless your app has a lot of downloads and a lot of good reviews, no blog will be ready to write about your app, or nobody will talk about it on any forum. Once that threshold has been passed, suddenly everyone will be, at least, slightly more interested.
Yes, you can put in advertisements, but then that is a costly affair and is definitely not as useful as social media. So, you can't just be a nerd with no (or few) contacts and expect to make it big on Play. Well, at least be an active member of some online community or forum. Oh, and don't even think about randomly posting links to your apps in forums that you have never been active on. More often than not, people will hate you for doing that.

If you answered YES to all of the above, then you can surely try to make a living on Google Play, and it is highly likely that you will succeed. In my opinion, there is no way you answer yes to all of the above and still not be successful.

I am just a small-time developer working on Android projects as a freelancer. It is always easier to work for people who know the ins and outs of a marketplace than become an independent developer. Everything I said above is what I have seen and learned from my clients. I am still learning, and have released a few apps for free.

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