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iPhone Web Apps Aren’t Dead

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When Apple opened the App Store, I thought we’d seen the end of iPhone web apps. App Store apps are clearly technologically superior and have better access to the iPhone’s hardware (camera, location). Perhaps more importantly, developers can sell their applications, which is much more difficult (but not impossible) for web apps. For many applications, advertising isn’t a viable business model.

Since the opening of the App Store, I have seen a dip in traffic to my web apps and an increase in the number of people who e-mail me asking for an App Store version or for download instructions (half the time, they mean adding a bookmark icon to the home screen). But the bottom hasn’t fallen out of the web apps barrel. Web apps aren’t dead.

In spite of their many shortcomings compared to App Store apps, Web apps have several advantages. And Apple’s own policies have recently added several items to this list!

You’re not locked into Apple. You don’t need a Mac / Hackintosh to write a web app. You don’t need to learn Cocoa / Objective C to write a web app. Your web development skills are 100% applicable.

You’re not locked into mobile phones. Web apps can more easily become traditional web pages, and vice versa. A well-designed web app, will appropriate separation of presentation and business logic, can be quickly converted into a traditional web page meant to be viewed on the desktop. Similarly, a well-designed traditional web page can get a customized presentation layer to become a web app. Aren’t you glad you took the time to build your layers right?

You’re not locked into the iPhone. If Google’s Android OS takes off, this will be especially important. Likely, an iPhone-optimized web app won’t need a lot of changes to be usable on an Android-powered phone. If changes are necessary, the same principle of well-designed web applications can speed development and help with maintenance.

No F#&@$#%$ NDA. Talk about ’em all you like!

No developer’s program or license. Build web apps for free, distribute them for free.

No wait time on submissions, no rejected submissions. You can distribute your web app any way you like. If you want to go through through Apple’s web app directory, which is entirely optional, the review is casual and the terms are easy.

No sharing with Apple. You can keep 100% of your revenue.

No Jailbreaking. There are some great apps for Jailbroken phones, but I don’t think they will ever be mainstream alternatives to App Store apps or web apps. Ordinary people won’t “jailbreak,” even if it is extremely easy. Maybe it’s the name. Could we call it “cupcaking” maybe? “I cupcaked my iPhone to run Quake.”

Note: I think that these rules apply only to the iPhone, not the iPod Touch. The limited connectivity of the iPod Touch severely limits the usefulness of a web application. Clever developers have created some workarounds with queuing and caching, but I don’t see a bright future for growth in iPod Touch web apps – until we get our promised nationwide wireless Internet. I bet that would cost a lot less than $700 billion and have a strongly positive effect on the economy as well. In November, I will vote for the candidate that proposes universal wireless access over a Wall Street bailout.

I’m curious to see how the Google’s application marketplace will change the mobile application ecosystem. Will Google’s openness push Apple to be more open as well? Will the appearance of new platforms make people aware once again of the ability of web apps to bridge the gaps between those platforms? It’s why the Web was successful. We don’t have an Internet for PCs, an Internet for Macs, an Internet for UNIX. Why should we have an app store for just one phone?

Written by timwestover

September 24th, 2008 at 5:42 am

Posted in iPhone

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A model for profitable, amateur iPhone web apps

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A little background

I am a hobbyist iPhone developer (note), with no real intentions to expand far beyond a hobbyist level. That being said, hobbyist developers can and do create and contribute to excellent applications for the iPhone and other platforms. And, with the right plan, hobbyist iPhone developers can make a little scratch on the side.

My goal for developing iPhone web apps wasn’t to get rich. I don’t think that’s possible in the current web app environment. Monetizing a web app was more a “metric of success.” How would I know that my web app was successful? Because it made a little money. For me, this was more motivating that seeing an uphill graph in Google Analytics.

To start, I wrote a very simple tip calculator (the “Hello, world!” of the iPhone application developer). The only trick to this app was to implement a checksum based on an article featured on BoingBoing at the end of 2007. I dropped a Google AdSense block onto a simple JavaScript tip calculator that I wrote during class, submitted it to Apple Web Apps directory, and was shortly greatly surprised to see, within hours, over a thousand users for my silly little application. That was my first $10 of AdSense’s money.

Over the next few months, I added seven more iPhone web apps. Only two of these stored any data locally – the rest served more as front-ends for APIs, including Zillow, Google Base, LyricsWiki, and Google Translate, with AdSense blocks attached. None took more than a few hours to create. All were written in C#.NET and run off a $5.99 / month hosting plan at GoDaddy. Despite the simplicity, these apps proved to be fairly popular. Three of my web apps (TokTok Translator, WeightDate Daily Weight Tracker, and LaLa Lyrics Search) were chosen as Apple Staff Picks. At their height, the apps attracted about 15,000 users per day, which AdSense converted into $40 – $60 / day. Since launching the web apps in February, I’ve earned about $4,000 through AdSense.

Four grand isn’t going to make me quit my day job, and I’m not sure there’s too much more room for growth, except in adding more applications that can each earn their own daily $5 – $10.

The six-step model to profitable iPhone web apps

So, here is my suggested model for developing a profitable iPhone web app. None of these steps are revolutionary, but I haven’t seen any other blogs lay them out quite so directly. It may be a fear of competitor – there’s only so much room for weight trackers and daily budget calculators. I’ll try to sprinkle in a few tips and tricks that I’ve learned.

Step 1: Develop a web application

Develop a web application around a simple, focused idea that people will want to access frequently. Novelty isn’t going to win over a regular user base. An app that users will visit one time isn’t going to create daily revenue, day after day.

Step 2: Add Google AdSense code blocks throughout the application.

I had the most success with the four-ad, 250 x 250 block, located at the bottom of the page, combined with a one-ad block at the top of the page. On introductory and sign-up pages I hid the top ad block, to give the web app a cleaner look for first-time visitors.

Step 3: Submit the web app to Apple Web App directory.

People use the directory, and there’s no other large, authoritative directory of web apps available. Several other directories pick up on Apple’s RSS feed of web apps. I haven’t found the traffic on these to be substantial, however. If you’re looking for Google Juice, submitting an app to the Apple Web Apps directory nets you a nice, juicy PageRank 10 link (without a “nofollow” attribute!).

Step 4: Wait for Apple to review your web app.

Yes, Apple does look at your web app. The first searches on my Zillow property app HiHome were for Cupertino, CA. The review is not extensive. They are looking to make sure that the web app is usable on the iPhone, conforms to the description, and does not violate the Terms of Service (there are some naming requirements and the usual “adult material” caveats).

The review process typically only takes a day, maybe less, and then your app will be listed at the top of the chronological list of web apps. All the web app and category pages are listed chronologically, even the Staff Picks. You’re going to get far more traffic at the top of the list than after a few days. Apple does not have a rating or review mechanism for web apps, unlike in the App Store. So, the only way people will find your web app is through a name search, or because it’s been recently (re)submitted. See step 5.

Step 5: Resubmit your web app.

Apple gives you the opportunity to resubmit your web app when you make changes or updates. The caution here is that you actually need to make a change or update, or at least write about one in the “What’s New” field on the web app submit form. Not updating this field means that it’s far less likely your resubmission will be accepted, which means you won’t jump back to the top of the list. Being at the top of the list on several of my web apps is the difference between 15,000 visits and 3,000 visits.

Too many resubmissions will cause Apple to ignore your future resubmissions for awhile. I learned this the hard way, but at least I learned my lesson and did not get blacklisted.

The best time to resubmit is on Thursday or Friday. With the short delay for reviewing the resubmission, your web app will get bumped back to the top on Friday evening. Since Apple doesn’t update the web apps directory on the weekends, this gives you the longest time at the top, during the most active period for the directory.

Step 6: Profit!

Or rather, enjoy a modest AdSense income and the occasional congratulatory messages from some happy users.

That’s my model for a modest, hobbyist success from iPhone web apps. Do other developers have vastly different models? Are these more successful or less successful that what I’ve described? I’ve considered abandoning the advertising and putting up “if you like this app, consider donating through PayPal” links. Does this seem like a viable alternative?

If you have an iPhone and want to try out some of my web apps (developed under the moniker “TippyTops,” which was actually just supposed to be the name of the tip calculator but soon grew into a broader label), please visit

(*) I do work as a professional web developer for MediaLab, who creates online compliance and continuing education courses as well as laboratory continuing education courses (CEU) for medical technologists. But we don’t do any iPhone development, and we don’t have an advertising-supported business model.

Written by timwestover

September 23rd, 2008 at 8:56 pm

Posted in iPhone

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