An Open Letter To App Developers

Brian S Hall / December 2nd, 2013

The smartphone has quickly become our primary interface to the world. The app has become our primary interface to the smartphone. Apps matter. Therefore, app developers matter. Unfortunately, too many apps, too many app developers, likely in pursuit of riches that shall never come, continue to offer copycat apps, apps poorly designed, apps that value ads over users.

I want to help. I know apps, good and bad. I was analyzing the “smartphone wars” back when most tech blogs were still talking Mac vs PC. I have used most major smartphone platforms, at length. This includes Palm and BlackBerry, Windows Phone, iOS and Android, Symbian, Asha and, yes, Meego.

I offer the following rules and declarations in the interest of creating more and better apps for everyone.

  1. The world does not need another weather app.
  2. By 2015, at the latest, I expect Windows Phone will garner at least a 20% share of all new smartphone sales. Create apps for this platform.
  3. It’s absolutely appropriate to ask me to rate your app. Once. If I choose not to, accept this — and never ask me again.
  4. Life is much easier when I can sign in to an app using my Facebook credentials.
  5. Never — not ever — should you request anything beyond my Facebook credentials, however. Do not ask to post my purchase of your app to my Facebook page, do not ask for my location unless there is a clear and present and ongoing user benefit. Do not ever ask me, and especially never require me, to tell you my Facebook friends.
  6. You have 3 seconds, tops. If I cannot fully immerse myself within the wonder and scope of your app in 3 seconds or less, then your app gets abandoned.
  7. Care about your app icon. It really does matter.
  8. Apple does not care about you. Apple provides you, for now, with the single greatest platform for monetizing your app. But do not believe they are your partner. They are the world’s largest (tech) company and do not like to share. iWork, iPhoto, Garage Band, Weather, Maps and more are just the start. Should a new app opportunity arise, possibly one you helped create, Apple will not hesitate to move in. Be ready to out-innovate, pivot, or die.
  9. We take our smartphones with us everywhere. For many, they are the first thing we see at the start of a new day, the last thing we see before going to sleep. This is a tremendous opportunity. At perhaps no time in human history has a single tool been used so fully throughout the day, everyday, for work and play, by child, teen, adult and senior, all over the world. Take pride in your work.
  10. You deserve to be paid. Of the hundreds of apps I have purchased, minimum, I have never once thought that I would rather choose the app with ads over paying $1, sometimes more, for an ad-free app. Even large display smartphones have relatively small screens. Cluttering it up with an ad, ever, is annoying. Worse, it’s a clear intrusion upon my privacy and a waste of time. I never click on a mobile/in-app ad. I can assure you that my time and my privacy are worth far more to me than my ad view is to you.
  11. Users deserve a second chance. Apple, especially, should offer an app trial period. Yes, even for a 99 cent app. Should they ever agree, these rules become even more important.
  12. Apps must be optimized for the platform and device. Always. Smartphone, tablet, laptop, desktop. I subscribe to several web services (e.g. MyNetDiary, New York Times). The smartphone app version may look similar to the website, but must be optimized for the device itself (e.g. iPhone). There are no excuses for failing this.
  13. Touch, pinch, swipe. The touch interface is a beautiful thing. Yet, I have absolutely no use for apps, Clear, for example, or Tweetbot, that insist upon a needlessly expansive variety of gestures to access its data and features. This is nothing more than too many fonts on a Word doc.
  14. Almost every single app I have purchased over the past 18 months I discovered from a Twitter follower or a Facebook ad. Nowhere else. Not Apple genius. Not Google search. Not any app-focused website. You should know this.
  15. Specials are viral. I find out about your app on Twitter, for example, and learn it’s half-priced for today only, I am both extremely likely to buy and to tweet my purchase to others.
  16. Apps are like sperm. Only the first survive. If I have a decent grocery list app, say, there is an extremely good chance your far better, newer grocer list app will be irrelevant to me. Similarly, an app not on the ‘home’ screen is likely not long for this world. No advice, merely an acknowledgement. Your work is hard.
  17. Hold the line. Google has taught us that other’s information should be accessible, for free. Apple has taught us that hardware, not software, should be paid for. I don’t really know how you can succeed in this environment. But I hope you do. Most of you do great work.
  18. You get one chance only to ask if I want to connect with my friends. I should not have to repeat this. Ask once, then accept my ‘no’.
  19. I have a lot of friends. I know a lot of people. When you show me people I know or may know or should know and ask me to connect with them via your app, you make me feel nearly as dirty as you are.
  20. Never scan my contacts. Never ask to scan my contacts. It is a betrayal. This is why I can’t have LinkedIn on my phone.

As the world goes mobile, connecting everyone and everything, focused, functional and highly usable apps will serve as the entry point to all the world’s data, resources, people and content. The humble app, then, is a rather noble device. Treat it and its users with all due respect.

Godspeed.

Brian S Hall

Brian S Hall writes about mobile devices, crowdsourced entertainment, and the integration of cars and computers. His work has been published with Macworld, CNBC, Wall Street Journal, ReadWrite and numerous others. Multiple columns have been cited as "must reads" by AllThingsD and Re/Code and he has been blacklisted by some of the top editors in the industry. Brian has been a guest on several radio programs and podcasts.
  • stefnagel

    Great list. Thanks!

  • pk_de_cville

    20 –
    Never scan my contacts. Never ask to scan my contacts. It is a betrayal. This is why I can’t have LinkedIn on my phone.

    This should be num 1 through 10!

    • regexp

      Asking you for permission is a “betrayal”? You need to get out more.

      • pk_de_cville

        Hey. If you read the column you would have noticed this is a quote. (Don’t bother letting me know I should have used “s.)

        Yes. If they ask three times a day for years. And I know some of us don’t think it’s a big thing, but get off my cloud. (Ooops. Should get out more.)

  • jfutral

    “Touch, pinch, swipe. The touch interface is a beautiful thing. Yet, I have absolutely no use for apps, Clear, for example, or Tweetbot, that insist upon a needlessly expansive variety of gestures to access its data and features. This is nothing more than too many fonts on a Word doc.”

    The inverse of this is true, too. I hate apps that don’t let me rotate or zoom text.

    And I am the opposite of you regarding Facebook credentials. I don’t want any of my social network credentials used for anything because of all those other things you say about Facebook log-ins.

    Joe

    • Understood. I do prefer the convenience of Facebook (and Twitter) credentials to log-in, but as you say, there is a definite privacy loss in that simple act.

      • steve_wildstrom

        I prefer Twitter because the only really sketchy permission a Twitter login can get is the ability to send Tweets on my behalf (which I never permit.) With Facebook logins it is often hard to figure out if the conditions are acceptable or not.

        • Good point — Facebook seems intent on keeping us in the dark re how much of our data they share.

        • pk_de_cville

          Very good point. Thanks.

        • Bill Smith

          I used exactly the same logic.

          For me, Facebook, effectively, doesn’t exist. I don’t trust them to protect my privacy, nor do I use Facebook. Any app that has key functionality hidden behind a Facebook login is an app I won’t be using. Similarly, I avoid Google like the plague.

          Twitter has much less danger associated. It’s easy to turn off an app or service that behaves maliciously.

          Those who service the enterprise should think, seriously, about requiring a third-party service for authorization and authentication. Gaming and casual users may be okay with such, but business users will spontaneously eject your app.

          • qka

            I could not agree more!

  • “Life is much easier when I can sign in to an app using my Facebook credentials.”

    The corollary to that is “don’t *force* me to use Facebook to sign up/in. I don’t use FB. So it stands to reason an app that forces me to use FB as my login credentials won’t get used. Same with Apple’s Game Center. It’s why I’ve never played LetterPress.

    And I would add to this list, “Don’t send notifications like “You haven’t used me in a while!” Fastest way to get me to delete your app.

    • OMG, I forgot that “you haven’t used me in a while” thing. Probably because I long ago deleted all such apps.

      • Bill Smith

        Brian, the sentiment of the article is good, but it does seem as though you had a knee jerk reaction to something, which resulted in this post. Personally, I come to TechPinions for well-written commentary. However much I agree with most of your points, this is, effectively, a rant for Twitter or your personal blog. It doesn’t belong here.

        I’m but a single paying subscriber; yet, I would hate to see the work of greats like Bajarin, Wildstrom and Kirk tossed into the same bag as a “kick the dog” rant. If you want to build a quality community, posts that add heat, but little light, must be filtered out.

        Be honest…no research was harmed in the forging of this post, and you belted it out in one sitting. Yes? You can do better than that. The tagline is “Perspective. Insight. Opinions.” You did not provide enough information or structure to deem this an opinion piece, insufficient depth to have conveyed a perspective, and no insight that is unavailable from run-of-the-mill blogs.

        There must be standards of quality.

        • To quote the late, great Kurt Cobain:
          “He’s the one who likes all our pretty songs, and he likes to sing along, and he likes to shoot his gun. But he knows not what it means.”

          • Bill Smith

            Dude, right back at ‘ya… That’s like Alanis Morrisette(sp?) singing “Isn’t it ironic?” when all of her similes are just unfortunate, but not ironic.

            You should listen to the song, in context, and try to understand what you’re quoting…

    • Bill Smith

      BTW, you can play LetterPress (last time I checked) without signing in to Game Center, though it’s less fun without being able to easily find peers and compare scores.

      You’re already using an iPhone, and already have an Apple ID. Unlike FaceBook, there’s extremely little danger from signing into Apple’s Game Center. Apple will revoke a developer’s credentials in a New York second if they misuse your information. The login to the Game Center only allows score sharing and game match finding.

      • That would be a change from when the game was originally released.

        Regardless, it’s not about not trusting Game Center. It’s about not wanting to be forced to use it.

  • FalKirk

    “The world does not need another weather app.”

    Disagree. The world needs better Apps. If a developer can create a better app, then more power to them.

    “By 2015, at the latest, I expect Windows Phone will garner at least a 20% share of all new smartphone sales. Create apps for this platform.”

    Not your call. Developers want to get paid. Don’t every ask others to “do what’s right” when what you really mean is do something good for me that is bad for you.

    “You deserve to be paid. Of the hundreds of apps I have purchased, minimum, I have never once thought that I would rather choose the app with ads over paying $1…”

    You, Brian, are not everyone. In fact, you are not even in the majority.

    “Apps must be optimized for the platform and device. Always.”

    Agreed, agreed, agreed.

    Smartphone, tablet, laptop, desktop. I subscribe to several web services (e.g. MyNetDiary, New York Times). The smartphone app version may look similar to the website, but must be optimized for the device itself (e.g. iPhone). There are no excuses for failing this.

    “I have absolutely no use for apps, Clear, for example, or Tweetbot, that insist upon a needlessly expansive variety of gestures to access its data and features.”

    Again, you are not everyone.

    “Almost every single app I have purchased over the past 18 months I discovered from a Twitter follower or a Facebook ad. Nowhere else. Not Apple genius. Not Google search. Not any app-focused website. You should know this.”

    Again and again, you are not everyone.

    “Apps are like sperm. Only the first survive.”

    Sometimes the first end up on the ceiling or in the toilet. Being first isn’t everything. Being first in the right in the right space may be.

    • Fair points, all, though I don’t think I was suggesting developers create apps for Windows (simply) for my benefit. I do think the platform will command at least a 20% share going forward. As for sperm on the ceiling: ew.

      • Bill Smith

        At this point, it seems unlikely Microsoft will develop a large enough marketplace. Their primary hope is that, with Windows XP’s EOL, and some degree of traction from X-Bone, they can get developers interested.

        For the next six months, I doubt anyone will do a major application exclusive for Windows Phone.

  • Hours after this column, in which I tout the benefits of Twitter for app discovery, Apple buys Topsy. Boom.

    • Bill Smith

      I don’t mean to be argumentative, but app discovery is only one potential application of Topsy’s technology, and it doesn’t look like that’s the reason for Apple’s interest in them.

      • d_n

        it doesn’t look like that’s the reason for Apple’s interest in them

        How do you know this?

        • Bill Smith

          Even without breaking NDA, you have to ask yourself why Apple, which already gets access to every iOS and OS X app before it’s released, and which has its own people checking apps and looking for ones that should be highlighted, needs a tool for app discovery. Topsy doesn’t send information to Twitter; it harvests the Twitter stream. They certainly don’t need to know how popular an app is; they know exactly how many are downloaded.

          Brian’s comment was about the Topsy purchase is about as absurd as my high school friend who once advertised “my father invested in my company; he’s now retired.” Similarly, Brian’s touting of Twitter for app discovery has precious little relationship to Apple’s purchase of Topsy.

          Both the article, and the ensuing comments are very much in the style of “ReadWrite”, which is to say fast and loose. I expect more from Tech-pinions, and from Brian.

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