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The state of mobile development: Where do we go from here?

Phil Simon Speaker/Author, PhilSimon.com

This is the third of three articles on the state of mobile development.

Got a great idea for a productivity or dating app? Good luck with that. For every über-successful app like Evernote and Tinder, there are hundreds or thousands of also-rans in each category.

Now, don't get me wrong. That's not to say that new apps in those areas won't eventually arrive and flourish—the operative word here is eventually. The history of technology proves that even massive leads are neither insurmountable nor permanent. That goes double in an era of increasingly rapid technological change.

You are not Kim Kardashian: The long tail is alive and well

Still, if you're looking for your app to immediately take the world by storm and go viral, don't hold your breath. You are not Kim Kardashian. Most of the spoils (read: revenues) go to the top-selling apps, even if a new app is objectively better, more powerful, or more user-friendly than its competition. Welcome to the "long tail."

Photo credit: Wikipedia

In January, Charles Perry of Metakite Software played around with Apple's download data. His findings were quite telling. Specifically, the "head" of the App Store, those 870 top grossing apps that make up 0.07 percent of the App Store population, collects over 40 percent of the App Store revenue that's paid out. Developers would do well to make note of this, lest they fail to meet their sky-high expectations.

Corollary: Making money is hard—really hard

The average price of an app is currently between $1.00 and $1.50. This is great for consumers, but there's a flip side. Less than one percent of these apps will be "financially successful," according to a recent Gartner report.

Perhaps the long road to monetization will become a bit easier as deep linking becomes more pervasive. Superior search on mobile devices will certainly enable more in-app purchases, although one could credibly argue that this equal playing field doesn't really change a thing.

Sergey Brin is wrong: Marketing is more important than ever

You might not think marketing matters. After all, Google exploded organically via word-of-mouth marketing. Cofounder Sergey Brin once allegedly said, "Marketing is the cost you pay for lousy products."

As I wrote in Message Not Received: Why Business Communication Is Broken and How to Fix It, Brin is one of the smartest men on the planet, but he's dead wrong here. Google exploded and earned verb status through a confluence of events. Briefly, search in 1998 was terrible and Google built a much better mousetrap. Make no mistake, though: that was the exception that proves the rule. As Q Manning, CEO and cofounder of mobile‐app firm Rocksauce Studios tells me, "Of course we want our clients to be successful. That's not going to happen, however, if no one knows that the app exists."

Fortune favors the bold: Quickly embrace new trends and developments

Reactive programming is surging. It represents a fundamentally new way of thinking about how to develop apps and how users interact with asynchronous data. Reactive programming is getting popular and making it easier as developers. Microsoft birthed it, but it has gained in popularity ever since Netflix created the open source community around it.

On another note, virtual reality and augmented reality are starting to grow up—fast. Large app-development shops are starting to go down these paths. Many have already begun prototyping and product development with virtual reality, and that's the way everything is going. Apple, Google, and Microsoft are all acquiring or developing their own solutions for these types of experiences.

Developer opportunities and final thoughts

The future of app development is full of possibilities, most of which no one can predict. If you think that every app has already been developed, think again. Technology and big data will enable things that we can't even imagine. New unicorns will undoubtedly emerge, massive fortunes will be minted, and many will be disappointed.

Here are a few other things to think about:

  • The forthcoming end of apps? Will Google Now make apps as we know them—at least Android apps—obsolete one day? It's certainly a possibility.
  • First-mover advantage is still important. Microsoft's recent $7.6 billion writedown of its 2014 Nokia purchase proves one thing: you don't need to be first, but you certainly can't be last.
  • Expect plenty of copycats. The same tools (SDKs and public APIs) available to you are also readily available to everyone else. This fact profoundly influences competitive advantage. To combat this reality, some companies are experimenting with and developing proprietary APIs.
  • Exit strategies. As I know from personal experience, many if not most apps die on the vine. If an app lacks sufficient traction to continue development and support, fear not. There are viable options beyond pulling the plug, acquisition, and acqui-hire. Developers who create third-party apps can try to sell their content, code, or intellectual property. Another option is to make the apps open source. Those who opt for the latter can bring much-needed visibility to what they've done.

I, for one, can't wait to see how things play out.

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