Developer: “Changing Apple Policies Get on the Nerves”

TMO’s Dave Hamilton attended MacTech 2011 and had the opportunity to interview several Apple developers. Here’s the conversation Mr. Hamilton had with Apparent Software’s founder Jacob Gorban. They chat about how Apple’s new app rules are constantly changing, create uncertainty and often get on one’s nerves.

MacTech 2011

Dave Hamilton: So, you started Apparent Software yourself, didn’t you?

Jacob Gorban: Yes. About five years ago, but it was a side project more or less. I was working full time as an electrical engineer at a large company, and ImageFramer became an evening and weekend project. [Jacob references early partner Kosta Rozen] And then, I left and became an indy, full-time [developer], about two and a half years ago.

TMO: I know about your apps for the Mac. Do you do anything for iOS?

JG: Yes. Just about a month ago, we released a version of Cashculator for the iPhone. Our first step into the iOS world. We plan to continue [development of] Cashculator for iPhone — they’re somewhat separate now — they don’t sync. And next, we’re planning a version 2 of Socialite for the iPhone and iPad.

Jacob GorbanJacob Gorban (L), Kosta Rozen (R)

TMO: So, to kind of bring this together, in the last five years, you’ve created a business that until now has been completely supported by the sales of Macintosh products.

JG: Yes. And I stand by it. I had this conversation with Kosta two years ago, and I said that the Mac sales are more stable and you can look at them like government bonds. If you buy and invest in them. On the other hand, the iOS applications are like the options market. Where you’ll either lose or win, but it’s a high risk market. Because of the high [level of] competition. And so as we were growing and I had to support my family, of course, I was more willing to go the safer road. And this is the kind of metaphor we’ve used. And now that our Mac sales are more or less stabilized, a level we’re comfortable with, we can try the iOS direction.

Even though some may say, “You’re late.” But how many iOS Applications are there? Two hundred thousand? Five hundred thousand? It doesn’t matter. If you were in the first group, maybe. But it matters less now. And again, our current strategy is to build companion applications for our Mac applications and build on our name. And this will help us, we believe, in the iOS world.

TMO: This is fascinating to me because, of course, in the last few years, everyone has really been focused on iOS, and here you come in and, for good reason, you go after the Mac market and you’re successful with it. Which is great. So … what are your thoughts about the Mac App Store [MAS]?

Jacob GorbanJG: The Mac App Store. [Pauses.] This is a tricky subject. We were quite afraid of it initially when it was announced a year ago. In the end, it created a lot of work for us because we had to adapt to it, to create separate versions. And now, we see that the majority of the sales are starting to shift into the Mac App Store — compared to the direct sales. At the same time, all these changing policies of Apple get on the nerves. And especially the fact that Apple tends to keep things unknown in a way — you don’t know what the actual policy will be. And the other stuff, like sandboxing, which is very controversial, is a big deal for most developers. Especially, for example, we have an application, Blast, which is a very popular application,

And at the same time, the sandbox environment will not allow it to work in the MAS.

TMO: Right. It can’t. It integrates with the OS at a low level.

JG: Yes. And perhaps some stuff could work, and Apple seems to want some of it work, but it is an issue. For example, we had planned to do Blast 2.0 this year, and we actually hired someone to work on it. I had it all planned and designed. And then sandboxing came. We looked at what we wanted to do in the next version — we wanted more integration in the system. And then seeing how the business is shifting to the MAS, we’re starting to think, okay, that this might not be viable from a business view. So we stopped the project, at least to see how the sandboxing will work. And still today, several months after the announcement [at WWDC], we still don’t know how it’s going to work.

TMO: It’s a moving target.

JG: This is November, and they had said that all new submissions should be sandboxed, and they’re still not enforcing it. So it’s a very bad situation to be in as a developer. Because the more you come to rely on the Mac App Store, and relying on features like iCloud, it also seems that there’s no clear word from Apple whether only MAS applications will be able to use the iCloud.

TMO: Well, I guess that’s true. From what I understand, only sandboxed apps will be able to use the iCloud.

JG: But you can sandbox applications which are not in the iCloud. But, still, you have to register your applications — they have to be code signed by Apple.

TMO: I guess the app could be code signed but not be in the MAS.

JG: But it won’t be code signed by Apple. And so the question is will they check if the app is code signed by Apple.

TMO: Right. We don’t know the answer to that.

JG: Right. And also, the iCloud requires an Apple ID, so, again, it’s not clear how to integrate. There seem to be rumors that it [iCloud] apps will require a Mac App Store version of the application. So, again, if we want to develop an application which will work with iCloud, it looks like we’ll have to drop into the MAS route.

TMO: Right. No direct sales at all.

JG: Again, this is a risk that you take. We can share the sales there, [direct and MAS] but you never know what the next policy will be. It’s a risk. And in a way, it makes the application dumber. The MAS plus sandboxing doesn’t allow applications which take advantage of the power that the system provides.

Apparent Software logo

TMO: Yep. It seemed to me when Apple [at WWDC] was telling us about sandboxing that it was going to limit what applications could do. As you said, takes some power away from the user. From a power user’s perspective, that’s a shame. Does it really matter to 99 percent of the customers out there? I think it probably does.

JG: Perhaps it does. It will also make it harder for regular customers to find these power applications. New customers will only look in the Mac App Store, probably.

TMO: Imagine that. The poor person who comes new to the Mac only buys things in the MAS and can’t find something, like…

JG: TextExpander!

TMO: Right! That was my example! And Blast. If I can’t have those….

JG: The only opportunities that come to light are what the system provides us because of the sandboxing, the system integration. And this is a shame. And so they’ll have to rely more on the media, but not everyone reads the media.

TMO: I wish more people did. [Laughter.] Just personally …. But you’re right. It’s just a subset. That’s interesting. So … what’s your best selling app?

CashculatorCashculator icon

JG: Currently, it’s Cashculator. Which is quite surprising. By revenue at least. But not by numbers. Again, because Cashculator and ImageFramer are more expensive, we only have to sell fewer of them. And then, it’s probably Socialite. But it depends on the media. Once in a while, some site will mention us, and there will be a boost in sales. And, interestingly, this Cashculator app wasn’t the best selling app until several months ago when we changed the sales tactics where we made it free but with an in-app purchase for Lion and created more of an iOS-like model where it had a light version and a full version. It seems like the financial [software] market for the Mac doesn’t have a lot of free apps, and so this created a lot of downloads, and this drove the sales of the full version. So we ended up using the MAS as a marketing tool, not only as just a distribution tool.

Jacob Gorban

TMO: Interesting. If you don’t mind me asking, what percentage of your users converted from the free to the paid — with the in-app purchase?

JG: It’s hard to say because Apple doesn’t give us that data. We do believe, however, that there is a long tail of conversions. In general, it looks like the conversions are similar to the direct to indirect route. Single digits. Which is a normal number. But because we are still high in the free version, this could drive a lot of trials. So this was a compromise — its easiness compared to going to find another application in the MAS offsets the number of people who just use Lion. So we have two versions. One is free with in-app purchase and one is paid. And we see sales in both.

TMO: Cool. Anything else you’d like to mention?

SocialiteSocialite icon

JG: Well, we didn’t have a lot of news about our apps this year — except for the iOS version of Cashculator. We’ve been focusing on the sandboxing stuff. Converting Cashculator to sandboxed. But everybody asks us about Socialite 2, but unfortunately we were a bit late because we were busy with all this other stuff, and to make things go faster, we hired Mike Glass, and he’s working with us on Socialite 2. It will still take a bit longer because we’re changing our codebase with this version — we’re striving to make it easier to port it to the iPad later. So our hope is that after we make this Mac version, we’ll be able to create the iPad version soon after that — building on what we learned in the Mac version. So, I want our Socialite customers to hang on!

TMO: Sound good! Thanks Jacob for taking the time to chat with us.


You can follow Jacob Gorban on Twitter at @apparentsoft