Mobile Developer Economics report

Vision Mobile just released its Mobile Developer Economics report in which it presents the result of a poll of 401 mobile developers across the eight main platforms: Android, iPhone, BlackBerry, Symbian, Windows Mobile, Flash, Java ME, and the mobile web.

If you’re interested in the mobile developer world, download and read the report. It’s free, though a valid email address is required. Below I treat some interesting aspects of the research, including the quote from me Vision Mobile decided to publish.


The parity between the installed base of a platform and the amount of apps available is totally absent. As one would expect, the iPhone app store offers way more apps than the OS’s relatively humble market share warrants. No surprise here. (p. 10)

What is surprising is that the most popular platform among the 401 developers is not the iPhone, but Android with 60%. iPhone comes distinctly second at around 50%, and the third most popular platform, Java ME, is not far removed from it. No clear iPhone superiority here.

The mobile web does decently at 40% (i.e. 40% of the developers use the mobile web from time to time). Flash is used by about 20% of developers. The long tail is composed of Linux, BREW, bada, and webOS. It should be noted, however, that bada has only just been released. Thus its meager score is quite understandable. This is not the case for the other three platforms. (p. 12)

It should be noted that developers who used Java ME were rather negative about the platform. One said:

The vast majority of Java ME developers have lost faith in the write-once-run-anywhere vision

Incidentally, which technology do you think has the best chance to take over this write-once-run-anywhere vision? Hint: it has existed for twelve years already and has already been deployed across all smartphones.

Striking it rich

Why do developers choose a platform? The clear number one reason is market penetration at 75%, with revenue potential coming second at 50%. The existence of an app store or a development community is important for only 40% of the developers. (p. 13)

Frankly I believe that reason number two is going to disappear. Mobile development is not a goldmine, although obviously you can earn a decent living by making apps for others.

On page 26 the report explicitly treats the long-tail economics. If you’re just a random developer who tries to make boatloads of money by selling apps, will you succeed? Vision Mobile doesn’t think so.

The economics for long-tail developers - i.e. the per-capita profit for the average developer - remains dubious at best.

In other words, Apple’s App Store is not a shortcut to riches. It can’t take the place of the hard work of founding a succesful startup, making a compelling product that people want to use, and selling it to a large player.

The App Store will dole out only niche income to most developers. Obviously there will be one or two notable exceptions to that rule. It’s a casino, after all, and the luck of the draw can be with you. Wanna try? Have fun, but don’t complain that you don’t make any money.

Why is this so? The report pinpoints two main reasons:

  1. First, there are plenty of “garage developers” around who create apps not for the money, but for status among their peers. Usually they offer their work for free or a nominal fee. If such a free app competes with your paid one, tough luck.
  2. The huge crowding especially in Apple’s app store forces developers to lower their prices in order to remain competitive.

Mastering a platform

How much time does it take to master a platform? Android clocks in fastest with five months. The mobile web comes second with six (yay!), though it has to share this place with Flash. Then comes iPhone with about 7.5 months. By far the toughest nut to crack is Symbian, where it takes 15 months before you’re proficient enough with the platform to write a couple of moderately-simple apps. (p. 32)


Finally, the report talks about operators, and this happens to be a subject I’m deeply interested in. The general conclusion is that operators don“t care a hoot about mobile developers, and treat them badly. Questions aren’t answered, there is a complete lack of focus with initiatives and websites cropping up all over the place, and operators aren’t interested in the long tail of niche developers.

In other words, ADHD-suffering marketing people jump hither and tither, and don’t care about anything remotely resembling long-term planning. I don’t think that’s going to change in the near future.

Furthermore the operators refuse to send people to industry conferences, instead electing to hold their own. I’ve been to several such events, and although it always works in the sense that it’s a moderate-good conference with moderate-good speakers, the fact that they’re free to enter but not free from marketing speak means that they’re soon forgotten.

I am convinced that the operators’ approach to conferences is wrong. I hope to prove that within the next year.

Which brings me to the quote from me Vision Mobile decided to include (p. 43/44):

The first mobile company to TRULY reach out to web developers will have an edge over the competition, but right now I don’t see any candidates. Except for Google, obviously. (And Apple, but they’re playing their own game.) If Google became an operator our problems would be solved.

To be honest I completely forgot about this thought until Vision Mobile contacted me for permission to quote me. Reading it back I feel I’m on to something. So yes, I agree with myself.

Wondering what Google’s next step will be? Becoming an operator. Especially in the totally dysfunctional American market. They’ll bring simple mobile billing to the world. Unless the traditional operators do it first, but there’s little chance of that.

Interesting idea, no? Not easy, no sir, not at all. But it’s the obvious next step as far as I’m concerned. Operatorship is where the money is. And where the need for innovation is greatest. We don’t have to expect anything from the current marketing-driven bunch.

This is the blog of Peter-Paul Koch, web developer, consultant, and trainer. You can also follow him on Twitter or Mastodon.
Atom RSS

If you like this blog, why not donate a little bit of money to help me pay my bills?



Comments are closed.

1 Posted by Brill Pappin on 5 July 2010 | Permalink

Google becoming an "operator" (I assume you mean carrier) is all well and good, but they seem to have serious trouble supporting the Canadian development crowd let alone the Canadian phone market.

As a Canadian developer and after years of waiting, I *still* can't sell an app through the Android Market.

it's a significant problem and it generates mistrust in their products. It means that I can't depend on them to do anything in a timely fashion, let alone build a business around mobile products for the Android platform.

It makes them look amateur, and it pushed Canadian mobile developers toward other platforms like Blackberry (shudder) and iPhone.

2 Posted by Marcelo Emmerich on 19 July 2010 | Permalink

Regarding the platform mastering times, I strongly believe that the effort required to professionally develop web apps is much higher than actually assumed. The key to this being the fact that the popular assumption that existing web development know-how can be leveraged is not completely true. (

I agree with the fact that Symbian is the hardest nut to crack. At the same time, there are a lot of Symbian devices out there. I can only hope that Nokias move to Qt will work out, as it is a real and good alternative to developing Apps for those devices.