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BlackBerry App Development: Gold Rush or Drops in a Bucket?

I was lured into PlayBook app development last winter by the offer of a free PlayBook. My motivations weren’t at all to make any money. To the contrary, I was firm in my belief that the app landscape consisted of big winners like Angry Birds who made back their investment 10,000 fold, and hundreds of thousands of apps that made < $200, making them not worth a developer’s time. (and not even close) I have a full time job which pays well, so my mobile app development is more about learning something new, and being a creative outlet that allows me to use a variety of skills, not just coding.

My first app, Baby Names for PlayBook, fits the trend of apps that make little or nothing, bringing in about 30 cents per day on average, for a total of $62 over six months. So far that equates to compensation of $4.50/hour.

But this is where it gets interesting: Purely as a learning exercise, I decided to implement Baby Names for BlackBerry phones, again not expecting much ROI. To my amazement, it has earned $1150 at a rate of $8/day, which translates to a compensation of $88/hour. And that is only the first five months of sales. If the sales rate continues at even half that rate for the next two years, the compensation rate might rise to > $300/hour. Clearly worth a developer’s time in that case.

Another financially positive experience was collaborating with my friend Graham Huber on a PlayBook app named Solicit. The idea was to make a polished looking app whereby you’d hand your PlayBook to someone you met so they could type in their contact information. That app has brought in $2/day for compensation of around $26/hour, and could rise to > $80/hour if sales continue at half the current rate for the next couple of years. (We are about to submit an update that allows you to upload contacts to Google Contacts)

For the sake of learning opportunity since then, I have implemented Baby Names on Android, which has compensated me $6/hour, on iPhone, which has compensated me $1/hour, Windows Phone, at $3.50/hour, and Chrome Web Store, at $0.25/hour. So there has been quite the disparity between my experiences developing for BlackBerry phones and these other platforms. (Which should be emphasized in this day and age of people claiming that developing for BlackBerry doesn’t make sense)

In terms of pure enjoyment, developing for PlayBook is where it’s at for me. It’s a beautiful piece of hardware (I do own an iPad as well), there is a need for apps, and the development experience for me with Flash has been far more enjoyable than Objective C. (I am fond of learning new programming languages, but yuck, I haven’t enjoyed my Objective C experiences so far) Because of this, most of my creative efforts since my first apps have been on the PlayBook, even though compensation hasn’t been anywhere close to my lone BB phone app.

I created Baby Paint, an app that allows a little person to swipe their finger around a cartoon drawing and have the correct color be placed under their finger’s path, kind of like those painting books I had as a kid that came pre-inked with the right colors. It has brought in $92 for compensation of $18/hour, not too bad if sales continue, but not great. A sports edition of that app, even a featured PlayBook app a few weeks ago, has earned $41, for compensation of $20/hour.

I collaborated with a friend Matt Langeman to create Learn Africa which has earned $25 for compensation of about $1/hour. (We can at least pump out apps for the other continents with little additional work, but it is not clear whether that would be worth it from a financial perspective)

A bit of a time sink was creating an app called Slideshow that would run alongside Voice Chat and allow you to start a slideshow, having the pictures display on both your screen and on the other person’s screen, in top quality, and be able to flip through your photos so that you can narrate your latest adventures with friends and family. It took a lot of hours to work out the kinks, 50 hours, and has so far compensated me a pretty rough $0.50/hour. I think it’s a compelling use case for the PlayBook, but one must realize that even ideas that we are fond of don’t necessarily generate a lot of interest. Perhaps if it was marketed well, it would have some legs.

More recently I have created Picasa Sync, which was the first app to be covered by a blog. That was a real treat. One of the most rewarding things for me as a developer is feeling like my creative efforts are appreciated, and blog coverage definitely has this affect. That app was only released last week, so it’s too early to tell what the compensation rate will look like. So far is has brought in $78, which is a good start for an app that took 7 hours to create. I have since created “Smug Sync”, an identical app for users of SmugMug, which is in the process of being approved.

So what conclusions do I make from my experiences? The most notable observation is that my first BlackBerry phone app has compensated me extremely well, much to my surprise, and so it would be interesting to make a few more phone apps to see whether that trend continues at all. On the PlayBook side, compensation rates have been much lower, but in a couple of cases they have been high enough that if sales continue it could be argued that my efforts will have compensated me well. All that said, I must conclude that the reason I develop for PlayBook is that I enjoy it. It’s fun to see a need and to try and fill it, to use both creative skills and technical programming skills, and to interact with and get feedback from users.

Future apps that I am considering: (feel free to sound off in the comments as to which of these if any you would find compelling)

  • A way to, with one click from your PlayBook, sync music wirelessly from iTunes to your PlayBook over WiFi. Ability to make the sync smarter so that it grabs a good mix of your music rather than all of it if you do not want all of your music.
  • A photo sharing app whereby you select a photo or group of photos and can share it via Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Flickr, Picasa Web Albums, SmugMug, Email, or FTP location by checking boxes and then clicking “Share”.
  • A smart slideshow app that goes and gets recent starred photos from Picasa, Facebook, Smug Mug, Flickr, etc, downloads them to your PlayBook, and shows those new photos more often than your old photos. Combined with the rapid charger stand (which I purchased) this turns the PlayBook into a beautiful (and smart) digital picture frame. We have a digital picture frame, but it is painful to keep it updated with recent photos.
  • A smart and pretty alarm clock that ties in with your Google Calendar, weather reports, birthdays from Facebook, and uses the music you have on your PlayBook. The option to have it speak to you this information as your alarm with the rather impressive voices from http://www.expressivo.com/. Another nice use of the rapid charger stand.

Can I just say that, if I could go back in time, back to December 2010, I would have created a beautiful native email app for the PlayBook. That likely would have compensated very well, you might agree.

An interesting idea I’ve had is to create a site or even a forum post that proposes a number of useful PlayBook app ideas, and then users could vote which one they’d like the best. I would then implement the winning app. Encouraging this dialog between users and developers seems like a constructive thing, beneficial to both. At the end of the day, interacting with real people and having the satisfaction of meeting their needs is where it’s at for many of us developers. So in that spirit, let me know which of the above app ideas would be most useful to you, and I will implement the winning app and put it up for sale for 99 cents.

42 total comments on this postSubmit your comment!
  1. nice report!

    sales on playbook are relatively low as no1 has one!

    we are in process of building our own first playbook app so be interesting to see the reponse compared with our themes for the smartphones

    thanks for info!

  2. I like the itunes app. I would pay $5 for an app that let’s you stream music to airport …like airfoil for example.

    • I agree…I can’t justify buying a playbook because of the lack of ability to stream music to my airport express…I use airfoil on my pc…I was in touch with them and they told me that they had no plans to develop for the blackberry phone or playbook.

      • Alright, you guys are starting to motivate me to look into this AirPort stuff. I have to say, being able to wirelessly stream music from your PlayBook to these kinds of devices sounds pretty compelling. I just wish I had such a device to play with. I did actually buy my dad an Airport Express waaay back in about 2006 (?) … do you guys think the technology from way back when is compatible with the modern AirPlay stuff, or might they be completely different technologies?

        • I’m still using my old airport from 2006ish to stream my music and it works like a charm…I’d imagine that streaming music to the appleTV would also be similar…food for thought. could be a good market and nothing out there. I’d consider investing…

          • Ok, interesting. Maybe I should snarf my dad’s airport express back as something to play with.

            I sent the creators of Airfoil a message to see if they would have any interest in sending me the specs for how to implement something like this — maybe I could do the heavy lifting and share the profits with them or something.

            The big annoyance with something like this is figuring out how it is supposed to work. I’m sure with good specs the implementation wouldn’t be out of this world.

        • Daniel
          If you create an app to allow wireless audio streaming from the Playbook, will it work with all Bluetooth audio accessories like the Jawbone Jambox and Blackberry’s own remote stereo gateway?

          Thank you!

          sfreibur

  3. I like the alarm clock app, but please include a stay on option and rss feeds.

  4. Of course there is more money on BlackBerry phones (with having 140x as many users and all), but by supporting the PlayBook, you are in good position for when RIM brings their phones over to BBX next year.

  5. Daniel — awesome post.

    (a) Have you BBM connected any of these apps? We see it boosts download dramatically!

    (b) What about a Flickr app? (my favorite photo site)

    Alec from RIM

    • Hey Alec,

      Thanks for your kind comments! It’s encouraging that RIM is taking such an active interest in developers.

      (a) My rough sense was that BBM connected apps only worked on BB phones, and 90% of my efforts have been wrt the PlayBook.

      (b) Great idea re: Flickr app. I’ll see what I can do!

      • Got it! I missed the fact that so many of your efforts were PlayBook focus (despite your saying it repeatedly!). We’ll get BBM Connected onto PlayBook in the future, but for now it’s BBOS only.

    • Hi Alec,

      Thanks again for your suggestion of a Flickr app.

      I have submitted ‘Flickr Sync’ to App World.

      Daniel

  6. If Alec ever comes back to this page, please please please tell us why there is no app in which we can make notes within a PDF. This should be a minimal requirement for a “professional” tablet.

    It would be so useful to my work, but at present we don’t have it and therefore the PB cannot replace a laptop computer for me. Sad.

    This should be a premium app written by Adobe and/or RIM.

    On the other stuff, congrats Daniel.

    • We continue to work with Adobe and others to provide annotation capability. I’ve seen some good demos… now we just need to get the vendors to bring them to market.

  7. I would love an app to wirelessly sync my Playbook to Itunes. That is the best app from your list of proposed apps for the Playbook

  8. Sounds like the iTunes app is the most popular idea… I’ll get to work!

    • By the way, since this will require a small app to also run on the computer you have iTunes running on, this will only work in conjunction with Windows for now. Are you guys PC or Mac people?

      • great….btw if it included functionality like airfoil….it would be a killer app. don’t you think? Or is it a problem that RIM makes a piece of hardware for this; i am surprised nobody else is saying anything about it. A quick look at the success of something like airfoil might make the potential for demand and price very enticing for a developer?

        • Hey scelop,

          An app to send audio from the PlayBook to an Airport Express sounds like a great idea, although it is distinct from an app that downloads songs from a PC onto one’s PlayBook.

          I’m not familiar with the communication protocols used by Airport Express, and I don’t have the physical hardware to test such an app, so not in a good position to deliver something like that unfortunately.

          • ok, thanks; i get it now. Seems like a big hole that could be profitably filled; know anybody with your enthusiasm for developing pb apps that also has the things you are missing? BTW, i am a pc user, and your efforts and analysis described in the blog are much appreciated

            • No, I don’t know anyone else with this know-how. Two things I did discover were that it appears that Airfoil has some software that turns your PC into a device that can be controlled by Airfoil. If it does this by mimicking an AirPlay device, that would solve my problem of not having an AirPlay device. I also discovered an open source Linux app (http://raop-play.sourceforge.net/) that implements the AirPlay protocol, so it might be feasible to read the source code to figure out the details. That would be a challenging project, however, so I may or may not choose to go down this road… thanks though for sharing what is a neat idea.

      • Daniel

        I am a PC user.

  9. for me personally i dont use iTunes i cant stand it however i love Windows Media Player so if you can make it so you can wirelessly sync with Windows Media Player or iTunes you’ve got all your bases covered, and please please do not forget PhotoBucket as they are also very popular photo album too :)

    • Yes, good point about people like yourself who just use Media Player. I’m not sure whether media player has an API or not. If it is like iTunes in that it stores music in folders organized by Artist/Album/Song, then one opportunity would be to create a PC app where you’d simply point it to this directory structure, and then the PlayBook app could connect to that app in the same way that I am planning on doing the iTunes syncing. Thanks for pointing out the Media Player user base, that might not be too difficult to support as well as a second app.

      • Your welcome and thank you for i would be someone interested in such an app 😛 speaking of the API with Media Player im not sure to be honest however i do know that one of the new features of OS 6.0 when it first came out was that we could wirelessly sync our music to iTunes or Media Player, im not sure if that helps you or not into finding out the information you’ll need. futhermore i do know that i can organization my music in folders however id like and media player picks it up i personally have a Music folder in that music folder is a folder for each Artist and in that folder is a different folder for each Album by that Artist

  10. Daniel, you have me excited about your app! Do you think you will have it done within 1 week? :)

    • I worked on it for a bit early this morning and got the basics done, but there are several details yet to be addressed. It might be done within 7 days, but we’ll have to wait and see. Glad to hear you’re excited, I am too… it was fun to watch my iTunes songs get copied over via the app this morning and then listen to them! There is something very satisfying about wireless syncing.

      • Daniel

        I was joking when I said a week, however, I was very pleasantly surprised how quickly you completed this app and I am currently enjoying it.

        sfreibur

  11. Very nice article :).
    There is no money to be made on the PlayBook for consumer apps that take more than a few days to develop and you can’t build superapps anyway. It’s best to target other platforms supporting HTML5 first and then try to add some extra revenue by porting it to BBX.

  12. I finished the iTunes app this evening and submitted it to App World, so hopefully it gets approved sometime soon.

    The name of the app is ‘iTunes Sync’.

    Thanks again to all those who commented!

  13. iTunes Sync has been approved and is now available for download in App World:

    http://appworld.blackberry.com/webstore/content/65525

    It is currently compatible with Windows PCs, hopefully I can add support for Macs.

  14. Daniel,
    I just purchased your Itunes sync app for my Playbook and it works extremely well and I love it!
    If you update this solution, is it possible to sync the playlists as well?
    That would put it over the top.
    Thank you!

    sfreibur

  15. Love the Picasa sync app, considering purchasing the iTunes sync app (I have a love-hate relationship with iTunes so every now and then I threaten to switch media players), would buy the smart slideshow app in a second, and like the alarm app idea…needless to say Daniel Bigham, keep up the great work, definitely will be keeping an eye out for your apps (and stick around here too).

    • Aw, thanks Daniel. (Great name by the way!) Your encouragement is very appreciated. It makes development “worth it” when one’s efforts are appreciated.

      PS I know what you mean by love-hate relationship with iTunes.

      • And wouldn’t you know, I just reached tipping point with iTunes. Giving Winamp another try, want to create a Winamp Sync app for me? Consider me a customer… :)

  16. I would be very interested in a PlayBook Airplay app, either for the native Music Player or Android Winamp. Any progress on the Airport encoding?

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