BlackBerry PlayBook App Development: Surprising Opportunities

A few weeks ago I wrote an article describing my development efforts to date, which have mostly been on the PlayBook platform, with one foray into the phone world. My conclusions were that in some cases PlayBook apps compensate well, but that I mostly write apps for fun — and that my lone BlackBerry phone app compensated me extremely well.

How times change.

In that same article, I proposed four apps that I was considering writing, and asked you which app was most appealing. I’m glad the audience suggested implementing iTunes Sync, because it has made for a wild ride these last four days. The app went live on Friday November 25th. I was expecting a reception in line with my Picasa Sync effort, which brought in $20/day for the first two days and then went dormant when it fell off of the “Newest” section in App World. But on day one, over the course of about 12 hours, it brought in $157 dollars. Day two, $350, and it shot up to be the #2 app in the “Top Purchased” section.

After four days, total revenue is $970. For the ten hours it took to implement iTunes Sync that is compensation of $97/hour, and the app has only been available for four days.

A friend of mine commented, “What a trooper, still deving for the PlayBook” and later commented “Now imagine how much more lucrative if you dev on Android or iOS”. What people like this don’t realize is that a developer’s impact on a platform is also very related to competition. The iOS market, with something like 500,000 apps, often has 50 or more apps for any given idea. Take for example my Baby Names app, which has compensated me $90/hour on BlackBerry phones, whereas the iOS implementation has compensated me $1/hour. I think this makes a strong case for BlackBerry app development. It may not be obvious, but not all of the great opportunities in life are obvious.

Money aside, I am encouraged that with only 10 hours of development effort, I can make a significant contribution to the PlayBook community by delivering a piece of functionality that people have obviously been missing. Again I wonder whether there would be some means to better connect the needs of the PlayBook community with the creative efforts of developers. PlayBook owners lament that key software features are missing, and developers lament when they write an app that doesn’t end up connecting with people’s needs. If PlayBook owners had a means to have their voice heard, and developers had a means to receive that and act on it, the ecosystem might develop much more rapidly.

In that spirit, and because it worked so well last time, I will again propose four app ideas and allow you to choose your favorite idea. I will implement the winning idea and put it up for sale on App World:

  • An app that syncs iTunes movies and video podcasts to your PlayBook wirelessly.
  • An app that syncs music sitting in Artist/Album folder structures but which isn’t in iTunes. (Such as if you use Windows Media Player)
  • An app to allows you to control AirPlay devices from your PlayBook.
  • 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.

Thanks everyone for your support, it makes it much more fun when there is a sense of community.

72 total comments on this postSubmit your comment!
  1. We need more Developer Story’s Like this, I’m glad you are doing well with this application! Just keep it going with your developer Friends Please!

  2. Sounds like some good app ideas, good luck Daniel. Keep up the great supply of PlayBook apps :-)

  3. I’d love a decent photo slideshow app. When I last looked for PB, none of them quite met what I was looking for (lack of options, no auto-orientation, no settings for screen timeout, etc).

  4. I’m curious to see what the revenue will look like after a few months. It seems like the best business plan for apps on the PlayBook is to build something small and cheap that does one thing well.
    Bigger apps usually cost at least $25k to develop and that’s only the initial investment, without all the support costs which you can rarely charge for or any 3rd party costs if you need to process some data, etc.
    You would need quite a large paying user base and to release quite a few apps a year if you want to make a decent living out of that business.

    I’m wondering if Apple will block the app. Didn’t they block syncing from WebOS?

    • Yes, app sales typically fall off very sharply after the app is no longer in the “newest” section. If I’m lucky, RIM will use it as a featured app, which will give it a second jolt of sales, but again, that is a 1 week thing, so in the long run, apps have a much lower sales rate.

      Agreed that the way to go is to develop simple (but pretty, or at least not ugly) apps that do one thing well, and that spending vast amounts of money on an app is less likely to compensate you well. Partly because of that, and partly because I want to keep things light and fun, I tend to go for app ideas that can be executed in anywhere from 2 hours to 15 hours. Amazingly, my Flickr Sync app only took 2 hours, because it could build upon some of the same components of Picasa Sync.

      • I’m pretty sure that if you track all the time spent on each app, it will amount to more.
        – Conception
        – Skeleton setup
        – Graphics Design
        – Development
        – Testing
        – Bug fixing
        – More testing ;)
        – Packaging
        – Bug fixing/new features

        I can’t really see all this take only 2 hours. And you’re not including all the initial time and money investment. Learning about PlayBook Dev, environment setup, learning about the APIs that you want to use, etc.

        • In the case of Flickr Sync it was 2 hours (or 2.5 hours to be exact) including conception, graphics design, development, testing, bug fixing, packaging, and submitting to app world. But that’s because I was able to piggy-back on an existing app that I had already created that did the very same things but for a different API.

          That said, I do spend time checking how many people have downloaded my apps, I do get email from people clarifying how they work and requesting new features, etc, so you’re definitely right that even if an app takes you 2.5 hours, you could easily spend another 5 hours over the course of a few months in various ways.

  5. Great work on the apps. I would like to see the clock with integration of calender/facebook/news etc.

  6. My choice:

    ■An app that syncs music sitting in Artist/Album folder structures but which isn’t in iTunes. (Such as if you use Windows Media Player)
    ■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”.

    Thanks for sharing a great story. It echoed what current statistics say about Blackberry owners as well. We are more willing to pay for good apps.

    Looking forward to your next development. :)

  7. Search Daniel Bigham in app world….look at the ratings for each of his apps, all highly rated. The product speaks for itself. But I’ll say it again anyway, keep up the great work.

  8. Last one for 0.99 or 1.99 and you’d have a strike, I bet!

    Awesome article, hope to hear more dev tales!

    • And if you can deliver where the top brass failed, a Photoshop-clone, CAD-clone and some other professional tools would be welcome.

    • We need more developers with the same level of enthusiasm. Ditch the other platforms and just focus your efforts here, Daniel :)

  9. Would love to see the Alarm clock with facebook and weather integration!

  10. Sounds to me like you should do them all and rake it in. Or maybe some shell like fixmo and make each a $5 module you can add to the free shell. But if only one, Airplay control would be most useful in my mind.

  11. It would be great if you could do a native RDP client for windows. Look any where on any forum and you will see this is required. I bet the number one app that users are flocking to the dev 2.0 is to get a windows rdp client.

  12. My vote is for the integrated alarm clock

  13. BTW, Keep up the good work. I really like picasa sync and the slideshow app!

  14. my vote is for the photo sharing app…….keep up the good work

  15. nice work on the itunes app. your attitude is so refreshing.

    i vote for the airplay app

    • Hey scelop, I was successful in getting my Dad’s old Airport Express. I was reminded though how frustrating it is to setup and get working. I’m not sure whether I have a defective unit, but I recall running into hours of frustration back a few years ago getting it to work, and when I tried to set it up on my home network I have run into similar problems. I seem to get it configured, but when I tell iTunes to use it as its speakers, iTunes displays a progress dialog, sits there for a while, and then the dialog disappears and my computer speakers are still the selected speakers. Then, when I try and open the administration interface (“AirPort Utility”), it can no longer find the device. Boo. So yeah, maybe I just have broken hardware or something. Have you ever had frustrations with your AirPlay hardware?

      • i had trouble a few years back, but not recently…seems to have been associated with the older windows client. i am now using 5.5.3 of the utility and the management is fine since i added a new n express. i still have an older g on the same network and that is working with the utility also. did you update the firmwhere of the express?
        even back in the day when i did experience the problems you are describing….once i got it to work…i could leave it alone for months of flawless performance.

        do you have a mac you could use for configuration?

  16. Nice work Danny boy! Keep it up!

  17. I think you are smart to create the apps. They cant keep the playbook on the shelves at stores because of the sale that is happening. Your demand in increasing by the day!

  18. great job! never give up!

  19. Great story bro! +1 for alarm clock!!!

  20. my choices are:
    ■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”.

    AND
    ■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.

  21. Great read Daniel! Keep up the good work. The Playbook needs dedicated developers (and the money isn’t too shabby either!)

  22. The photo sharing and the alarm clock would be awesome.

    For the alarm clock one, it would be great to add RSS feeds and allow the user to tap the rss feed and hear a read out of the headlines.

  23. I vote for the last one, another alarm clock for the PlayBook, but make it a Radio Alarm Clock that uses one of the big internet radio index services but ALSO lets me put in my own stream URLs so I can wake up to my favorite station and not one that someone else thinks is cool.

  24. How port XBMC into playbook?

  25. This isn’t in your list, but ever thought of making a tv guide? Figuring out how to let you select what channels you watch and what’s coming on. Maybe set reminders to the calendar?

    • Using the PlayBook as a TV guide is a fascinating use case… basically, using your PlayBook as a remote. It’s an ideal size for something like that, so I think you’re really on to something. That’s quite related to “BerryGuy” above wondering about XBMC.

      I’m not sure where to get program scheduling information — my intuition is that that isn’t free and readily downloadable in a structured format for North America, but I’d love to be proven wrong.

      As for how to control the TV wrt what channel you’re viewing, I don’t have any great ideas. Does something like Windows Media Center have an API that allows interactions?

      I could see this easily being a 100 project, or easily more, even if it is possible to do. I just don’t know enough about solving the various subproblems to make it an efficient project.

  26. Anything that automates and announces Google Calander stuff so you dont have to browse through the website to get your reminders.

    You know what would be great? Something that lets you create and notifies you of google calander appts while you are offline.

    • What a great idea. I wonder if RIM would object given that their native calendar app will be released within a few months? (they _are_ releasing a calendar app with native email, right?)

      • Yeah, the Feb update is supposed to have native pim apps but even just a reminder/notification app that pulls from gcal would be nice.

        • I suppose the other challenge here is that by default, any program running in the background on the PlayBook gets suspended to save battery. There are settings that allow you to allow background programs to keep running, so the app would require users to turn that on. And it would be somewhat annoying to always need to have that app running and in the set of app cards that show up when you switch between programs, would it not?

  27. So just to get this straight. “Day two, $350, and it shot up to be the #2 app in the “Top Purchased” section”

    • Yes, that’s right. So that’s an interesting statistic with regard to what the top PlayBook apps are earning. My guess, although I don’t know this for a fact, is that the “top purchased” app is the app that has the highest number of purchases in a day, irregardless of its price. Thus, games like EA Sports Madden Football are likely earning somewhere in the ballpark of $1200/day.

      • I would love for RIM to expand the Featured Apps, Top Free, and Top Purchased to at 50 instead of 25. I’m not sure how many apps RIM approves on a given day but why can’t Featured Apps be ALL of the new apps refreshed on a daily basis? Often I stumble upon an app and then buy it opposed to looking for something specific, so if I saw all of today’s 100 new entrances in app world on startup, its far more accessible than going into individual categories and good chances are, I try and buy an app or maybe multiple. Devs make money, RIM makes money. And if Top Free/Purchased are just by sales volume, they should create another category for highest user rated in app world.

      • So in a perfect world with ebbs and tides in purchasing the a #2 app would generate a teir 1 developer less than 500k / yr
        Kinda of a hard sell. I understand that having less apps equals greater exposure, but what is the purchasing trends ie what is the demographic the app is aimed at and how big is that segment. This was also a higher than normal profile developer which should also be taken into account

        • Yes, so there aren’t tens of millions of dollars to be made by companies right now on the PlayBook, and that probably turns the bigger companies away.

        • It works for companies that want to port existing games, especially now that lots of game engines are available, but as you’re saying, it’s much more of a gamble for companies with less resources or which want to focus on the PlayBook.

  28. I want an app that make boost the volume in my weak ear.

  29. Thanks for your votes everyone, and for the many kind comments. Here are the results:

    Music sync: 1
    Airplay: 2
    Slideshow: 4
    Photo sharing: 4
    Alarm clock: 8

    So alarm clock it is. I’ll let you know when it’s done!

    Thanks!

  30. Airplay and Photo Sharing would be definite purchases for me. Loved the Picasa Sync app, worked like a charm!

  31. Many of us have been asking for an app that would allow us to mark up pdfs. Would not need to be an editor, just allow us to write on top of a pdf and then save everything as one pdf.

  32. I vote for a smart and pretty alarm clock app – I would buy that!

  33. I actually found an Alarm Clock named “Todays Alarm Clock” that does everything we want and more and Its FREE!! Really I dont know how your going to make money with competition like this. It has customizable internert radio pre-loaded with 100’s of stations/genres etc. I’m waking up to Jazz Music!!!! Luv this

    • Ihave tried Today’s Alarm Clock, but does not allow Classical as a genre nor does it let me set my own radio stations. A radio alarm clock that uses vtuner or Reciva services with the ability to set my own stream URLs would be better. Another option might be to just cause the browser or another radio app to launch when the alarm goes off.

      • I dont know about your experience but I found 30 classical music channels I could choose between!! I kid you not 30!!!! Plus I was able to add my own local 680 News channel, even came preloaded with a vancouver radio station!

  34. I just checked, and you are right! Recent updates have solved the problem of some genres not being listed, and also has added the ability to enter my own streams … just what I wanted.

    I’m struggling a bit with getting the CBC R2 streams URLs working for each time zone and also CBC Classical (not listed in IceBerg radio, so I need to enter them myself). Unable to get any of them working yet because the CBC website has a bunch of old stream information and I have to find out what is current and data enter.

  35. My recommendations for a better clock-radio-alarm app:

    Clock radio and music player features:
    1) 5 or 6 presets for radio channels/streams or local songs & playlists available in the app options pull-down
    2) Ability to set, display, review, test, edit radio stream URLs without having to reenter them
    3) Use a free internet streaming radio index service as a starting point
    4) Automatic radio and MP3 file sound volume levelling (some stations are much louder or quieter than the others)
    5) Support playlists in addition to individual tracks for music stored on the PlayBook
    6) Lots of options for how the time is displayed (styles, colors, etc.)
    7) Keep the clock display always active, all night long, and able to dim the display all the way down

    Alarm Clock feature:
    1) Support standard alarm sounds, local song files, local playlists, and radio channels, stations, streams
    2) Survive a power outage that also takes down the wi-fi router (if the radio is the wakeup sound and wi-fi is down, the alarm might not work)
    3) Recover or provide a backup alarm signal if the wi-fi service is interrupted or briefly unavailable when the alarm time comes
    4) Ability to turn off the alarm without being able to see very well (e.g., pressing both volume up & down at the same time)
    5) Able to use playlists downloaded from iTunes or whatever with the BB Desktop Manager
    6) Support shuffle/random within a playlist or folder for those who don’t want to wake up to the same thing every day.

  36. Hey Allan,

    Thanks for your thoughts about the alarm clock. I started work on this a few weeks ago and soon realized that I hadn’t done my homework in terms of what was already out there. As you suggest, the “Today’s Alarm Clock” has lots of features, even if the UI is a bit overwhelming. There’s also Alistair Nightstand, which looks great and has a variety of really pretty themes.

    So I was perhaps silly to suggest this as an idea and my efforts are unlikely to be monetarily rewarding.

    But I think there’s still room for some new ideas in this area. I’ve actually released the base version of my alarm clock:

    http://appworld.blackberry.com/webstore/content/69217?lang=en

    I think the real “value add” of this basic alarm clock is the UI. It’s the best alarm clock UI I’ve used. The description I wrote tries to relay that.

    If I can find the time over the next couple of months I’ll release more advanced alarm clocks as suggested by this article.

  37. I tried adding this comment a day or two ago but it didn’t seem to work. Trying again…

    I have released a Mac version of iTunes Sync which can be downloaded here for those interested:

    http://www.danielbigham.ca/itunessync/mac.html

    And also, as of a couple of weeks ago I released a phone version of iTunes Sync.

  38. Nice job Daniel. I would vote for “An app to allows you to control AirPlay devices from your PlayBook.” While looking for a tablet I almost went for the IPad for this reason. However, I’ve been doing presentations for years (Marriage Therapist) and all my material is in Microsoft format – PowerPoint. Couldn’t see myself going Apple and bought PB hoping they would develop something similar. How can I keep tabs on what you’re up to in the development world? Keep up the good work.

  39. Daniel….that would be awesome. Been wondering if you had decided not to pursue.
    Thanks

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