App developers must think beyond Apple’s app store

In less than four years, an incredible 25 billion apps have been downloaded from Apple’s app store. That equates to roughly 80 apps for each of the 315 million iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch devices that the company has sold worldwide. With more than 550,000 apps available, and many free to download, it’s easy to see why the store has proven popular with consumers and developers alike.

However, other app stores are beginning to catch up. At this year’s Mobile World Congress, Google’s Andy Rubin revealed that there are now 450,000 apps available in the Google Play store (formerly known as the Android Market). That’s three times as many as there were just 12 months ago and only around 100,000 fewer than the Apple App Store.

With Android users collectively downloading upwards of one billion apps each month, and 850,000 new Android devices being activated daily, it won’t be too long before Google Play celebrates its 25 billionth download. It did after all hit 10 billion downloads at the end of last year.

Other app stores are also growing quickly. Around two billion apps have been downloaded from the BlackBerry App World in the last three years, and more than 60,000 apps are now available. Nokia Store is also gathering momentum, with some estimates suggesting that it now hosts in the region of 100,000 apps. Not forgetting the Windows Phone Marketplace which has seen its inventory swell to more than 70,000 apps, since launching in October 2010.

Yet, despite this, some publishers are continuing to create apps solely for Apple’s store. The main reason for this is that it can be pretty expensive to build a bespoke app, often £20k – £50k, and even more for sophisticated applications. To justify this spend, publishers need to know they’ll make their money back, either through paid downloads, advertising or in-app sales and subscriptions.

Until recently, Apple has been the only app store with the critical mass needed to make creating a bespoke app worthwhile. However, now that Google Play is nipping at Apple’s feet, we’re starting to see some publishers reconsider the strategy of building bespoke Apple-only apps. Additionally, services like Mippin’s template-based apps can deliver an excellent user experience with native apps for each of the major mobile device platforms, but for a fraction of the price of creating bespoke apps.

We’re also seeing some publishers question whether they need to be in an app store at all. It’s not surprising if you consider that the main app stores all take a 30 per cent share of revenue. The Financial Times is perhaps the most notable example, having withdrawn its app from Apple’s store in 2011 following a dispute over revenue sharing and the ownership of subscriber data.

Web apps can be a great way for developers to retain all revenue, however being in an app store does have its benefits. It’s easier for apps to be discovered and sold, as the payment system and search functionality already exists. With web-based apps, payment can be more complicated as the technology needed to process payments must be built into the app, perhaps through a credit card or online system such as PayPal. That said, if your app is monetised through advertising or subscriptions, rather than paid-for downloads, a web-based app can be a good alternative to being in an app store.

At the end of the day, the thing you really need to consider when creating your app is ‘what is your primary motive?’ Is it customer retention or customer acquisition? To put it simply, a business that is in the process of acquiring new customers should have native apps in the most popular app stores in order to to increase its discoverability. For businesses that are more focused on customer retention and interaction, a web app may be a better option.

Ultimately, we believe that companies looking to develop a presence on mobile need to think beyond Apple’s app store and start developing across multiple platforms to really reap the benefits of reaching target customers on their mobiles.

Nick Barnett is CEO of Mippin, the largest developer of apps in the world.