Leading mobile developer: “No more free apps” – a sign of things to come?

Simon Maddox

I’ve written and tweeted about the phenomenal work that Simon Maddox has done over the years. His name will be familiar to many mobile developers given that Simon was amongst the first in the United Kingdom to get stuck into the mobile development scene. His CV, therefore, reads like a Who’s Who in mobile.

He’s very much like a one-man A-Team, though. (If you can find him, and no one else can help, maybe you can hire The Maddox). He’s phenomenally busy as you might expect. Ever so often he drops me a note to let me know about his latest and greatest projects, many of which are tied up by extensive NDAs so I can’t ever write about his involvement.

Today’s post is a Q&A with Simon around the rather challenging discussion of paid-vs-free. Simon’s comments won’t be appropriate for every developer and for every situation, but I think a lot of readers will find some value in his experience.

Here’s what happened. Over the Festive Period, Simon decided to see what would happen if he charged for his super successful iPhone app, 0870 (iTunes URL). He announced this in a series of tweets that caught my eye. What would happen? Would the 700-800 a day downloads he’s been used to get each day dry up completely? Would he get more purchases? Or less? Would this revenue exceed the average monthly advertising revenue? I kept glued to my Maddox tweets. At the end of January he declared some news — so I dropped him some questions by email and he was good enough to reply.

Let’s get started. My words are in bold.

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Simon, could you introduce yourself and give us a flavour of the kind of things you’ve been working on over the past few years?

I’ve been a freelance mobile developer, focusing primarily on iOS, for the past year and a half. I’ve had the privilege to work with some of the biggest and best clients in the world. Before that, I was the first developer at mobile book store GoSpoken.

Now, talk to us about 0870 — it was a runaway success in the context of mega-downloads and lots of money saved — tell us about the app. What does it do? What are the benefits? You released it first on iPhone?

The premise behind 0870 is fairly straightforward. Calling 08* numbers from your mobile can cost anywhere between 20p and 40p per minute. A lot of them have cheaper (as in, come out of your contract) numbers which start with 01, 02 or 03.

I submitted 0870 to the iPhone App Store before it had even launched, but it stayed “In Review” for a very long time (429 days, to be precise). In the meantime, I’d released it for Android (although it doesn’t work anymore, and I’m unable to update it), and Kieran Gutteridge had written a J2ME client. Then after lots of discussion with Apple, they approved it! Within the first 2 weeks it had over 90,000 downloads. Absolutely insane. Since then it’s had over half a million downloads, and has saved consumers an obscene amount of money (tens of millions). It’s also been in most national newspapers, and most gadget/mobile magazines.

You had some phenomenally good feedback from users. Could you give us a flavour?

Feedback from users has been both good and bad. Every week or so I’ll get an email that helps me put up with the bad ones. Something along the lines of “I’m recently unemployed, and your app has helped me save £50 which I can now put towards paying my bills”, which is amazing. On the flip side, I often get emails saying something like “This app doesn’t work. I’m calling the police and you’ll be arrested” (yes, really). I try to reply to all feedback, good and bad, and once explaining that the app isn’t magic, they’ll apologise and go on their way.

The app was famously free of charge — did you aim to monetise it with apps? How did that work out?

I’d always intended the app to be free of charge. I couldn’t see how anyone would pay for it, and by charging for it I felt I was committing to providing a level of support I couldn’t necessarily provide. So I stuck ads in there. First I went with AdMob – the money was alright, but the ads were of shocking quality. Some of them called premium rate numbers when you tapped on them, so they came out as iAds was launched. They started off slow, but the quality of advertiser is so much better (in most cases). I’m making roughly the same amount of money from iAds too.

Fast forward to your tweet where you announced you were making 0870 a paid-for app. Why did you do this? What prompted you to do so?

On New Years Day this year I was doing the daily support emails, and I realised that it was pretty pointless. Here I was swamped with client work, and I’m prioritising people who I’m not making any money off. Sure, it makes me sound a bit of a dick, but we’ve all got to make money somehow right?

So from that point on, I decided not to release any more free apps

Did you do much agonising over the switch from free to paid? Can you take us through your mindset and reasoning? I’m sure there’s a lot of developers in your position wondering if they should take the plunge.

Not much at all. As soon as I realised what I was doing, I logged into iTunes Connect and changed the price. Sod it, I thought. What’s the worst that will happen? I’ll get no downloads at all, and I’ll have the same half-million active user base. That was an easy decision to make.

What was the initial reaction to the paid-for switch?

Users still bought the app. The only complaint users have had is that, since I made the switch without updating the app, the adverts are still being displayed. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with the ads, but there’s a pretty cool update coming soon.

Now, after a month, how are things going? Do you think you made the right decision?

Sales went from between 500 and 700 a day to around 250 – and it’s stayed like that for over a month now. I don’t regret making this decision – not one bit. The money I’m earning from 0870 alone will cover my monthly outgoings (and more), so it gives me the freedom to spend more time working on my next project. Let’s hope they stay like this! 😉

How has your experience with 0870 coloured your view in terms of the free vs. paid debate?

I think I’m in a fairly unique position – a lot of developers I know release paid apps and end up with 7 sales a day after lots of work. I’ve never spent time promoting 0870 outside my circle of friends and the downloads have been incredible (usage is extremely high too, which is nice).

What message do you have for other app developers out there thinking about doing the same?

Do it. I’ve used 0870 as an experiment for a whole load of things. AdMob, iAds, 4.0-only-support, and it’s given me a great insight into how the App Store works. If you’re not prepared to try things, then you’ll never improve downloads.

Finally — what’s been your latest project? (That you can talk about!) And where can we find out more about you?

I’m not ready to publicly announce my next project yet. It’s very cool, in my opinion, and the few people I’ve showed it to are convinced it’ll do well. Watch this space 😉

0870, however, will be launching on another platform fairly soon. Another experiment…

If you want to find out more about me, follow me on Twitter: @simonmaddox

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Thanks again Simon. Very illuminating indeed!

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  • It is fascinating to see there is 50% resistance to 59p. Good enough to say that paid apps have their place. I wonder if it would be resistant to say 99p too – it would be interesting to try.

    Of course apps that need momentum need an installed base so free has a huge place still in ‘freemium’ land

  • Indeed. I wonder if Simon would ever launch a free app from scratch now?

  • Andy Croson

    What’s to stop anyone making a free version supported by ads?

  • Good question…

  • Nothing. In fact, I encourage it. My API is available at http://0870.me and you can use it however you like (mobile, web, some even use it in a PBX).

  • That is very cool indeed!

  • Andy Croson

    Thanks for replying Simon, and good on you! All the best.

  • Simon?

  • Simon?

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