iphone 4 displayEarlier this year, Apple released its list of top iPhone apps at the one billion download mark. Downloads just hit two billion, making Apple’s “All-Time” Top Apps label even sillier than it was at the time — but that aside, it’s a very interesting list and there are a lot of good lessons to be learned from it.

We know that developers of some top apps have earned from $350,000 (Pocket God) to $800,000 (iShoot). Some have probably earned much more. It’s difficult to estimate income even if the number of downloads is known, because app pricing bounces around a lot. Koi Pond has been downloaded about 900,000 times and Enigmo over 800,000. Even at, say, a dollar a time, that’s very good money.

How to get access to this giant cash cow? Here are some tips, based on our analysis of Apple’s twenty top paid apps:

Get in early

The iPhone 3G came out in July 2008. Almost half of the top apps had been released by August. The rest were all out by the end of 2008, except one that came out in January 2009.

Timing is everything. Of course, some of this is just a matter of physical reality — if you sell 5,000 apps a day for 100 days, that’s 500,000 sales; if you only have 5 days, you can only reach 25,000. But there’s more to it than that. There are simply so many apps now (over 50,000) that it’s very difficult to be seen. Apps that came out early, and gained traction, had a huge advantage over competitors, and that kind of advantage is often maintained long-term.

Entertain the masses

If you want to save the planet, enlighten humanity or improve people’s health, you’ll get your reward in heaven, but you won’t have a winning iPhone app. Every one of the top paid apps is a toy of some kind. Fourteen are in the Games category, 4 Entertainment and 2 Music.

Interestingly, this entertainment is generally not mindless. Most of the games are complex, requiring skill and concentration, and quite a few have many permutations or constant updates (Pocket God). Complex games include Pocket God, Fieldrunners, Texas Hold’em Poker and Monopoly. The simpler games, like the memory matching game Bejeweled 2 or the skateboard app Touchgrind, still require skill and concentration.

Only a few, like Koi Pond, require little mental effort, but even this one has many options and constant movement. Nearly all the apps have great graphics and plenty of movement.

There were only 2 entirely silly and pointless apps, namely the simulated beer app, iBeer, and the self-explanatory iFart Mobile.

There’s a surprise in every package

Ocarina, the ancient flute simulation, is a real surprise. Who would have thought an obscure musical instrument would have ranked so high? The app developers are just as interesting — a high-flying crowd of musicians and computer scientists from places like Stanford and Princeton. Could it be that there is still a place for real quality and innovation on the Internet? Happy thought.

Develop for the device

Using the accelerometer seems to increase an app’s chances of success. Most of the top paid apps are accelerometer-intensive, or use other novel or unique iPhone features.

The message here is that successful app developers take advantage of the device’s novel or unique functionality. The iPhone is mobile, it has a touchscreen, it has an accelerometer. Develop for the device! Apps that act as though they’re on a regular desktop computer are likely to be less successful.

Have the right background

It really helps to be an experienced software developer, preferably with a background in Internet games. Most of the companies and individuals who distinguished themselves have a long track record in this market. In some cases, it was just a matter of taking an existing business model and making the logical leap to iPhone apps. In others, the app was the start of the business and in some cases it could also be the end of the road.

Don’t be a one-hit wonder

Four of the top paid apps were orphans or close, with only 1 to 2 apps per developer. Far more common, though, were developers with stables of 3 to 10 apps. Only 1 developer had more than 10 apps. Successful developers leveraged existing products and apps, building on one to create others – but adapting an app to make very similar spin-offs (iBeer, iMilk, iSoda, Magic Wallet), while smart, seems a little too opportunistic. The app developers that have developed several unique, compelling games are far more likely to have multiple successes.

In fact, 3 companies (Freeverse, Pangea Software, Electronic Arts) each had 2 top-twenty apps. All 3 are big or biggish companies, implying that it takes significant resources to product a winning app.

Don’t be too hung up on price

The de facto standard iPhone app price is $0.99. This level was quickly established in the App Store as the place where most buyers seemed happy. Possibly it’s due to the standard cost of iTunes music.

In any case, most of the winning apps command better prices, with 13 of the 20 priced from $1.99 up, and 4 of them commanding the majestic (for iPhone apps) price of $4.99 on the day we did the analysis.

You don’t need Lite or Free teaser apps

Here’s a very interesting factoid. Only 2 of the top twenty apps (iHunt and iShoot) have a free or lite version, at least at the time of writing. Both developers are individuals rather than companies, and it’s interesting that the bigger outfits don’t see the need for teasers. The implication is that if it’s worth buying, people will pay for it.

The freebie iShoot Lite had 2.4 million downloads in January, and there were 320,000 paid downloads. So it’s quite possible that the free app drove sales of the paid app — but it’s also possible that there might have been more paid downloads had the free app not been available.

You don’t have to be a huge company (although it helps)

Could it be that success in iPhone apps depends on having massive, sophisticated, expensive marketing strategies? Not necessarily.

There’s no question that it helps to be Internet savvy and have deep pockets, but the winning app developers were an encouraging mix of sizes and types.

Four of the 17 developers are big multinational companies — Apple itself (Texas Hold’em), Electronic Arts (TETRIS, Monopoly), Activision (Crash Bandicoot) and SEGA (Super Monkey Ball). Then there are a bunch of mid-sized companies and, happily, also 7 small groups and 4 individuals.

iFart Mobile is an interesting story. It was developed by an Internet marketing guru who understood how to work the system and get incredible publicity by producing a pointless app that he must have known would easily generate controversy, laughter and interest.

The Internet mythology of smart guys working evenings or weekends, or out of the garage, and hitting the jackpot, lives on. The little guys in this group are John Moffett (iHunt), Ethan Nicholas (iShoot) and, so far as we can tell, Shinya Kasatani (Pocket Guitar). These guys might not be the next Steve Jobs, but they have been successful to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars, just a dollar or two at a time. Pretty impressive.

Controversy is useful, but by no means essential

iFart Mobile in particular, and to a lesser extent iBeer and iHunt, are quite controversial and almost certainly gained a lot of publicity because of this. You can almost view the controversy in the ratings — while most of the 20 top apps have a dominant rating of 5 stars, gradually dropping down, these 3 controversial apps had large numbers of ratings for both 5 stars and 1 star. So this distribution of rating might not hurt an app, and might show a developer that the app has a lot of potential to create buzz.

The other top apps did not seem designed to attract controversy and this obviously didn’t hurt them.

Five-star ratings are neither essential nor possible for top apps

You can’t please all of the people all of the time — so the more ratings there are, the lower the odds of a 5 or even 4.5 star average. None of the top apps had 5 stars and most had 3 to 4 stars. iHunt had only 2.5 stars, because a lot of people hated it.

It takes a LOT of downloads to develop a lot of ratings

Although probably millions of people collectively downloaded the 20 top apps, the highest number of ratings (Fieldrunners) was 1,479 and the lowest (Pocket God) was 226. Most users don’t provide ratings, and even fewer write reviews.

Given that people like to be part of a happy herd, it’s almost certain that savvy developers actively promote positive ratings and reviews.

The theme doesn’t have to be classic or familiar

Classics like Texas Hold’em, Monopoly and TETRIS (all developed by public companies) did feature in the 20 top apps. The other apps were sometimes familiar, sometimes not, but none of them really adapted a big-name, well-known game. Pocket Guitar, of course, used a well-loved instrument with great success. But to balance that, Ocarina catapulted an obscure ancient flute to fame.

Quality counts

There are many, many, many iPhone games with themes not dissimilar to the top games. There are dozens of guitar simulations. There are 5 other iFart apps. So just having a good idea isn’t enough.

The iFart apps are an interesting illustration. Almost uniformly, they have not developed a following, and the comments are mainly negative — not because they’re vulgar and silly, but because they’re not very well executed and users don’t like them.

Now you know some of the secrets. Happy programming!

Findanapp is a simple, searchable database of all the iPhone apps we can lay our hands on. Our site has details of over 59,690 apps, and counting.

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