One of the great beauties of Web technology is that the barrier for entry into innovation has been significantly lowered. In the mobile world, all you really need to know to build an application are the rudiments of coding and how to work within various native frameworks, like iOS or Android. Yet, independent developers face steep challenges in not only creating dynamic applications but trying to get anybody to use them.
Going it alone is ingrained in to the spirit of American innovation. In the modern technology world, the precursors to today's independent application developers were the hackers and machinists like Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak creating the first personal computers in a garage in Cupertino. Indie developers working creating apps as a profession of passion today carry the torch.
Modern Day Indie Dev Faces Uphill Battles
Independent app developers are following in the footsteps of the great one-time indie developers like Jobs or Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google. More precisely, they are trying to make a living in their shadows. Jobs and the Apple team created the iPhone and iOS. Brin and Page bought a little company called Android. These competing pillars of mobile technology have provided an umbrella under which the ambitions of app developers can be chased.
For instance, take a look at Erik Asmussen. He is a college-educated app developer who has come to developing applications for the iPad because he was inspired by the technology. His original thought was to create a board game that could be played by two actual physical people. Think of playing Candy Land with your babysitter as a kid except instead of an actual cardboard board, the board is an iPad.
Asmussen has created a board game app called New World Colony through his project 82 Apps. It was derived from the notion of creating a great iPad version of Settlers of Catan and Risk. The first version was relatively rudimentary. The idea was good but it was pretty strictly a board game on an iPad. The turn-by-turn user interface was wonky and the graphics were atrocious.
Working Through Challenges
Asmussen acknowledges that graphics became his first major challenge and his biggest weakness early in his development was trying to find acceptable art. In later iterations of the game, Asmussen farmed out the graphics to those better suited to the task. The complaints from early users of the game were that it was, basically, a board game. The iPad does not tend to be a communal device. Players wanted a single player game with an artificial intelligence that could be turned into an online turn-by-turn two-player game.
This provided challenges for Asmussen. He had never really done anything like that before. He made the improvements and when he released the updated version (after a couple iterations), the game started getting good reviews in the App Store. It sells for $2.99.
The challenges that Asmussen faced are common ones to developers everywhere. He taught himself to code which means that everything he did with New World Colony, he was doing for the first time. It is much harder to develop from scratch than an existing framework. At the same time, the only tools he used was the application development framework provided by Apple. He was unaware of many of the tools available, like PlayHaven for analytics or Sencha, appMobi or PhoneGap for frameworks. Marketing has proved a challenge because of his limited budget and getting his game reviewed by popular game and tech blogs has only caused a minor blip in sales.
As an indie developer, Asmussen has had to learn how to do it all. From the coding to the sales and customer relations. His experience has not been that different from any other American starting their own business. He just happens to be working on an iPad.
The Gumption Filled Young Developer
Another indie developer, Jeremy Van Fleet of New Media Mixology (which has released an app called Toothpict and another one called Namerick), knows well how hard it is to cut through the clutter of the app store.
"I think getting all the parts working together is the biggest challenge. A lone developer really needs to be a jack-of-all-trades as there are such a broad range of skills under the umbrellas of designing, building, launching and promoting," Van Fleet said. "The store is a frighteningly crowded place and a great app can get lost in the ether without all those different cylinders firing."
*Note: I grew up with Van Fleet in a small town in Maine. He once pitched the ReadWriteWeb tips line about Toothpict and I found out that, randomly, he was the same guy I grew up with. I have not seen him in probably 13 years.
What Advice Would You Give Young Indie Devs?
Asmussen or Van Fleet will not be the next round of Steve Jobs and Larry Page of the world. But, they have a future and a say in how the mobile application environment evolves over the next several years.
At ReadWriteWeb, we have a terrific community of experienced developers who read us to see the news and the trends happening in all types of development. What advice can the ReadWriteWeb developer community give to indie developers like Van Fleet and Asmussen? What are the best frameworks, tools, ways to cut corners, marketing strategies, advertising options? As much as ReadWriteMobile is a resource for developers, the real resource is the community around it. Please let us know some of your favorite tricks of the trade in the comments.