Poverty, thy name is mobile app development.

According to VisionMobile’s latest survey of over 10,000 app developers, at least half of all developers make less than $500 per app per month. Sure, there are developers who make a tidy income building mobile apps, but developers are twice as likely to make nothing at all than $10,000 per month. As ReadWrite’s Dan Rowinski writes, this has hollowed out the middle class of mobile app development. 

See also: Among Mobile App Developers, The Middle Class Has Disappeared

But there’s a way out for those looking to increase their odds of striking it rich in mobile: Think enterprise, not Candy Crush.

Eat The Rich

Living in Silicon Valley through the dot-com boom, I used to joke that I was the only person not to have made a billion dollars. I was in good company, of course, but it’s easy to forget that the perception of widespread riches doesn’t always pan out in practice.

Today mobile is driving a similar feeding frenzy of IPO and acquisition riches … but it’s similarly a bust for most.

We’re not talking about “poor” in the unthinking Western sense of “I can’t afford a steady stream of lattés throughout the day.” We’re talking about developers making nothing at all. It’s not an insignificant number: 24% of all mobile app developers make $0.00 from their apps.

Zilch. Zip. Zero.

While it’s true that 35% of the 10,000-plus app developers VisionMobile surveys are part-timers, less than half of these hobbyists make nothing, which means that there are plenty of full-time developers also earning … nothing.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, life is pretty good:

• A mere 1.6% of developers earn more than $500,000 per app per month. Some make tens of millions of dollars each month;

• The top 2% of app developers claim 54% of all app revenues. Another 9% claim the next 35% of app revenues while 88% of developers fight over the remaining 11% of all app revenues;

• Over 80% of all app store revenues are for games, making it the most likely place to strike it rich building consumer apps.

What does it take to break into the rarefied 1.6%? As VisionMobile points out, a rank-100 grossing game on iOS in the US makes about $10,000 per day. Obviously, very few developers can hope to crack the top 100.

Separating The Haves From The Have-Nots

But wait! It gets worse.

Developers that target Android devices stand to make less than their iOS counterparts. If a developer’s primary target is iOS devices, they have a 50% chance of making less than $500 per app per month, according to VisionMobile’s survey data. If the developer focuses on Android, that percentage jumps to 64%.

Not only do Android developers bleed more at the bottom, but even their success at the top isn’t as rich as that of iOS developers. As the report highlights, 6% of Android developers make over $25,000 per app per month (with an additional 10% earning $5,000 to $25,000), compared to 11% of iOS developers bringing home more than $25,000 (and another 16% getting $5,000 to $25,000).

The Consumer App Trap

It doesn’t have to be this way. No, I’m not suggesting that developers desert Android for iOS: with Android device shipments exploding and leading the way into promising markets like China, it would be foolish to ignore Android.

But it’s equally foolish to fetishize consumer apps, given how poorly they pay. Sixty-seven percent of developers target consumers, with another 11% targeting individual professionals. Just 16% of app developers are focused on enterprises, yet this is where the more certain money is.

How certain? Nothing is guaranteed, of course, but developers who target the enterprise are twice as likely to make $5,000 per app per month and 3 times as likely to earn over $25,000 per app per month. Given iOS penetration into 98% of the Fortune 500, it’s not surprising that enterprise developers are 2.5 times more likely to earn over $25,000 per app per month.

IBM jumped on this bandwagon last week, announcing with Apple a partnership to bring its enterprise expertise to iOS devices. While some will (rightly) cringe at the thought of Lotus Notes uglifying iOS, there’s real money to be made building boring enterprise apps.

Forget Friends: Build For Employers

Yes, a successful consumer app arguably yields more cachet. But chasing success in consumer apps is just as likely to lead to poverty as even the most middling of successes. Even those who do strike it rich, like Candy Crush developer King.com, finds themselves on a relentless treadmill, forced to come up with more mega-hits (and mostly failing to do so, like Zynga before it).

The enterprise, meanwhile, even for Android developers, remains a much safer bet. The enterprise doesn’t come with bragging rights, but it does tend to come with something that developers should value just as much—a paycheck.

Lead image by Flickr user Dimitry B., CC 2.0