Category Archives: Technology

The Sparrow Opportunity

From App Cubby

Since writing “The Sparrow Problem” I’ve felt a bit of pressure to follow it up with a grandiose piece about the future of apps. To that end, I’ve spent many hours researching, thinking, and talking to fellow app developers. Turns out, the core of what I’ve learned has been written about for years and can be summarized rather simply:

The future of sustainable app development is to give away as much value as possible and empower those who receive more value to pay more for it.

The definitive work on the subject is Chris Anderson’s “Free: The Future of a Radical Price”. Prior to publishing the book, Anderson wrote an article in Wired that is essentially a summary of the book: “Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business”.

Back in 2009 I listened to the free audiobook and thought the concepts made sense in general, but people were still making money hand over fist in the App Store with paid apps, so I mostly ignored what I had learned. I did create free, ad supported versions of several of my apps, but I didn’t spend much time exploring a true “freemium” model.

Freemium — I cringe even writing the word, but I’m more and more convinced of the viability of the principles behind it. Though freemium has gotten a bad rap from companies like Zynga preying on addictive tendencies, it’s so much more than just selling digital consumables to hapless users.

In many ways I think software is being disrupted by the web in ways similar to other industries like music, news, etc. Software has been sold, pirated, and given away on the web since the very beginning, but boxed software sales artificially propped up a dying model and the App Store — with its ease of payment — extended the shelf-life. In the age of efficient, mass market digital distribution, why is it so hard to give up the business model created when software was shipped on floppy disks? Because it was working.

I’ve argued that Apple caused the race to the bottom in App Store pricing, but now I’m starting to think that Apple just accelerated the inevitable. The App Store is by no means a free market, but it is an efficient one. Early on I was able to charge $9.99 for my app Trip Cubby, but now most people use free or cheaper alternatives, even though I dropped the price all the way to $2.99. The odd thing about paying a fixed, one-time price for software is that people who find the most value are essentially subsidized by people who pay, but don’t end up liking/needing/using the app.

There’s also the matter of value over time. As shown in this brilliant chart —created by the founder of Pocket, and inspired by the CEO of Evernote — paying a one-time, fixed price for something really only makes sense for commodities that diminish in value:

Chart created by Nate WeinerAnd that’s exactly what we’ve seen in the App Store. People have no problem paying 99¢ for a gimmick, and don’t mind risking 99¢ on an app whose value is unproven, but trying to make the boxed software model work at 99¢ a pop is a fool’s errand. Sure, gimmicks and mass market apps like Camera+ seem to prove the opposite, but they are the outliers. The vast majority of apps are financial flops even though they deliver tremendous value to their niche.

And all of this brings us back to Sparrow. Most Mac and iOS users are content with Apple’s free Mail apps, and of those who find Mail lacking, only a small percentage really care enough to spend money on an alternative. So, Sparrow was ultimately a very niche app. But as we saw in the days after Google acquired Sparrow, the niche it served found a lot of value in the app and were incredibly disappointed to see the app shelved. I’m still not sure how Sparrow could have empowered those who received more value to pay more for it, but developers who crack that nut are the ones who will still be making a living on apps in the years to come.

Many have and will continue to fail with freemium, and I don’t think freemium makes sense for every app in every situation, but it’s time to get serious about finding ways to make it work for more than just games. To that end, my Timer app is now free. Over time I’ll be experimenting with ways empower users to pay for whatever value they find in it.


Update: I tweeted a few clarifications and follow ups, but figured I should include some of the thoughts here for posterity.

It seems the word freemium has such a negative connotation that many people have completely misinterpreted the true premise of this post: “The future of sustainable app development is to give away as much value as possible and empower those who receive more value to pay more for it.”

Most online software sales have actually followed a freemium model — free trial, then pay, then pay again for major updates. Paid updates can be great way to “empower those who receive more value to pay more for it”. The App Store is what turned all this on its head, yet we keep trying to charge up front without trials or paid updates. If Apple eventually allows free trials and paid updates, I think it will be a great thing for developers, but I now wonder if there are better ways to scale price paid to value derived. With a market as efficient as the App Store, I think it might just work, and ultimately be better for both consumers and developers.



Moving closer to a release, Black Chair Games has provided a new trailer and screenshots for its upcoming platform puzzler LAD.

Featuring an eerie atmosphere with black-and-white silhouettes, the game forces players to move objects around to get to an exit point.

As the game progresses, more obstacles and ways of dying are introduced.

Throughout the app, different parts of the story will be introduced. Earning the in-game achievements will also further tell the cryptic story of LAD and exactly what it stands for. Keeping with the mysterious theme of the title, that’s all the story that the developer has been willing to release.

While taking a large dose of inspiration from the popular LIMBO game, LAD does seemingly have some interesting elements that should make it unique. Here’s the latest trailer with in-game footage. Click here if you can’t see the video.

The Food Truck Revolution: Now Armed With Point-of-Sale iPads

The food truck revolution is in full swing, with chefs on the roll, serving up everything from your basic panini to an artisanal pizza from a 20-foot shipping container equipped with a roaring wood fire.




Based on one estimate, there are three million food trucks and more than five million food carts in the U.S. A reality-TV show called “The Great Food Truck Race” depicts the drama in setting up shop, and the challenges of making a profit.

So it’s no wonder there’s now an iPad-based solution made specifically for the four-wheeled purveyors.

Revel Systems, a two-year-old San Francisco start-up, has created a point-of-sale system for food trucks and quick-service restaurants. It’s available today, to make accepting ordering and payments as simple as possible.

What’s special about this version is that it allows the trucks to accept orders and charge credit cards with little to no wiring, so kitchen crews in cramped quarters don’t accidentally stumble over or chop their lifeline to the Internet. It also enables them to continue taking orders, even when their Internet connection goes down — because that can happen when moving from one street corner to the next.

“Before, you’d have a router and cabling all around; it was one big mess,” said Revel Systems’ co-founder and CTO Chris Ciabarra. “If you want a printer and a display, where do all the cables go?”

Additionally, the software enables food truck owners to update their location, or offer specials via Twitter.

What’s different about this iPad solution from others, like Square, is that it’s focused on the enterprise customer, Ciabarra said.

As traditional brick-and-mortar restaurants like Popeye’s and In-N-Out Burger experiment with food trucks, they want a point-of-sales solutions that isn’t a one-off, but is able to support franchises, he said. ”The food truck industry is booming. All the brands are trying it out.”

Revel also allows merchants to integrate any payment solutions or rewards and gift card programs, including traditional providers like Visa, MasterCard and American Express, and also upstarts like LevelUp. The software also easily tracks what items are selling well, as well as the things that are the most profitable, so truck owners know which items on the menu to emphasize.

Revel, which was founded in September 2010, launched its first product in beta last summer, and has raised $3.7 million in capital.

The company is charging food trucks $2,000 for the package, which includes the iPad, the cash drawer, a printer, the software and the cabling. Each Internet-connected iPad also costs $30 a month. The enterprise version, which has additional features, costs $3,300, and $100 a month.

That’s a lot of tacos.

With 1M downloads, Between shows the promise of couples apps

The latest rage in social apps are private networks built for couples, the latest of which Avocado, was launched last month by ex-Googlers. But are lovers eager to commit their lives to each other through an app, even if it’s dedicated to fostering their relationship? Korean start-up VCNC is showing that some people are ready for just these kinds of services. The company’s app Between has just hit 1 million downloads since launching in private beta in November. It appears to be the first of the dedicated couple apps to hit that milestone.

The free app, available on iOS and Android, allows users to send private messages to each other, build photo albums based on shared pictures, manage anniversaries, compose special messages and leave memos for each other. Half a million users are active on a monthly basis and they are exchanging 4.6 million messages a day, uploading more 350,000 pictures a day and spending 300 minutes a month in the app.

So far, 76 percent of the apps downloads have been in Between’s home market of South Korea and another 15 percent is spread out through Asia. But the app is also growing in the U.S., where it has about 5 percent of its users and faces a lot of competition. In addition to Avocado, there’s Pair and Duet, two other apps aimed couples that have sprung up in recent months.

Jaeuk Park, the CEO of VCNC told me the there’s a growing need for this type of service for couples because many are worried about privacy on other social networks. Privacy was the most important feature cited by Between users in a survey. And he said there’s also a desire for couples to express their feelings for each other without wondering who else is watching.

“Some couples keep things quiet because they don’t want to show off. This is perfect for them because they don’t have to filter anything, it’s all private,” said Park.

Path also went down a similar road, trying to promote a more private social network. But Park said that’s still too open for many couples, who just want a safe space to communicate and build a scrap book of their memories.

As for how to monetize a private network for two, Between is looking at offering a premium version with video messaging, back-ups of pictures and animations. It’s also looking at mobile coupons and the sales of physical goods such as photo books and albums.

I’ve been trying Between out a little bit as a replacement for iMessage on the iPhone. It serves very much like a chat service but it has the added benefit of preserving all your pictures in its own feed with dates and location added. As long as I’m diligent about using it, it really begins to provide a nice service, giving me a private channel with my wife. And it has good replay value because you can go back and easily see just the images you’ve shared.

I think services like Between, Path, Avocado and others can grow because there’s still a lot of couples who could take advantage of a more dedicated communications and social tool. And this could also be lucrative as well. I imagine there are plenty of advertisers who would love to reach out to mobile savvy couples, offering them coupons on dinners for two, gifts and flowers.

CasaHop Raises $1.2 Million for Home-Swapping Service

Following in the footsteps of Airbnb and other online home rental services, CasaHop has identified a slightly different approach to the market: It wants to connect people over the Internet who are looking to swap homes with others for free.

The social travel site, which launched in beta last month, announced today that it had raised $1.2 million in seed funding.

Lerer Ventures led the round with Andre Balazs, First Round Capital, Betaworks with angels including David Tisch, Bob Pittman, Jonah Goodhart, Dave Morgan and Nicholas Negroponte also participating.

The founders of the company are Paul Berry, the former CTO of Huffington Post, and Florent Peyre, the former VP of Business Development and Strategy at Gilt City, Gilt Groupe’s local deals business.

In an interview at Lerer’s New York offices, CasaHop’s President Peyre discussed how the site is different from Airbnb and uses algorithms to connect people who are likely to be comfortable swapping homes with each other because of shared interests or backgrounds, like fans of rock climbing or French Bulldogs, or alumni of the same university.

Timer: a single-serving iPhone app for timing stuff

The guiding principle behind the Unix command line lurking underneath the GUI of every Mac you own is a collection of simple programs that co-operate to enable you to achieve complex tasks. That co-operation part is missing from iOS, due to tight app sandboxing, but the idea of simple, small apps that do one thing well is very much alive.

The latest from this school of design thought is App Cubby’s $0.99 app, Timer. It comes highly recommended — with a 4.5-star average review in iTunes and featured-by-Apple App Store spot. I almost don’t need to explain the functionality; a screenshot alone may be enough, although there are some neat, subtle touches that don’t immediately meet the eye.

Timer gives you twelve buttons, each corresponding to a distinct count-down timer. Some are pre-filled with values; some are not. Tap on a pre-set button to start the countdown timer for the appropriate time. Tap it again to pause the timer.

Timer a singleserving iPhone app for timing stuff

Tap the other buttons to enter a one-off custom time to count down to:

Timer a singleserving iPhone app for timing stuff

Tap and hold on any button to configure a pre-set in that slot, with options for colour (which you can use to visually group timers) and alert tone:

Timer a singleserving iPhone app for timing stuff


What Tools Developers Actually Use

In Infographic: What Tools Developers Actually Use (ReadWriteWeb, December 9, 2011), David Strom wrote:

The folks at interviewed 500 developers and compiled this profile of the tools that they actually use. A few stalwarts predominate, such as Git, Eclipse, AWS, Dropbox, MySQL, and Google Analytics. But there were a few surprises too, including 23% using Notepad++ as their text editor and 8% using Heroku to host their apps. Many of the categories are wide open. All of those surveyed are from companies of less than 100 people from around the world.

There seems to be little love for Microsoft development platform for small shops.