Does Fragmentation Spell The End For Indie Developers? No, And Here’s Why

A report issued this week by Flurry offered some intriguing figures on the fragmented marketplace developers have to deal with in order to get their apps out.  Here’s just one sobering stat: in order to reach just 80 percent of the devices in Flurry’s data, developers would have to deal with 156 different devices. How about just aiming for 60 percent? You’re looking at 37 different devices for which to account for.

Flurry’s research also showed that Apple devices/platforms offer up the most active devices as compared to other manufacturers, which might mean that developers who are looking for the most “bang for their buck” will develop for the Apple iOS. While this research seems to support developers creating apps for Apple as their best bet to avoid fragmentation, another study suggests otherwise:

“Smartphone owners are expected to download about 56 billion applications this year, reports ABI Research. The lion's share of those apps will head to Android devices, with Apple, Microsoft and BlackBerry trailing Google….Of the 56 billion app downloads, approximately 32.5 billion, or 58% of them, will go to Android smartphones. Apple iPhone owners will download 18.5 billion apps, representing about 33% of the 56 billion total. That means 88 out of every 100 apps downloaded in 2013 will come from the Google Play Store or the iTunes App Store.”

Cross-platform

Smart developers know that focusing on one platform only is not a good idea; cross-platform is the way to go. Yes, that does mean building separate applications for all the different platforms out there, which can take up a lot of time and resources for maximum market exposure.  This fragmentation will only increase the demand for and use of cross-platform application development frameworks, which will certainly make life a little bit easier for developers.

Different apps are required for different platforms, operating systems, device models, different screen adaptations, aspect ratios, even different versions of the same platform. Developing apps for all these different platforms is (to say the least) a time-consuming process. Developers have to optimize apps for each device, taking the time to test everything so there aren’t problems down the road.  While it’s certainly fantastic that we have a wide variety of devices available to us as consumers, for developers, optimizing apps that will function on the majority of mobile devices on the market is becoming an increasingly more difficult task.

Focusing on the devices that are being used by the greatest amount of people seems to be a route that is destined for some success. For instance, a recent poll of information workers – those who spend at least an hour a day using a computer to complete a task – seems to indicate that tablets and tablet hybrids are the form factors developers should keep their eyes on:

“..tablet ownership is set to skyrocket in the next few years, with the percentage of adults owning a tablet or tablet hybrid device set to increase from a mere 14% in 2012 to a whopping 55% by 2017. These “anytime, anywhere” users, with their mobile-focused work habits, now comprise 29% of the total global workforce, increasing from 23% in 2011. 21% of the users surveyed were using a tablet about once a week for work purposes, and 32% of these responded positively when asked if they would prefer a Windows tablet as their next device. Overall, the preference for tablets were primarily for Microsoft Surface, with 32% of the respondents polled indicating their preference for this relatively new release. 26% favored the iPad, with 12% going straight for the Android tablet. For phones, the figures seemed to be the opposite: 33% favored the iPhone, with 22% preferring Android and only 10% choosing a Windows Phone.” – What Workers Are Using

Fragmentation a problem?

Does this fragmentation mean that indie developers  are unable to compete in an ever more competitive marketplace? That’s one way to look at it. An indie developer does have less resources to support the growing  list of device models and platforms for which to develop apps. There’s also the marketing budget to take into account, app optimization, and simple word of mouth. The idea of scaling in order to compete could potentially lead to independent developers banding together to make a bigger splash in the industry – after all, many hands make for light work.

In addition to the relative disadvantage of having less resources than the bigger studios, the challenge of simply being found in app stores is one of the biggest facing any developer, big or small.  The problem for developers is two-fold: there are literally millions of apps available, and there seems to be no good system in place for helping people to find what they are looking for in an intuitive way. Talk about fragmentation! There are simply a lot of apps out there, with more coming into the stores on a daily basis. The problem is finding the good ones, and that doesn’t necessarily mean the ones with the most downloads. While app stores are constantly evolving, there doesn’t seem to be a good structure in place for people to find anything outside of the inevitable curated top ten lists. The basic problem is this: thousands of apps are launched every week, some good, some bad, some mediocre. There is a major signal to noise problem, and in-store app discovery is at its earliest stages. How do developers get their apps to rise above the rest? Merely building an app doesn’t translate into getting people to notice your app. How do you get consumer to notice the app, and what will they do with it once they get it? How do developers start connecting with their users more, and getting their app into the hands of the people who really want to use it?

Developers that don’t have the brand recognition or deep marketing budget pockets the big studios do can still do quite a bit to compete in the app store ecosystem. Creativity, persistence, and the ability to reach underserved markets is the key. There are several different ways that developers can increase the chance that their app will be discovered in app stores, including:

  • Social media outreach
  • Website tie-in
  • Discounts, both seasonal and otherwise
  • In-app rewards
  • App store optimization

Advantages of being an indie

Now, while it’s clear that compared to the “big boys”, independent developers do have some disadvantages that they have to work through. However, I think it’s completely fair to say that indie developers also have some pretty significant advantages over their larger developer counterparts.  For example, the ability to quickly pivot and direct resources towards new technology – such as Google Glasses – is something that indie developers are uniquely poised to do.

In addition, independent developers have freedom to explore the technology that they have been dying to remake without the dreaded plethora of meetings. Independent devs can decide to improve on something, like teleconferencing software, and simply…do it. No muss, no fuss, just fast, simple, and effective decisions that have the potential to transform an entire industry.

There’s also the opportunity to take risks that larger developers aren’t necessarily always able to take advantage of:

“For a smaller studio, a unique game that fails is not necessarily going to ruin their reputation as much as it would for a larger one with an already established fan base. Obviously, this comes primarily from the fact that they don’t quite have a reputation established quite yet, but this allows the studio some wiggle room for growing, contracting, or starting over all together. Small studios almost seem to get a bit of a pass in terms of critical flops and, should the game be unique enough, these titles often get praised despite their shortcomings. Worst case scenario, they rename their studio and start from scratch, a move that flies under the radar more easily the smaller the studio is.” – HorribleNight.com, “Limits Are Advantages for Indie Developers

Independent developers also can focus on their audience in an extremely granular manner, taking word of mouth to a whole new level:

“If I know the niche market that I’m making a game for,” Schweer tells us, “I’m going to find them online, join those forums, join those groups, go to those meet-up groups, connect with my customers directly, and just start creating content for them directly, because they’re the people who are going to value it. That’s the blogging model and that’s the Etsy model, and that’s the online, start-up creative business model for everyone outside the games industry, and that works really well.” – IGN.com, “The Challenges of Being an Independent Developer

Don’t count out the independents!

As competition continues to heat up in the form factor ecosystem, there’s no doubt that manufacturers will continue to offer a wide variety of devices for a wide variety of consumers. That just makes sense. This poses a unique opportunity for developers, since all these devices will have different requirements for an optimum app experience.  Making sure apps are customized for each and every device that consumers get a hold of is necessary for a developer to be able to compete in an increasingly crowded marketplace.  Promoting apps, making sure they are optimized for search and for app stores, is something that any app developer – whether in a large studio or by themselves in a small space – has to devote significant time to in order to be found by their intended audience. Does this fragmentation signal the beginning of the end for the indie developer? Hardly, and in fact, I believe that as coding becomes more of a desired skill by employers, we’re going to see more indie coders develop their skills on the side, making apps that are more than able to compete with any in the marketplace.

 

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