Apple and Developer Satisfaction With App Store

July 15, 2021 / Ben Bajarin

536 developers for Apple’s software platforms participated in a study Creative Strategies fielded in late May. What makes our study results particularly interesting, is the makeup of our panel ended up being small business developers making less than $500,000 a year from their apps. With 55% of them making their apps for a living or aspire to make their apps for a living. And 90% make apps exclusively for iOS. We were fortunate to gather feedback from a large base of developers, who I consider as those providing the backbone for Apple’s platform differentiation. 

For the purpose of this narrative, I’m going to focus on this developer cohort because of how valuable I believe they are to Apple–both in the present and in the future. Big developers, with big brands and or big budgets, will offer their apps on all platforms. Therefore, those developers are not unique to Apple and play a limited role in Apple’s platform differentiation. On top of that, it is the continued relationship with this developer cohort that Apple needs to nurture and incentivize to innovate more than any other developer segment. 

These developers are also generally the least vocal about their frustrations. They often don’t have the largest social media presence, or way to have their voice heard. This was another reason exploring our study from the perspective of these developers was of particular interest. 

Two other things stand out about this developer community. The two biggest categories of apps this developer segment makes fall under productivity (20%) and utility (15%) categories. And, perhaps most importantly, this developer cohort is using monetization rather than advertising as the primary means of revenue generation. 52% of this cohort is using Apple’s IAP (in-app purchase) for some kind of one-time transaction and another 28% uses a subscription business model. This is significant because this cohort is actively trying to create apps and experiences their customers find valuable enough to pay for in some way. 

Are These Developers Happy with Apple?

Well, it’s complicated, and understanding what is working and where there is tension is the key to future success for the developers and Apple and increased satisfaction for consumers.. First of all, we asked developers a traditional customer satisfaction question, since Apple asks the same one in its own internal developer studies. This developer segment had a 52% satisfaction level with their App Store experience. Within this 52% of satisfied developers, 12% said they were very satisfied with the App Store, 22% saying satisfied and 18% saying somewhat satisfied. 

Within the  42% of dissatisfied developers, 18% stated they were very dissatisfied with their App Store experience. 

While the App Store itself had a fair split of developers between satisfied and dissatisfied, developers seemed overwhelmingly pleased with Apple’s developer tools themselves. Swift, UIKit, Xcode, and Testflight all received satisfaction levels higher than 60% with Swift having the highest satisfaction rating at 75%. A few more positive data points for App Store:

  • 58% of developers agreed with the statement  “Apple’s developer tools are innovative and make it easier for me to bring my app ideas to life.” 
  • 70% of developers agree that Apple’s developer tools and APIs have gotten better during the time they have been developing apps for Apple platforms. 
  • 71% of developers agreed that developing apps for iOS and macOS have gotten easier. 
  • 55% of developers agree their app/business would not exist without the iPhone.
  • 94% of developers said they are “likely” to keep developing apps for Apple’s software platforms. And of that 94%, 66% said they were “very likely” to continue.

For this developer cohort, it seems clear that there is a level of appreciation for Apple’s software platforms, and the opportunity they offer to them to make a living doing what they love. We had to look elsewhere to understand why overall satisfaction was not higher and looking through the data we found one major source of frustration and contrary to the current hot discussion topic it was not Apple’s commission. 

App Review

Prior to crafting this study, I had dozens of discussions with smaller indie developers so I could get a better understanding of their perspectives around developing apps for Apple’s platforms. Not being a developer myself, it was helpful to hear the successes and challenges firsthand. It was during this discussion I sensed the theme of their frustrations with Apple’s App Store review process. 

We asked developers if they felt inclined, to openly share some of their frustrations. I’ve curated a few of the more articulate (and less colorful) feedback. 

“updates get rejected sometimes for what seems like arbitrary reasons, and it’s difficult to work with the reviewers to resolve things”

I find app review to be inconsistent”

“Low-quality support from Apple around app rejection and resolution”

Review process is consistently complex”

Inconsistent, complex, challenges resolving issues around rejection, and frustrations around lack of clarity of some rules were the most common frustrations we uncovered in this research. 

We asked developers a series of true/false questions around the App review process, and 80% of developers checked “true” to the statement “App Review has rejected my app for trivial issues (e.g forgetting to add screenshots, submitting build with wrong version number, etc.) While I am sure to Apple the rejection was not arbitrary, the number of developers who feel they constantly face arbitrary rejection is a critique of the process itself. 

From a big picture standpoint, what became clear from my developer interviews and the quantitative research, was most developers are staying in their lane, and playing it safe to a degree because of challenges they face with App Store Review. When you make a living with your app, time is money, and the faster your app gets approved the better your chances of paying your bills and providing for your family next month. If a developer decides to take a risk, and it gets rejected for reasons they don’t understand or can’t resolve in a timely manner, then that is money lost. To emphasize this point, 60% of developers in our study agreed with the statement “I have completely abandoned an App idea because Apple may reject it.” And 71% agreed that “Apple is limiting innovation in apps because of its app store restrictions.” 

I pointed out that this segment of developers I’m focusing on is critically important to Apple’s app ecosystem differentiation. This is the group that Apple should be most focused on to inspire innovation and get them to push the envelope and create compelling, unique, and exclusive apps for Apple’s platforms. Yet, the sentiment is clear they are up against a review process that does not give them the confidence to innovate. This is something Apple needs to resolve in my opinion. 

The Future is at Stake

The main takeaway, for me, is what happens with this developer base when a new platform from Apple emerges, perhaps something like AR or visual computing. We did indeed quantify this segment of developers will remain loyal to Apple with 94% saying they are likely to keep developer apps for Apple’s platforms. But that is today. What about tomorrow? 

Something particularly interesting stood out to me when we asked developers about the tools they use to make apps on iOS. What we discovered was the most unused developer tools were the ones that are more about the future than the present. 69% do not use ARKit. 68% do not use CoreML and 62% do not use SiriKit. All three of these contain elements that hint at the future for Apple, and the fact the developers who drive Apple’s app ecosystem differentiation do not use them seems like a potential problem. These percentages can be partly explained by the fact that AR is still a nascent technology and developers might be just waiting to jump into it when the addressable market is wider. Nonetheless, this low engagement should raise some alarm bells for Apple.

While developers are more than likely to remain loyal to Apple, with regard to app development today, I wonder if this will be true in the future. What if another company offers more developers the freedom to innovate than they feel they get with Apple? Will this large and exclusive to Apple developer community entertain another platform that offers more innovation and better economics? It is at least a reasonable question to ask, and one that I only ask because of the clear frustrations that exist within Apple’s unique developer community. 

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