Mobility

On the cusp of the next wave of mobile monetization

As the mobile market matures, money is shifting from app sales to sales through apps. That's good for developers.

Mobile shopping

As Apple nears a $1 trillion market cap, it's easy to assume the Cupertino company has won. After all, just a few months after it introduced the Swift programming language, 20% of mobile developers were using it. Such growth, according to Redmonk analyst Stephen O'Grady, is "unprecedented" and suggests an iOS dominance that iOS market share doesn't.

But according to a VisionMobile's new survey of over 8,000 developers, the platform wars between iOS and Android have ended in a stalemate. Developers are evenly split between the two, with interest shifting away from buying apps for mobile devices to buying things with mobile devices.

It has been Apple's world for the past decade, but the future...? Well, the future is open.

Game over: Who won?

For years, mobile has been the most fractious market on the planet, filled with multitudinous intellectual property lawsuits and diametrically opposed business models.

Apple, for its part, has built an exceptional developer experience — from development tools to app store deployment — with a premium pricing model for the market. Google, true to form, has responded by giving away Android and selling advertising at $6.31 per user, per year. As VisionMobile concludes, "Apple have an increasing lock on the high-end with iOS and Android dominates everywhere else."

This hasn't left much room for the also-rans.

As VisionMobile's survey data reveals (Figure A), developers have flocked to Android (40% of developers cite it as their priority platform), while iOS claims another 37%. This has left table scraps for Windows Phone (8%) and the mobile browser (7%).

Figure A

Figure A

VisionMobile's survey concerning platform wars.

Despite this apparent standoff, things aren't standing still. More developers joined the Android community in 2014 than did iOS and Amazon's respective communities combined, as Appfigures' data shows. This swelling developer population reflects the reality that while Apple makes money, Google makes markets, and those emerging markets are investing heavily in Android.

The "unprecedented" rise of Swift

Which is not to suggest that Apple is doomed. Far from it.

Indeed, while developers may be flocking to Android in emerging markets, a massive surge of mobile developers has embraced Swift (Figure B), Apple's successor to Objective-C. Just four months after Swift was introduced, 20% of mobile developers are using Swift. By comparison, it took Objective-C seven years to hit 39% developer mindshare.

That's amazing.

Figure B

Figure B

The rise of Swift.

More tellingly, according to the VisionMobile report, 23% of Swift adopters weren't even using Objective-C, "a sign that Swift may succeed in attracting a much wider range of developers to build native iOS apps."

As Redmonk's O'Grady writes,

"The growth that Swift experienced is essentially unprecedented in the history of these rankings. When we see dramatic growth from a language it typically has jumped somewhere between 5 and 10 spots, and the closer the language gets to the Top 20 or within it, the more difficult growth is to come by. And yet Swift has gone from our 68th ranked language during Q3 to number 22 this quarter, a jump of 46 spots."

Apple, then, will continue to dominate the premium segment of the mobile economy. But this isn't quite as good as it seems.

As VisionMobile highlights, while Apple continues to sell more iPhones (at higher average prices, which is amazing), such growth "is now mostly at the expense of premium Android rather than new-to-smartphone users." What this means, the report authors conclude, is that "The result is that growth in direct revenues from the app stores is slowing."

Moving beyond the app store

This is not the same as saying the app store is dying. While I've argued that the fixation on building and selling apps is not necessarily the right model for many developers, the reality is that the app store remains big business for developers, not to mention Apple and Google.

But it's not necessarily the best revenue model for developers. At least, not for those that aren't going "all in" on mobile development:

As VisionMobile highlights:

"17% of developers who are interested in making money (not including those purely doing it for fun or learning purposes) make nothing at all. A majority of these are trying and failing to earn some money with a side project, rather than doing this as their full-time occupation."

Nor are they alone. In addition to the 17% making $0.00, another 18% of developers make less than $100 per month, and 17% earn less than $1000 per month. That's a total of 52% that can't make enough to live on. But there is a better way.

No, it's not necessarily "write more iOS apps." Yes, the report shows that of those that prioritize iOS, 39% make more than $5,000 per month, while just 37% live below the app poverty line, making less than $500 per month on iOS. Android developers, meanwhile, apparently live in app squalor, with 55% earning less than $500 per month from the platform and just 19% earning more than $5,000 per month.

Even those developers that prioritize mobile web development do better than those focused on Android, with 47% living below the app poverty line and 29% making more than $5,000 per month.

As interesting as these numbers are, they just reflect where the market has been, not where it's going. While the early mobile revenue model was to peddle apps, the next wave is all mobile commerce, as VisionMobile's report makes clear (Figure C):

Figure C

Figure C

Mobile e-commerce will dominate in 2015.

Despite the size of this market, as the chart above illustrates, just 9% of developers have turned to mobile commerce. That will change. There's just too much money for it to be ignored: "Even with significant customer acquisition spending, this [mobile commerce] revenue model will generate more profit than any other model generates revenue overall."

App store sales, meanwhile, are mostly a matter of selling games, which not only requires giving up 30% to the app store owner but also costs another 30% in ad spending to acquire users (and $2.16 per app user to retain them, according to Fiksu data).

Selling goods, not apps

All of this suggests that we may be on the cusp of the next wave of mobile monetization. Sure, Apple will still make a ton of money in this new world. For one thing, iOS users have more discretionary income than Android users. Much of that $300 billion will be spent on Apple devices.

But Apple won't collect 30% of that $300 billion, because this new money isn't gated by the App Store.

Instead, Apple (and Google) has shifted to Apple Pay to try to collect this shift to buying things through mobile devices, and not merely buying apps. As the Adobe Digital Index showed, this past holiday season, 31% of online purchases came through mobile. Expect that to continue.

This new mobile commerce world will reshape the mobile market. Will platform owners Apple and Google own an outsized share of the mobile commerce market? My hunch is that we'll see far more made on their platforms than with their platforms, just as happened to Microsoft in the desktop world.

That's still good for Apple and Google, of course, but it's even better for mobile developers trying to make a living.

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About Matt Asay

Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.

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