The Pain of Updates: Separating Content from Application

If you ever updated a large iPhone/iPad or Android app you know how painful it can be. How many times have you cursed the publisher of your product because:

  • The connection to the internet dropped or decided to slow to a crawl
  • The App icon gave the message “Waiting” and would not continue
  • The  battery in your device died or the application crashed
  • You ran out of patience waiting for the download to finish
  • The device went to sleep in the middle of the download
  • Your wife yelled at you to change the babies diapers NOW

Customers of iBird–and most likely of other large birding apps such as Audubon, Sibley and others–all have huge apps that occasionally or frequently need to be updated. And when that happens they usually look for the Tylenol before commencing.

Lumps Are Not All the Same Size

Here at Mitch Waite Group we have had our share of suffering customers who let us know they were unhappy trying to update their app. Whether the app be on the Apple or Android platform, the complaints usually fall into one of the categories in the bullets listed above. Why are there so many problems with these mobile device updates? After all when you update a program on  your PC or Mac it’s a pretty straightforward process. In fact most of the time you can walk away and come back later to see if it’s done.

The reason that apps are harder, fall into one or more of these categories:

  • Mobile devices are not normally connected directly to the Internet over Ethernet
  • Mobile devices use WiFi which is often unreliable and slow
  • Mobile devices have slow processors and not much RAM as compared to desktop or laptop PCs so everything takes longer
  • Mobile apps are not well designed for update processes

This last point, Mobile apps are not well designed for update processes, is one that large apps are particularly plagued with. Take iBird Pro – on the iPhone iBird Pro is over 500 Megabytes. That is 1/2 a Gigabyte. Its a lot of space. For example if you have a metered cell phone plan of 200 MB a month and try to download iBird over it you will eat up your entire allotment and be charged for the overages. If you have a 10GB a month plan you will eat up 5% of it with this one download.

Who Do You Love: Apple or Google?

Apple developers with large apps will tell you that they love Apple a lot more than Google (who licenses the Android OS to the carriers) for one big reason. Apple bundles the content of an app with the program itself, puts them in one file and then hosts that file on their servers. Google on the other hand limits the size of the app they will allow to be placed on there servers to 25 Megabytes. There are statements on the web from the last Bootcamp that Google increased the maximum size of an app all the way up to 4 GB. However we have not been able to confirm that. So as a developer, up to now, if your app is larger you must find a way to get around this.

Automagic Downloads: the Bird by Bird Installer

Given iBird Pro’s database is 500 MB we had to come up with a way to handle the Android app size limit. The way we did it was to unbind the database from the application. The way it works is like this: When you download an iBird app from the Market you are basically getting the main application without the database. Once the app is installed you are taken to a screen in iBird where you can download the illustration, photo and sound files (what we call binary data). You are given the option to download all of the content or just some of the content (for example all species which start with the letter A).  We also made it so you can skip doing this download process. In which case when you actually go to a species page in iBird the very first thing that happens is the binary data for that bird is downloaded automagically.

Now if Google has actually increased their app limit to 4 GB would we want to bind the database back to the app and let them host the whole thing for us like Apple does? The simple answer is no. The reason is as follows.

The Benefit of Separating Content from Application

The advantages we get as developers and pass on to our customers when we separate the database from the content are:

  • We can update the database and the user doesn’t have to reinstall the entire app to get these changes.
  • We can modify the app and the user doesn’t have to download 500 MB of data  to get these changes.
  • We can make even tiny or minor changes in the database and the customer can download them quickly and with little effort or interruption.

The negative side of separation are:

  • We as developers have to pay to host the database
  • The place we host the database has to be a fast server so customers don’t have to wait a long time for the delivery

Now that we have discovered the Content Delivery Network MaxCDN who now host our Android database we have solved both the above negatives.

Show me an Example

Here is an example of how we present the separation when the app starts. This shows the iBird Lite app starting up and the message received that a database update is waiting. The customer can skip it for now and do it later if they wish.

But Wait — There is More

As  you can see in the message for this update we added 18 new photos. A link is provided for seeing what photos we have added. You can try it now if  you like:

http://bit.ly/iBird_Lite_db

We used Google docs, specifically a spreadsheet for this list. If we had included more features we could list them here as well.

Mitch

End of the Story?

Maybe not. Stay tuned for more as we continue to advance and improve the database update process.

iBird 2 for Android Troubleshooting FAQ

Note if you you are unable to solve your issue after reading the FAQ you can start a support ticket here: Contact iBird Support

Maintaining Zen-like Calmness
Before you dive into this FAQ I want to give you a word of caution and congratulations. As an Android owner you are a very brave soul. I say this not tongue-in-cheek but in all total seriousness.  As publishers, the Mitch Waite Group has been developing mobile software since the first Window’s platform was launched over seven years ago. We have since dealt with every major mobile platform including Apple iPhone, RIM Blackberry, and now Android for smartphones, tablets and television. It is our unanimous conclusion that there is no more complex, perplexing, hair-pulling, powerful, or obtuse operating system on today’s market then the Android OS. This is not a criticism, because along with this complexity comes incredible power. But we want to warn that as you venture into these frequently asked questions and answers keep in mind that as one of the chosen few you need to maintain a Zen-like state of calmness and patience, lest you find yourself cursing at Google and hurling your phone or tablet into the wall. In many ways Android reminds me of the early days of the personal computer, when people using them were considered pioneers and hobbyists and had to exercise great patience to keep their computers working.  We suggest you find yourself a user group or online community of people that own the same device as you and turn to them for support when the going gets tough. We will do our best to be sensitive to how difficult getting some apps to run on the Android is, but we are not psychologists or priests so please try and exercise some patience with us too.

Review Our Pre-update FAQ
There is a FAQ we developed for the first version of iBird 1 for Android which can be found here:  http://bit.ly/ibird_android_faq While this FAQ is in the process of being updated it may provide information which will help you with you new update to iBird. It contains many more questions and answer then you will find here.

This FAQ, which is being presented as blog post, is the start of a second FAQ specifically for the new iBird 2 for Android. Its purpose is to you install iBird on your tablet or smartphone as well as to help you solve problems other problems you may encounter. It starts with the most common problems people have told us they are dealing with. If you can’t find your answer here please write to us as the email form at Contact iBird Support.

PROBLEM
I get a message “iBird cannot function without an SD Card” and I can’t install the app
.
If you get this message and you know your SD Card is installed and has room on it for the iBird database or your device doesn’t use an SD Card it usually means there is a connectivity problem accessing the internet.

SOLUTION

  1. Open the browser on your device and make sure you can connect to the Internet, for example type http://www.google.com and make sure the page comes up and the links on it work.
  2. If you can’t connect to Google try turning your WIFI off and on again (Settings->Wireless and Networks->WiFi ) Uncheck and then recheck the box. Make sure it says Connected to [your wifi network name]. Then try again to connect to Google with your browser. Until you can connect to the Internet with a fast WiFi you will not be able to install iBird.
  3. Once you can connect to Google try installing iBird again.

PROBLEM
I’ve reinstalled the new iBird update but I’m still having some problems with the program and I need your help. Every time I use the sync function, even if for only 1 bird, the program begins to sync, but gets caught in a loop and tries to sync the same images over and over again, never completing the task.

SOLUTION
This is usually because there is a bad database file in the iBird database folder left over from the previous install. The best solution to fix this is to delete the iBird database folder which is found on your SD Card, or storage memory if you dont have an SD Card. To delete this folder you are going to need to use a third party file manager program. You can get many from the Google Market. My favorite is the free Astro File Manager. Once it is installed Force Close iBird from the Applications settings. Then open the File Manager and locate the database folder for your particular version of iBird. Here are the names.

App            Folder Name
iBird Pro     iBird_Pro_Android
iBird Lite    iBird_Lite_Android
iBird Yard   iBird_Yard_Android

Once you found the folder hold your finger down on it and a menu will appear. Select Edit. Then select Delete. There will be a delay as the File Manager computes the size of the folder’s contents, so be patient. Pro takes the longest. Tap Yes when you are asked if you wish to delete the folder.

Now return to your iBird app and make sure it is NOT running in memory by doing a Force Close. Then make sure you have a good internet connection by connecting to google.com. Now start iBird and it will detect that there is no database and give a message that it is downloading a new one. This is stage one of the process where iBird downloads the sqlite database called WingedExplorer.db and and sets up the folders for the image and sound files. Next you will get the Registration screen. Tap Later, Register or Never and you should finally see the full set of icons for your app and be able to scroll though them. Now you are ready to sync so go to the More page and select Synchronize so that iBird can download the image and sound files. These files are on a high speed server called a CDN so they should go very fast. If they dont it could be your Internet is slow or your device is old and has a slow radio.

If all is well you will see the progress dialog box and the two bars will show the download activity. If you are still having trouble please contact us at: Contact iBird Support

PROBLEM
Why is iBird taking FOREVER to download the database of bird images and sounds?
This is one of the biggest issues with Android devices. In working with dozens of devices over the years we have discovered that they are prone to many more connectivity issues than other mobile platforms. Loss of the WIFI connection is one of the most frequent issues as well as very slow WIFI bandwidth. While our iBird database is on a very fast server if  the WIFI radio in your smartphone is a poor one, the download will go very slow. The newer phones and tablets have much less of a problem with connectivity. So if you find that syncing is taking a long time, here are some places to look at.

SOLUTION

  1. Don’t use your cellular network for downloading iBird’s database. It’s way too big and the cellular network is slow.
  2. Check the speed of your WIFI from  your device. Download the free speedtest.net mobile app and use it to measure your WIFI bandwidth. The download speed should be above 1000 kbps (1 mbps) to get good download speed.
  3. Reboot your router. Do this when you find your can’t connect or your download speed is really slow, or the number of bars on  your WIFI icon are 1 to 2 instead of a strong 4 to 5.
  4. In your settings, under “sound and display” set your screen timeout for as long as the device will allow.
  5. Please note that android devices will often drop the WiFi signal during downloads so you need to keep an eye on that and reconnect if it is dropped.

PROBLEM
When I try to update update iBird I get a message “Sorry, there’s not enough space to install this item”. My phone says it has 228MB of App Storage, 1.38GB of Internal Storage, and 2.87GB on the SD. That should be enough so what the heck is going on here?
iBird’s requirements for memory are a bit more complicated than a typical Android app because there are TWO areas of memory that are required.

  1. The app itself, which is what you download from the Android Market, is typically–but not always–stored in what is referred to as phone memory, app memory, or other names.
  2. The database, which is very large (550 MB for Pro) is always stored in what is referred to as storage memory or SD memory.

Here is what you need to do to get iBird to fit on your phone or tablet.

SOLUTION

App or program memory is a type of fast RAM (random access memory) which is very fast and small in size. Because it is so fast it is devoted the running your programs. It can vary in capacity from as small as 64MB (in older devices) to as much as 512MB (in newer devices and tablets). Most but not all Android apps share App memory so if you have many apps it is not unusual that they won’t all fit. If this memory is full when you try to install iBird you may receive the message “Sorry, there’s not enough space to install this item” it means most likely that there was not enough room in program memory to store the iBird app. There are two solutions to this problem, explained next.

The message “Sorry, there’s not enough space to install this item” refers to the iBird app itself NOT the large database.

If you receive the message “Sorry, there’s not enough space to install this item” your first solution is to see if you can move the application from program (app) memory to storage memory or your SD Card. By default iBird always tries to install the app to SD Card or storage memory, however the final arbitrator of where iBird is installed is up to your actual device, not us as developers. Yes I know there are other apps that always install to SD Card memory but again it is not totally under our control. There are things about the way each app works that controls if it can be run from storage memory. In some cases storage memory is too slow. The point is we as developers can only suggest to the OS where to put iBird.

To see if you can override where the iBird app is stored go to the Settings->Applications->Manage Applications menu and tap the iBird application in the list of apps. You should find a button called Move to Storage Memory. If this button is enabled tap it to move the app to storage memory. If the button is disabled (grayed out) it means that iBird on your device can’t be moved to storage memory.

As developers we can only suggest to Android where to install your app, but the final decision is up to the device itself.

If the problem is that you do not have enough room in app memory for iBird and you are unable to move it to storage memory the only solution is to remove one of the your other apps to make room for it. You can go to the Settings->Applications->Manage Applications menu and sort if by Size to see which of your apps is taking the most room. Then uninstall that app and try to install iBird again.

I had this problem with my older Motorola Droid. I had to remove the Audubon app before I could get iBird to fit. In both the case of iBird and Audubon the app would not install in SD Card memory.


Missing Steve Job’s Magic Touch

As a super fan of Steve Jobs since we met back in the seventies, I and millions of other Apple lovers have dreaded the day we see his magic touch removed from the product line.  Are signs of that touch missing in the new Lion OS?

After buying a new BTO (build to order) high-end iMac and using it for a few weeks it felt like those signs were appearing. I sincerely hope I am wrong and that interface decisions made on the Lion OS are based on a deeper understanding of Apple’s’ future then I can foresee. Or that Apple wanted to get the OS out the door and into the hands of users before making any more changes.

I understand that the Macintosh product line is undergoing a iOS-fication, meaning Apple is trying to bring more features of the iPhone/iPad to the laptop line. And I think this idea has a lot of merit. The use of gestures seems like a great idea if you have a trackpad, the Mac store is something long overdue with all computer, and the sand-boxing of applications so they can’t crash the system if they crash is great. But there are some other things found in the iPhone/iPad that I (and others I bet) do not think should ever be part of the Mac OS. So either Steve thinks we are wrong or Apple made some decisions without him. Read on and let me know what you think.

The Death of the Scroll

What happened to the scroll bars? Embedded in many books about Steve is his incredible attention to detail on things that may seem irrelevant to most people. And nothing to me is more impressive than the fact he has been said to have spent over 3 months redesigning the Macintosh scroll bars when he returned to Apple. The story goes that the every day the programmer responsible for the scroll bars presented 3 to 5 graphic screen shots of the designs. Steve would look them over, then explain which things he liked and disliked and send the guy back to the drawing board. This went on an on and literally hundreds of versions where tried. He wanted the scrolling to be incredibly easy but the same time he wanted the graphics of the scroll bar to let the user know a lot of information about the contents of the window itself.  Meaning you could look at the scroll bar and tell if there was more contents below or too the right of the window (since you are only looking at a window into a much larger area of information). He also wanted to set the Mac OS apart from the staid elements used in Microsoft Windows. One major innovation was to put the up and down arrows together at the bottom on the bar, rather one at the top and one at the bottom as done in Windows. This allowed you to make micro adjustments to the window up and down without needing to move the cursor from the top to the bottom of the bar which was a real time saver.

Well in the new Lion all that wonderful effort is gone. In fact unless you go into the Mac settings and change things there are NO SCROLL BARS! Yes that is the story my friend. For some reasons I dont understand they turned the scroll bars off. You only see them when you move the cursor into the window. Then if there is more content below the right scroll appears or if there is more to the the right the bottom one shows up.

Scroll Bars are Not Easy to See or Move

Look at Figure 1 (Snow Leopard vs Lion Scroll bars) and one thing that jumps right out is how much harder it is now to see the Lion scroll bars. They are thin shadows of their former Leopard past, skinny little bars with an insignificant dull gray thumb (thats what you call the thing you grab with your mouse or finger to move the contents) and NO UP/DOWN ARROWS. I’ve circled the arrows in case  you forgot what they are; which is easy to do since we have grown so accustom to using them. Why Apple or Steve decided to remove the bars clearly is because of the desire to bring an iPhonesque nature to the Mac. But give me a break I dont want my Mac to work like a phone Apple. I want it to work like a computer. Here is my question to Apple:

Have you asked your Macbook owners if they want their Mac to work like their phone?

I’m guessing not because Apple does not believe in focus groups. Which I don’t either but there are a few things I would consult a group of users about if I thought it was going to have a huge getting used to event. Which these scroll bars are. Ok that is my first reason why I think Steve was not involved in this decision. I just know as the supreme super user he would not agree its a good idea. Maybe he would have made a setting that let you turn on iPhoney scroll bars?

Turning Windows Upside Down

This is the other surprise you’re in store for. If you use a trackpad mouse or a trackpad windows no longer scroll like they did before, they are turned upside down. Which is how the iPhone and iPad work because you use your finger to “drag the content” down or up. But that is not the way you’ve or I learned to control content on a computer screen. Its backwards. So Apple did inject some choice here, you can go to the System Settings and reverse the way the windows scroll. This only works on the track pad mouse or the larger trackpad. Mouse wheels still work like they did in the past. Roll up the mouse wheel to move the window up and roll down to move the scroll bar down. Please Apple don’t change this.

This is just a few of the things that will surprise you about Lion. To me they show a lack of attention to the tiny details the Mac has been all about. Or maybe I am missing something?

Mitch

Please let me know how you feel about the scroll bars in this poll

Update Tue 20 Septemeber 2011

I have some great news. We have the problem with the CDN and the bad images solved. Turns out that the GoGrid CDN (which is really edgecast resold) has some kind of caching system that was sending back incomplete image files. My developer tried to fix it with some tricks but in the end the solution was to simply switch to another CDN, Maxcnd (www.maxcdn.com). Not only is Maxcdn much less expensive than GoGrid it turns out to be 300% faster! Instead of taking 90 minutes to sync Pro it takes 30 minutes.

I am going to submit Lite to the Google Market today and if that goes well I will submit the other two apps (Pro and Yard Plus). I hope this solves the bulk of the Android issues but like anything in life, there are no guarantees.

The Price of Success – An Android Apology & Solution

Note: The iBird Android apps are now working and in the Google Market. If you have a support issue please go to this page and fill out our support form. Contact iBird Support If for some reason you can’t use that form you can try support at ibird dot com.

You’ve heard the stories.

  • The Brittany Spears concert sells out in 10 minutes and the ticket master web site crashes.
  • President Obama implores the American people to let “your Member of Congress” know they want  a “balanced approach to the budget” and at least nine Web sites for House and Senate leaders go down.
  • Target’s web site comes crashing down as Missoni-loving fashion devotees scramble to buy the high-end Italian designer’s clothes for a song.

While this drives us crazy there is one positive side effect; someone did something right to cause all the attention.

I Want My iBird NOW!

Those of you who tried to upgrade the iBird Pro for Android in the Google Market on Wednesday felt the pain as the database took a ridiculously long time to synchronize.

I’m writing here today to apologize for this unintentional faux pas and to let you know we are doing all we can to fix the issue and explain what caused it.

The reason for this, to cut to the chase, was the was much higher demand than our server could keep up with. Why? Well this particular update to iBird made it compatible with a large number of Android tablets launched in the last year. Up till now the app only worked well on smartphones with small screens.  This version also contained brand new high res 720p illustrations and photos. These made the database about twice as large as the previous version. So unbeknownst to us the number of customers who had new tablets and wanted to update was huge so within a few hours of the apps appearing in the Google Market our web server slowed to a crawl. Updates of the database, which normally take no more than 5 minutes to an hour and a half were taking several hours.

At first we thought something was wrong with the program. Which was a shock because we’ve spent the last 8 months testing this app over and over until we were sure everything was working great.Whats that saying about an ounce of prevention?

Not.

Unpublish iBird from the Google Market

The only thing we could do at this point was to plug the dike meaning put a stop to the number of people getting caught in this mess. So we unpublished the Pro and Lite apps. We didn’t remove Yard since we had not updated it but its not designed yet for tablets.

No Excuses

Which just goes to show you why software is such a tough business and so many companies find themselves stuck in this situation. Now I know there are those of you out there that feel there is no excuse for this kind of problem and all I can say to you is the world is not perfect and neither are we. We just didn’t anticipate that so many people would want to download iBird at the same time. After all this is not an app that people can’t live without. Or maybe it is? Some of the emails we got: “When are you going to get things fixed so I can update my iBird? This is horrible–I am about to go on a birding tour and I had planned on showing everyone how good I am at identification. Now what am I gong to do? My reputation will be ruined.”

Hence the double-sided coin of pain and pleasure alluded to in the beginning of the story: people love our app more than we ever imagined. Which feels great. But at the same time people have become so dependent on iBird that there’s this huge pressure to keep it running perfectly all the time.

The Android Arms Race

While we are addressing disappointment let me get this out of the way.

iBird is not going to work perfectly on all tablets.

Yep you heard that right.

Why?

A myriad of reasons. For one with the introduction of the tablet the app has become much more complicated.  In this current 2.0 update we have made it so iBird “adapts” to different screens resolutions.  That might not sound like much much but it’s a really tough thing to get right. You see the so-called Android “standard” is actually a patchwork quilt of different versions. In fact Google has revised Android at least five times in the last three years.  And they have created 3 different Android OS’s, one for smartphones, one for tablets and one for televisions (what you have not heard of Google TV?).

Each time Google revises the OS it means that things that once worked fine may now break. As far as Google is concerned it’s the responsibility of  developers to keep up with these OS changes.

On top of these changes in the OS we have carriers trying to differentiate their devices from other companies.  They accomplish this by making changes to the hardware and the software itself. These changes make each Android device work different than others. There is literally an “arms race” among carriers as they try to make their device better than the other guys. Caught in the middle are developers, like ourselves, who have to make sure their apps can still work on all these devices. Let me tell you its a huge mess. Indeed there is a company called Device Anywhere which has a web site that emulates all the different Android devices on the market. Developers can rent time on their site to test their apps, but trust me it’s not cheap (hundreds of dollars an hour) and it’s so in demand you have to make an appointment to test your app. Nice business to be in but the point is the poor developer is caught up in this ever changing landscape of hardware alternations.

I know some iPhone developers who actually refuse to port to their apps to Android because they can’t justify the amount of work required to keep the app up to date.

With iBird we have tested it on at least 50 different devices. We know there are some Android devices which iBird will not work on. But since Google gives you 15 minutes from the time you make a purchase to the time you can get a refund we recommend you take this time to download the smaller iBird Lite and see if it will work on your device. If it wont then please cancel your order and get  refund. Otherwise you have to wait while we try to figure out why iBird won’t run on your Optimus Trend Setter Tablet.

The Solution – CDN

So we have a solution to the server overload issue and it’s called a Content Delivery System. Essentially this is a service provided by different companies such as Akamai, Edgecast, Rack Space, GoDaddy GoGrid and others that hosts media and lets it be downloaded and streamed with high bandwidth. CDNs are typically used for steaming videos and music as well as for downloading software. They do not require that you buy any hardware or even set up any software, rather then give you an account and a browser based dashboard where you upload your content for storage. You get a URL that goes into your application, or a player you can install that is able to download the data from where its stored by the CDN,

How Long will iBird Syncing take with CDN?

The time to sync iBird on the CDN network depends not only on the speed of the CDN network but also your WIFI and your ISP which your WIFI connects to. Its a chain. It starts with the CDN but then goes through these other pipes until it gets to your Android device.

Here are the results I got testing last night using the GoGrid (re-purposed EdgeCast) CDN. This is on a Samsung Galaxy Tab 10 which is a very fast tablet.

Product Download Sync Time Size Birds/Min
iBird Lite 30 35 sec 5 min 30 MB 6
iBird Pro 924 5 min 90 min 550 MB 10

Now your own mileage may vary. Note that iBird Lite with only 30 birds downloaded them all in 5 minutes, meaning about 6 per minute while iBird Pro with 924 birds downloaded them all in 90 minutes meaning about 10 per minute. Why? Because with so many more birds iBird Pro has more time to take advantage of the bandwidth and therefore represents a more realistic average.

The bytes downloaded per minute is around 6 MB (550 MB / 90 min = 6.111 MB / min) or about 100K per second. This is pretty fast by most internet standards. But again it is going over WIFI and that puts a pretty good bottleneck in the speed.

Here are the results I got testing the Maxcdn CDN today. This is on a Samsung Galaxy Tab 10 which is a very fast tablet. This is the CDN we finally settled on.

Product Download Sync Time Size Birds/Min
iBird Lite 30 22 sec 1-1/2 min 30 MB 20
iBird Pro 924 2-1/2 min 27 min 550 MB 34 !!

Note the time to sync Pro went from 90 minutes on GoGrid to 27 minutes on Maxcdn.  So the birds downloaded per minute went from 10 to 30. That’s 300% faster!

The bottom line here is the CDN will vastly improve the download time of iBird. We can’t promise you will get the kind of speed we did but hopefully it will be way better than the hours it was taking last week.

Thank you for your patience.

Mitch Waite

Note if you have a support issue please go to this page and fill out our support form. Contact iBird Support

Birding Apps – Part 4. iBird Pro and Whales

It’s not uncommon in the video game business for 1% of the customers spend the most amount of money and support your costs of the remaining 99%. The popular gaming company Zynga (Mafia Wars, Farmville) sells its games mostly though Facebook. People that have worked there reported the fact that a large group of their customers spend $500 a year buying food for their virtual cows, horses and bodyguard weapons. One customer spent $75,000 in a year. They call these customers the “whales”. I am not fond of that label but it does tell the story. We wondered if we had whales (or maybe large geese) that wouldn’t mind spending higher amounts on these apps provided they offered additional value.

In 2010 we had just finished adding a large number of search attributes to the iBird search engine (27). The standard at the time for iBird Plus was 15 attributes. Another argument started at MWG about putting all these features into iBird Plus or creating a new app called iBird Pro and selling it for $29.99. Again I followed my gut. Now we had 9 versions of iBird for the iPhone. Think that is enough? A few months later all hell broke out.

Burned Birders

iBird Pro became our best selling app and totally showed us that people would pay for quality and features that were useful. Unfortunately because app buyers get upgrades for free they have developed an attitude of entitlement. We heard from many Plus buyers in email and our forum who felt that the features of iBird Pro should have been offered to iBird Plus owners as a free update. Some really angry people came out of the woodwork, some even threatened to start a class action suit, claiming we were milking our loyal customers, had no scruples, yada yada.

We felt that these criticisms were unfair. But we still wanted to keep our customers happy. So we came up with a compromise; we created an in-app purchase for iBird Plus that for $10 added all the features of iBird Pro and this made our customers very happy.

No Rest for the Wicked–Then Came iPad

Just when you think you have finally got yourself a good solid product line and can take a rest, think again. You see this business is called software for a reason — soft means it can change and change is what apps are all about. In the beginning of 2010 Apple released the fabulous iPad, the first table computer to really catch the fancy of the public. We knew there was an opportunity for iBird and so we worked furiously with our developer to create a version of iBird that took advantage of all the cool features of the iPad. Its larger screen size meant we could have a much more advanced interface, and its faster processor meant we could ask more out of the program. Being optimized for the iPad meant we could have three columns in the landscape mode, which gave the search engine much more power. You can see the results of a search attribute immediately with no need to go back to another screen like you do on the iPhone. We used higher resolution illustrations and photos in the iPad apps and so we gave them the nomenclature HD for High Definition to help people tell them apart from the iPhone apps. Wanting to give more choices to our customers we created three versions: iBird Lite HD, iBird Yard Plus HD and iBird PRO HD. So now we had 12 versions of iBird, 9 for the iPhone and 3 for the iPad. Even we had trouble keeping them straight in our heads.

Tune in tomorrow to hear about iBird UK.

Birding Apps – Part 3. But You Only Sell Electrons

Birding Apps – Part 3. But You Only Sell Electrons
In our last installment about pricing an iPhone app, we had put together regional versions of iBird at $9.99, considerably less than our $19.99 app, as a way to help people with tight budgets. Apparently that was still not low enough.

I wont’ say that birders are tightwads, that would be harsh, but I will say they are very cautious about spending. Someone in our group had what seemed a brilliant idea at the time: why not create an app devoted just to birds found in the backyard at bird feeders and cut the cost in half again. This led to iBird Backyard with 80 popular backyard birds for $4.99. By now there were a lot of small birding apps in the app store priced at 99 cents. Many were free and in general they did not have all the features of iBird and were nearly devoid of depth of content (It was starting to feel like we were in the boutique coffee business; selling a mocha coconut frappuccino in a market that was use to buying a tall cup of joe.) To make the backyard bird product more attractive we added an additional number of popular birds taking it to 234 species and lowering the price to $2.99. We changed the name to iBird Backyard Plus and finally hit the sweet spot – sales picked up to the point it became one of our best selling apps.

The Real Cost of Apps – Starting with Apple
Let me toss some cold facts on you about the profit of Smartphone apps. There are lots and lots of people who have their fingers in the pie. First you have Apple taking out 30% of every sale. Now I am not complaining when you consider what Apple does for their third: they host the app on their servers and always provide a wide bandwidth on the net for you customers to download it. (For Android Google doesn’t let you have apps larger than a megabyte and iBird is almost 500 megabytes so we have to host our database on our own server). Apple also interfaces with the customer and there credit card collection, cutting down on a ton of support and collection issues. And Apple provides a great market place for your app in the App store, meaning that you don’t have to worry about people finding your app. If they know how to type “birding” into the search box your app will appear.

The Hidden Cost of Development
Most of our customers have no idea what it costs to develop an app. First you have to get the content together. That means artists to paint the illustrations, writers to create the text, editors to review the writing, testers to make sure the text is correct. Art is expensive and will be the subject of an entire other blog but for now just keep this in mind: feathers are one of the most difficult objects in the world to paint realistically. Very few people are good at it so that narrows the number of painters down to a small group.

Then there is programming of the app. You have a lot of people calling themselves iPhone developers today but let me tell you a secret. Very few of them can write good code. I lucked out and found myself a very good developer early in the game. But I also gave him a big advantage which was we had a complete working version of iBird running on Windows Mobile platform. So he could see how we did things and at least had a clear specification of how iBird should work. We also gave him another advantage; the entire content for iBird lived in a time test SQL database on the web called Whatbird.com. Therefore all he had to do was write code to take the contents of the database and display it on the screen. Not a trivial job but at least one that was manageable.

Next we have to pay the people that test the app, plus the people that manage the entire process of content creation, and then there is the need for accountants, and attorneys for the contracts. Perhaps now you get the idea; app development is very expensive. I wont give you our profit margins but I can tell you this much, its not anywhere as lucrative as I had expected.

But You Only Sell Electrons
I’ve heard this argument a lot. In fact recently an attorney told me “you are not publishing anything material like a book or a CD ROM so your cost of goods is zero, therefore your profit margins should be huge.” My answer was “in your dreams.” The truth is all the costs of development for something like a book are put into the hands of a single person; the author. Sure you have editors and production people but they are only responsible for managing words created by a single creative writer. Software on the other hand is a complex synergistic hyper managed process with all the costs I have listed and this makes the it 10 times more complex and more expensive.

Licensing and Royalty Costs
Additional costs come into play for things like bird calls which in our case we license from the Macaulay’s Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University. Other licensing costs can be in the photography, illustrations, and other areas of content. You may also have to pay royalty to programmers and artists, depending on how you negotiate your payment process.

Marketing Costs
If you want to make sure people know about your app you can’t just rely on word of mouth. You need to attend shows like MacWorld, which are very expensive. We have been to Macworld in San Francisco two times and we will be there again in 2012. Magazine ads, Internet advertising, brochures, and other materials all cost money to develop and print.

One More Critical Element
So now that you know a little about the expenses in producing an app. And for this entire formula to work you need one more major ingredient to avoid bankruptcy: success. Success in apps is getting tougher every day. When we started at the end of 2008 there were 5,000 apps. Today there are close to 450,000 apps on the iPhone and thousands of new apps everyday!

A few months after iBird Backyard was out and we understood all the costs I have described above, we realized there needed to be a way to get people to discover our apps without spending the money to buy them. Sounds like the impossible dream but there is a way. We called it iBird Lite. We gave it all the features of iBird Plus but just 30 birds, which was enough to get the idea across and help people make a buying decision. As soon as we published our Lite edition it’s downloads were huge. We saw an immediate jump in overall sales. After welcoming iBird Backyard and iBird Lite to the family we had 8 versions of iBird for the iPhone. Time to stop?

Tune in tomorrow for our next installment: iBird Pro and Whales.

Birding Apps – Part 2. How to Price an App

There were a lot of theories flying around the Mitch Waite Group about why Winged Explorer (WE) failed. Most of us thought the $99 price was too high. Others felt the Windows platform for mobile phones was at the end of its life. After seeing the iPhone it was hard to disagree that the future of Windows Mobile, with its poke with a style interface, was over. But I honestly wasn’t sure what to do about pricing. Clearly people liked the idea of a bird field guide they could carry on their phone, were sick of carrying large books around with them and loved the idea of playing bird songs in the field. Still I was exhausted from the 18 months we had spent working on WE and wanted to throw the towel in. But there were the emails. Dozens of them all saying the same thing: “Love the WE demo but do you have it for the iPhone?” Someone once said the wise businessman goes were the market leads him, and these emails seemed evidence we had the right product on the wrong platform. So I found a good iPhone app developer in September and by December of 2008 and we had the app ready to go into the iPhone app store.

But how to price it? Prevailing wisdom around the water cooler was 99 cents because that was what most apps cost on the iPhone. My thoughts were there were not enough birders with iPhones to make any profit at that sales price. And when you think about it iBird had the equivalent of 14 field guides, which if they were books would be valued around $280 ($20 per book). With birders used to spending $15 to $40 on bird guides I went with $19.99 for the price of iBird Plus. People around the office thought I was nuts.

Flying Below the Radar
For the first few months iBird sold modestly, better than Winged Explorer, but nothing to brag about. Somehow the word needed to get out that you could use your phone as a field guide or we would fly forever below the radar.

Hitting the Proverbial Bulls Eye
Around March of 2009 Apple released a series of television commercials for the iPhone that showed off the various apps. One of them was called “Itchy“. It showed 5 seconds of iBird Plus playing the song of a Red-faced Warbler and a finger taping its icon. Within a few days the sales of iBird went through the roof. The 5 star reviews people left in the store made it very clear $19.99 was a bargain. I finally had a winner. Or so I thought.

Prices are Elastic
There were some however who felt $19.99 was too expensive. They told us in emails they did not travel much and wondered if we could sell a version of iBird that just had the birds in their state at a lower the price? Managing 50 apps, one for each of the states, would have been a nightmare. The answer was five regional versions of iBird: North, South, West, Midwest and Canada for $9.99 each. Once these came out their sales was not as high as Plus but the profit totally justified the effort. So now we had 6 versions of iBird for the iPhone. Was that enough?

 Tune in tomorrow to learn when its time to stop.

Shazam for Birding – When is it coming to iBird?

We got this review for iBird North in the app store today:

Wonderful (v4.0)
5 stars on Jul 12, 2011
I have been using this app for for over two years now and couldn’t be happier! My friends are so impressed how I can ID so many birds just by their calls! My recognition ability has improved ten fold! One suggestion though that would improve this app to the point of astonishment would be audio recognition. Simply point the phone in the direction of a call and the app would ID the bird based on the call (just like “sound hound”). That would be amazing! Thanks for everything!!
Peace…

Even with all the exclamation points its an awesome review. But the part about audio recognition got me to wondering how many other birders would like such a feature? And do you think it would be hard to program into an iPhone?

Birding Apps – Part 1. Too Many Choices?

I’m often asked what is the best birding app to get? The question was easy to answer in 2008 when there was just one app for the iPhone. Today typing “bird apps” into the Google search box will get over 41,000,000 hits. Typing “bird” into the Apple App Store and you’ll get hundreds of results. Does the world really need so many apps for birding? Are there that many birders and do they really care?

The answer to both questions is yes. Recent figures put the size of the birding industry at over $68 billion. This includes travel, optics, camping equipment, books and yes, birding apps. The number of people interested enough in birds to call it a hobby is in the millions.

With so much money being spent would you think the price of an app matters to birders? Let me tell you about the background of our app and how arriving at its price was such a challenge. This little history should be of interest to not just birders but any company that develops apps for smart phones or tablets.

Are 5,000 Apps Too Many?

When we launched iBird in December of 2008 the iPhone had only opened the gates to app developers for 6 months. In that short time there was rumored to be around 5,000 apps in the Apple app store. The majority of these were either free or sold for 99 cents. I was coming off a depressing experience of having launched our first birding app, Winged Explorer (WE) for the Windows Mobile platform, the dominant player in 2008, at $99. It launched in July of 2008 and a month later its sales were dismal. I was ready to give up.

 Tune in tomorrow to learn how to price an app.

Hello iBirders!

I’m happy to welcome you to our new iBird Blog.  The idea for this blog came out of my frustration. Let me explain. First in case you’ve been sleeping under a rock (some birders I know actually sleep in what I bet you would agree is a cave) a “blog” is a way for a blogger (that would be me in this case) to write about stuff, publish it on the web, and have people leave comments about that stuff. So maybe now you can guess my frustration came from not having a good way to talk with our iBird customers. Its my hope this blog will allow me to communicate all kinds of interesting topics about iBird including:

  • Cool things we are working on for future updates to iBird
  • Answers important to all iBird customers
  • New technology in birding, what I call “naturetech”
  • The best places to bird, the best birding books to read, etc.
  • What to do if you get a ticket for J-walking

Okay that last bullet was not serious but I want to make sure you are reading this, otherwise what’s the point?

I’ll publish this message to the blog and ask you all to leave comments. To give some direction to the comments, here are some of the things I would like to hear from you:

  • Is this blog a good idea?
  • What would you like me to post on the blog?
  • What do you love and hate about iBird (when I say hate I mean it tongue in cheek; I will delete hate mail but I do want to know what you don’t like as well as what you do like.)

Thanks for taking the time to read this and hopefully leave some thoughts.

Mitchell Waite
Publisher, Mitch Waite Group