Photo Credit: Cynapse
“The greatest value that Apple provides as a developer is a technology platform to build on that is reliable, emphasises good design, promotes trust & security, and — most importantly — [has] the most amazing community of customers who are willing to pay for software products that invest in good design,” says Romasha Roy Choudhury, VP - Product Design at Cynapse, a Mumbai-based company that has been developing products focused on productivity and collaboration since 2001.
Cynapse is one of a growing breed of India-based developers that choose to develop apps exclusively for Apple's platforms in a country where, IDC estimates, over 99 percent of the smartphones that shipped last quarter ran Android. According to comScore data, iOS had an install base of 3.6 million in India as of April this year. With over 900 million iOS devices worldwide, India accounts for less than 0.5 percent of iOS users.
According to Apple's own estimates, over 100,000 (1 lakh) apps have been developed by Indian developers on its platforms. The vast majority of those apps are on iOS, which means Indian developers have contributed around 5 percent of the roughly 2 million apps in the App Store.
Apple's App Store brought in a new model for global distribution of apps at scale — the likes of Google and Microsoft, among others, quickly followed — that lets developers easily target customers across the globe irrespective of their own location, which explains, at least in part, the disconnect between the iOS install base in the country and the volume of contributions of Indian developers to the App Store.
Apple estimates that over 700,000 (7 lakh) jobs in the country are attributable to the iOS ecosystem — the company reported “just under half-a-million registered developers” a couple of years ago —and speaking to some of the leading indie iOS developers in the country, one gets the sense that this number is only likely to increase.
The App Accelerator and design as a differentiator
Apple has been pretty active courting developers and supporting their efforts in the country, and the most significant step in this regard has been the Bengaluru-based App Accelerator that opened with little fanfare back in May 2017. While Senior Vice President Worldwide Marketing Phil Schiller — who's also in charge of the App Store and developer relations — was in India to mark the occasion, the launch itself was fairly low-key, especially when you consider that this is Apple's first — and till date only — App Accelerator worldwide. But nearly two years to the day of its official opening, the Accelerator has had a big impact on India's macOS and, even more so, its iOS developer community.
“I've had a great experience at the App Accelerator,” says Delhi-based Vidit Bhargava, a WWDC 2016 Student Scholar and the developer of popular iOS app LookUp. “The team at the Bengaluru accelerator is extremely helpful and are always ready to offer any help that developers require. The sessions and the labs create an environment where you can focus on specific areas of the app and have something ready by the end of the day. The design feedback is extremely valuable too.”
Design is a theme that comes up multiple times when we bring up the App Accelerator.
“I think getting an expert opinion on design/ UX-related subjects in India is quite a challenge,” says Raja Vijayaraman, the developer of Calzy, which at last year's WWDC became the first Indian app to win an Apple Design Award. “The team at Accelerator, Bengaluru, is really helpful in sharing their feedback and suggestion[s].”
“Being a self-taught developer, I used to learn latest technologies through WWDC videos and tutorials online. Now, with a lot of lab sessions happening here in India and the opportunity to interact with the team directly is something different and much more helpful.”
“For example, I use to think [of] accessibility as last step in my design process by implementing VoiceOver just before the release... but recently I attended a special event about making your app accessible at Accelerator in Bengaluru that really made me realise the importance of thinking about these accessibility features while starting to design the app.”
“I love the fact that Apple innovates and pushes the boundaries of what's possible on mobile phones”
WWDC is Apple's annual Worldwide Developers Conference, and it offers most developers their only chance to interact with Apple engineers and get answers to their questions. Sixteen student scholars — apart from dozens of full-time developers — from India will be at this year's WWDC, which kicks off Monday at the McEnery Convention Center in San Jose. Last year, over 6,000 developers from 77 countries attended the event.
Cynapse's Choudhury says the availability of lab sessions at developers' doorsteps has been a boon, reducing the dependency on events like WWDC that can be prohibitively expensive for many developers to attend.
“When we started building iOS apps back in 2009, in case we needed help, the only information was what we could find in the developer documentation and the only contact point was a Web form that offered little hope of response,” she explains. “Fast forward to today, the Apple Labs offer a tremendous support system for new developers to take the leap into building their first app, as well as offer incredibly valuable advice to veterans like us.”
Thanks in part to the Accelerator and a generation of developers who have grown up with exposure to quality apps from all across the world, an increasing number of Indian developers talk about design, security, and privacy as potential differentiators, much like Apple itself.
“We believe in creating products that solve something specific in the most beautiful and amazing way,” says Choudhury of Cynapse, which has been focusing on building products exclusively for the Apple ecosystem since 2010. “We don't look at just our app as the product. Our app, seamlessly coupled with the device the user holds or wears, is the product we provide in the users' perspective. This means it is absolutely essential for us that we build atop the best platform out there.”
“As a member of Apple's exclusive Mobility Partner Program, Cynapse can leverage Apple's expertise in design and customer experience, as well as its reach with hundreds of millions of devices, to bring our app Numerics to more businesses around the world.”
“As an ecosystem, I love Apple's focus on security & privacy and customer-centric design,” says Bengaluru-based Namit Nangia, founder at SmartHunch, and the developer of What the fish!, a unique iOS-exclusive game that lets users control on-screen elements using their eyes. “The same care follows through when they design API access to their devices for developers. It is much easier to understand and code for a standard API spec that's on close to a billion devices with iOS.”
Like Nangia, who has also released SculptAR, an app that allows you to do 3D sculpting in AR, nearly all developers Gadgets 360 spoke to highlighted the standardisation that iOS offers as one of the reasons it is easier to develop for Apple's platform. Compared to Android, developers on iOS need to target fewer screen sizes, OS versions, and hardware configurations, which means testing apps is simpler, and, overall, there are fewer constraints during development.
”Google is not a serious platform company”
“Apple functions with a lot of standardisation — it's one [company] with a controlled OS, uniform devices, and configurations, while with Android there are different devices, software, chips, OS etc.,” says KJS Brar, CEO of Designmate, which has developed a handful of acclaimed iOS apps. “We are trying to make Android apps as well, but it's difficult and time-consuming to make one app work perfectly on all the [Android] devices, whereas for iOS it is a lot easier to develop apps.”
Everybody loves ARKit
What the fish! uses ARKit, Apple's Augmented Reality implementation framework, to enable its unique eye-tracking feature on the latest iPhone and iPad models, falling back to traditional touch controls on older devices. Developer Nangia says ARKit helps “create experiences that are out of this world.”
“I love the fact that Apple innovates and pushes the boundaries of what's possible on mobile phones,” he says. “Case in point would be AR. When Apple launched its ARKit, it was accessible on millions of devices at launch. In comparison, on Android, it ARCore, the Android equivalent of ARKit was accessible on only a handful of devices. Potential market influences our decision to invest in new technology and make creative use of that technology.”
LookUp developer Bhargava also calls himself a “fan” of ARKit, while Brar's Designmate has been developing ARKit apps since 2018, a few months after the framework's debut. The company officially released it first Augmented Reality (AR) app Froggipedia, days after Apple showed it off to the world at the education-focussed iPad event in March last year. In December, Apple picked Froggipedia as its iPad App of the Year, making it the first Indian app to get the honour.
Unsurprisingly, Brar is extremely bullish about the potential of ARKit. “The ARKit tool is something we think will revolutionise [how] kids learn these days, so we are very excited to develop more apps with the ARKit,” he says.
“The persistence feature of ARKit was something which we wanted for a very long time, and we've used it with our app Plantale and are looking forward to using it more with other learning apps,” says Brar, whose company has been developing immersive learning experiences in Maths and Science for educators as well as students for the past two decades. Last year, the company decided to focus entirely on developing for Apple's platforms, though some legacy versions of its apps for other platforms are still on sale via its website.
“On Android, the technology doesn't exist today”
And then there are developers such as Pune-based Sandeep Ranade who are pushing the boundaries of what a mobile app can do. Ranade has a Masters Degree in Computer Science from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and is also a trained Indian classical singer.
In 2018, he decided to combine his two passions and develop an iOS app to give classical singers real-time feedback as they practice, substituting a teacher as best as possible. Ranade, who has nearly 35 years of experience in Indian classical music, says “neural pathways for inaccurate notes are being forged daily” when students practice in the absence of a teacher, and they cannot be fixed by weekly sessions.
Enter NaadSadhana, an app that analyses vocal frequencies and uses custom algorithms to provide “real time feedback with maximum information content, without overwhelming the senses.” An upcoming version of the app will include an AI-powered tabla player that automatically adjusts the way the instrument is played based on how you sing.
Given its target audience, it would have made sense for Ranade to develop NaadSadhana on Android, but he says an app like this simply cannot exist on Google's platform.
“Android's audio stack suffers from a large latency, sometimes as bad as 200+ milliseconds! Humans detect latencies of around 10 milliseconds and start to get annoyed the larger it gets,” he says. “If there's even a few milliseconds latency, the tabla will sound jittery and inaccurate, defeating the whole point of an instrument that's supposed to maintain the time cycle with utmost precision.”
Ranade, who worked for Microsoft, Citrix, VMware, and Google in the US before moving back to India to “start a few ventures and to be with family”, explains.
”My app has the same opportunity to be featured as that of a multi-million dollar giant”
“I've developed for the Android platform as a hobby and it took much more effort to get things up and running there, and then I started hitting hardware/ software limitations that became a dealbreaker for my app to run on that platform,” he says. “The only platform that allows a cutting-edge app like NaadSadhana to run smoothly is iOS. “
Other developers have their own reasons for sticking to iOS, with Chaudhary and Bhargava saying that Android and Windows don't align with their own principles.
“We pour tremendous amount of love into our products and we could never do that if our true customer was an advertiser,” says Cynapse's Chaudhary, echoing some of Apple's own thoughts on the subject. “We believe in having our user as our paying customer, to form a healthy long-term relationship with them. We very strongly disagree with the advertisement-sponsored software business. This keeps us away from the Google/ Android ecosystem.”
“Most of my applications are focused on ease of use and following good design principles,” says Bhargava, whose app LookUp has been featured multiple times on the App Store. “I try to create the best quality applications in a way that I don't have to compromise the experience with advertisements or other monetisation tricks.”
“At the moment, the App Store seems like the only platform where I can do that sustainably. People are willing to pay for a better experience, which is probably why they got an iPhone in the first place.”
Apple's 30 percent commission offers “a lot of value”
App Store commission fees have been in focus recently thanks largely to a high-profile lawsuit in the US. Apple has defended its stance on the subject, pointing to its thriving third-party developer ecosystem, among other things. We asked developers what they think of the 30 percent commission that Apple charges on most App Store transactions.
While Nangia and Ranade felt a lower number would help them run a more sustainable business, others feel that Apple provides excellent value.
“We very honestly do [think that we get enough value despite Apple's 30 percent cut]!,” says Choudhury. “Cynapse has been developing software products since 2001 for the Windows, Linux, and Apple ecosystems. Piracy and IP theft have been one of the key inhibitors to a successful, revenue-generating product business.”
“The App Store has been the first and only ecosystem that completely eliminated piracy and enabled secure commercial distribution of our products to customers in over 100 countries. This is a game-changer for a software products business like Cynapse. So we think there is enough value in the 30 percent share that Apple takes.”
“Also, we much prefer that Apple makes revenue in tandem with us, rather than nefariously monetise our customers data, like many other platforms do. Apple also takes a lowered 15 percent for recurring subscribers, and we are quite happy with those numbers.”
”The design feedback is extremely valuable”
“As an independent developer there's a lot of value that Apple offers in that 30 percent cut,” says Bhargava, who has released multiple apps and sticker packs on the App Store. “I don't have to worry about the hassles of collecting international payments online; the apps get a decent platform for discoverability; I don't have to burn through a lot of my marketing budget just to release something; and Apple's also pretty great at handling the post sales part of the experience like issuing refunds, or making sure the users are on the latest update.”
“We tend to take these things for granted because they've been a given, from the very first day of the App Store, but all of them would contribute to my expenses if I were to look for some other way to release my products.”
Discoverability has improved, but could be better
Another concern that developers have traditionally had on the App Store — and indeed Google's Play Store — is discoverability. At last count, both stores had over 2 million apps, and getting users to notice — or even find — your app can be a challenge, especially for indie developers that do not typically have the reach or marketing budgets of big organisations.
iOS 11 brought a revamped App Store, and with it, an increased focus on editorial content to aid discovery. Nearly two years later, almost everyone we spoke to said that while the situation has improved, Apple can do even more to help developers.
“When LookUp first released, we had zero marketing budget, but we were still able to get 500+ users in the first couple of days itself because the app was on the App Store's best new apps section,” says Bhargava, who also recently released an image vectorisation app called VectorPad. “The revamped App Store does an even better job of this discoverability process.”
“As an indie developer, my app has the same opportunity to be featured as that of a multi-million dollar giant,” he adds.
Brar, whose company has a 400+ member in-house R&D team, says while things have “definitely gotten better”, Apple should update Apple Store's “featured apps” more frequently. Vijayaraman, who used to work in the VFX industry before moving into full-time app development, is of the opinion that “discovering apps through search on App Store needs to improve a lot”, while Choudhury would like Apple to move beyond the “one content fits all” model.
“For example, the kind of apps a business user might seek would be significantly different from what a college student needs,” the designer with over 15 years of experience explains. “We need more breakthroughs in app discovery and the new App Store is a step in that direction.”
Nangia, whose game is What the fish! is installed on iOS devices in retail stores as one of the examples showing off their AR capabilities, believes that discoverability is a greater challenge for game developers.
“For applications, it is easier to find meaningful keywords to try and optimise your App Store listings, but for games that is impossible,” he says. “The only way to get discovered on App Store, especially for indies, is to be featured by Apple.”
Should Apple do increase iPhones sales in India?
While the App Store opens up the entire world to developers, would they like to see Apple make more of an effort to increase the iOS install base in India, perhaps by introducing more affordable iPhone models?
“It'd be great to see all of their new iPhones be priced at par with what they cost internationally — in my opinion, that alone could compel more people to get the iPhone,” says Bhargava, who also mentioned he would like Apple to further simplify the “process of developing and debugging auto-renewable subscriptions”, when quizzed about his tech wish-list.
”People are willing to pay for a better experience, which is probably why they got an iPhone in the first place”
“Besides the obvious 'India-friendly pricing' quip, one of the key things we would like to see is Apple provide the same retail, customer service, and support experience that Apple customers in the western markets are used to,” Choudhury explains. “I also think it would help significantly if they bring in their services parts such as Apple Pay, News, etc. sooner into India. These would certainly tilt the price-to-value ratio in Apple's favour.”
Developing for Android?
So what would it take for these iOS-only developers to make apps for competing platforms? Brar and Nangia would like to see fragmentation eliminated — or at least minimised — before they even consider looking at Android, while Vijayaraman says nothing has “excited me to cross the bridge”. Bhargava and Choudhury, though, offer pretty scathing assessments of Google and Microsoft's platforms.
“In my eyes, Google is not a serious platform company since at their core they are an advertisement company,” says Choudhury of Cynapse, whose app Numerics is now installed as a demo app on iPad and iPhone units across Apple stores in the US, Canada, and several other countries. “Google would have to completely rework their core ideologies for us to seriously consider depending upon their ecosystem beyond ancillary tools. I don't expect that to happen anytime soon.”
“Microsoft has taken significant strides lately in improving their technology platform offering,” she continues. “While we are experimenting with some of their technologies, we don't see the kind of developer support we have been used to from Microsoft in the early 2000s. Also, they have terrible design taste!"
Bhargava, who has been designing interfaces since when he was in Class 10 as a hobby, would like Google and Microsoft to do more to show that they care about indie developers.
“There's a thriving community for indie iOS and macOS developers, but not for Android or Windows, which makes me think that indie apps have a rough time on those platforms,” he says. “I'd love to see Google and Microsoft show that they care about apps that exist to provide simple and easy to use experiences that delight the users.”
“Moreover, show that the people using their platforms care about such apps, and finally, embrace the indie developer community, by making the best apps easy to discover, without developers having to spend a fortune on marketing and promotions. As a developer, I want to be convinced that the strenuous process of developing cross-platform apps is worth it.”