Thursday, September 17, 2009

Anonymous Perspective | The World Series of App Store

A mobile content veteran, who'd prefer to remain anonymous, shared an entertaining and useful analogy with me the other day to describe a personal view of the iTunes App Store ecosystem. I thought you guys would enjoy it...

I've come to think of the iTunes App Store as similar to what the World Series of Poker (WSOP) has become; a great place for hobbyists and one hit wonders, but not a channel (event) that favors professionals. In 2009, the WSOP projected 7,323 entrants into the main event. Of those, only about 100 are professional poker players; Phil Ivey, Gus Hansen, Doyle Brunson, Phil Hellmuth, etc. Those are the EAs, Gamelofts, Ngmocos of the iTunes App Store ecosystem. The WSOP treats all event entrants the same (though wisely the media outlets covering the event do not), just as Apple does with content submissions from developers. Back in the 70s, 80s and even 90s, the event was dominated by pros and won by pros. When Chris Moneymaker (an unknown, who had obtained a seat off a promotional online tournament) won in 2003, it set off an explosion in entrants to the tournament, as people thought (correctly) that they had a chance at beating the pros and winning the tournament. And, at 7223 to 100, they do. So, what's the problem?

The problem is one of odds, rational allocation of scarce resources and ecosystem parity.
  • Odds: With over 70K apps in the store, and more than 8,000 being added per week (including updates), the chances that anyone is going to see your app are very slim. But, the overall user base's appetite for content is satiated because there is always something new. Just like the TV audience for WSOP is satiated every year because someone wins, it likely just isn't anybody you care about or know of. But, does anyone notice that quality of play goes down, down, down?
  • Scarce resources: As business managers, we have to evaluate making resource allocation decisions based on metrics, criteria, ROI, NPV, payback periods, etc; just like the pros do. Enthusiasts and hobbyists, with no overhead to support, no investors, mouths to feed, do it for the thrill of it; like entering a poker tournament. Sure they think they're a good card player/game developer, and maybe they are, but if they don't win at cards or on the app store, they still have their day job.
  • Ecosystem parity: There are really three problems here... 1) With so much free and cheap content available, users can hop from free app to free app and consume an almost limitless supply of content for almost no investment. Where do you think that drives product development/innovation/budgets?; 2) The Apple content evaluation process is a black hole; everyone is treated the same. Why is that? In what other business is the #1 provider treated the same as the #11000 provider? It doesn't make any sense; 3) Merchandising: Apple's "drink from the fire hose" approach to spilling apps into its channel makes having merchandising discussions difficult as well as creating an ecosystem of shallow games.
At the WSOP; we don't have to shed too many tears for Phil, Johnny, Doyle, Jen and the gang; they are fortunate to have a bunch of side action tables to hit which are stuffed full of whales and investment banker-wannabe-poker players from whom they can still earn a living. Professional mobile content publishers have no such side table from which they can feed.


  1. Isn't the side action J2ME, BREW, WM, BB, Android, etc??

  2. @Anonymous...I think those alternatives are perhaps more analogous to the World Poker Tour (a different series of tournaments) than side action

  3. Hey Jeremy, hope all is well.... This is an interesting analogy, but I think this post misses the point. The app store is evolving to look more like the web than a "storefront". Apple certainly has a huge amount of influence (featuring on itunes homepage has big impact on downloads. But my bet would be that over time, more people will learn about games online, then find them using the app store search tool.

    If you play this out a bit, it would not be a huge shock to see Apple either (1) try to become a player in mobile search or (2) do a multi-billion dollar deal with Google to sell the search capability to them.

    But this strays from your poster's point...he is correct that the vast majority of big, individual site players (eg: big media companies) will have a hard time, though there will be some successes along the way -- while the smaller players, who dont have to achieve huge scale to achieve success, will likely fare better.