The hidden value in the App Store iceberg

You know the iceberg metaphor. So I’m not going to waste your time explaining it.

I imagine an iceberg when I look at the current state of the app store landscape.

Have a glance at both the Apple App Store and the Google Play store platforms and you’ll pretty much experience exactly the same thing.

The same apps promoted. The same apps, in pretty much the same order, on the top download lists. The same boom-and-bust viral sensations that crack the charts before vanishing without a trace. It doesn’t matter if you’ve built an iOS app or an Android app. And of course you have the good old reliable apps continue to rock up millions of downloads (seriously who is still downloading Facebook so often?)

The ecosystems are virtually identical. And in both cases that tip of the iceberg is where the bulk of the money generated in the app stores comes from. The gaming apps, the streaming apps, the advertising-friendly social services, the big consumer apps, the ecommerce apps and the banking apps. They are all generating serious, serious revenue. Either through in-app purchases, subscriptions, microtransactions or advertising revenue.

Once you start to look at the overall financial stats around the app stores you might be forgiven for thinking that with the usual suspects taking so much money that what’s left for all the hundreds of thousands of other apps is negligible.

And you’d be correct… but you’d also be wrong.

Those big consumer apps. They’re never going to go away. There’ll always be another new, brilliant app racking up millions of downloads (and eventually dollars). The usual suspects will continue to dominate. Games will offer fremium lootbox-inspired or ad-funded fun.

But what’s flying under the radar are the apps built for increasingly specific purposes. Niche apps. Apps built for employees rather than customers. Apps built to help users carry out a specific task faster, more efficiently on a device that is cheap and that they are familiar with.

It’s the apps built by businesses for their staff. Apps that are replacing the need for laptops or paperwork or (shock, horror) purpose built devices that used to be handed out to engineers or staff.

I’ll wager you’ll have seen them out and about. You just might not have noticed them.

Photo by Mateus Campos Felipe on Unsplash

Think of that delivery driver who dropped off your latest online shopping splurge. Were they still lugging round a specific handheld device to track their routes, manage their drop offs or even collect signatures? Or were they armed with their mobile?

Has your car broken down recently? Did the roadside assistance mechanic ask you to sign loads of bits of paper and break out your cheque book, or did they whip out a phone or tablet, enter all the relevant information and take payment direct? Hell, you’ll probably notice it when we’re allowed to go shopping or head to a restaurant — how many of the staff are using phones to take orders, or check stock, or manage queues and take payment?

Smartphones are no longer expensive. Virtually everyone knows how they work. They are easier to replace than bespoke hardware. They can be updated on the fly. Your employees and customers already instinctively know how smartphones work. And with the right app they can overhaul your business.

My agency has been building apps specifically for business use over the last six years and what’s become increasingly obvious is that it is this underwater chunk of ice that is where a huge untapped resource lies. These hidden business apps are what has fuelled our exponential growth.

I play the odds. The likelihood of my agency coming up with the next world-beating app by ourselves is astonishingly slim. Even if we do hit the jackpot (or get struck by lightning) and do develop one of those gangbusters apps for a client, it won’t be long before the client needs to build their own internal development team to manage the app and we get gently squeezed out. Where I see agencies flourish is when they are working in the gaps. Building apps that might only be downloaded by 20 or 30 members of staff, but which can then eliminate costly paperwork or provide instant payments and realtime reporting. Bespoke business apps that don’t require the huge upfront investment they used to, which will be saving your business time and money within months.

No archaic IT infrastructure. No paper or receipts.

Our most successful app? Downloaded fewer than 50 times. Saved thousands of hours of man hours every single week in 2020. Utilisation grew 654% last year. It even helped a major business continue to serve their customers at the height of a pandemic. It’s nothing revolutionary. It allows for remote, video linked home surveys. The app won’t win any awards for lush, beautiful UI. It’s simple. It works. And we’re so bloody proud of it. It’s been running pretty smoothly for the last 3 years, with a few minor tweaks to cope with OS changes.

And it’s not just us. There is still a huge chunk of work for app development agencies coming from traditional consumer led work. Brands will still choose agencies to build their promo pieces. But more and more we’re seeing agencies looking outside of that traditional model for their growth.

The future isn’t the tip of the iceberg. It’s the bulk. Lying just under the surface. That’s what is going to shape the face of business. Or sink your ship.

Brr. Chilly.

Thom Gibbons is CEO of an app development agency in Basingstoke. As well as running Apptaura, Thom provides tech consultancy for SMEs and start-ups across Hampshire and Surrey and is a board member of the Surrey Chamber of Commerce.

Thom is CEO of the app development agency that wants to change our world with great code. Uniquely crazy, odd sock wearing. Aims to inspire.