Gold fever makes Apple Watch devs chase the dream

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Ladies and gentlemen, the 18-karat gold Apple Watch Edition, which is  an aspiration, price-anchor, according to Reddit. Credit: Apple
Are Apple Watch apps an 18-karat opportunity for indie developers? Photo: Apple

With high development costs and uncertain prospects, now is a risky time to build Apple Watch apps. But like many other indie developers, I’m working on one anyway.

The Apple Watch gold rush is about more than money.

In 1848, gold was discovered in the American River. Early prospectors made a fortune and the California Gold Rush began. But by 1849, the gold was all but gone and most “49ers” were not so lucky. Many had spent their life savings on the trip to California and were left penniless and stranded.

And so it was with the iPhone. Early pioneers did very well, like Steve Demeter, whose puzzle app Trism earned him $250,000 in just two months. Back in 2008, with only a few thousand apps on the App Store, indies were frequently featured alongside the big players and great apps like Trism practically sold themselves. But in the gold rush that followed, the App Store became swamped by millions of new titles and, like the 49ers before them, many “2009ers” were left with nothing.

Is there gold in them thar hills?

Will history repeat itself again with the new Watch App Store? Should developers be rushing to stake their claim and seize the first-mover advantage?

Probably not. The demand for Apple Watch and its apps is as yet unknown, but the requirement for an iPhone 5 or 6 sets a ceiling. And while the device may be new, the industry is now well-established, with big players such as Instagram, Strava and Evernote likely to dominate.

An indie developer could still strike gold. But your chance of taking off like the next Flappy Bird is one in a million, and if you like those odds, you could save yourself a lot of time and money by buying a lottery ticket instead.

Given the high cost of developing Apple Watch apps, and the slim chances of success, you’d have to be nuts to give it a shot, right?

Screw it, let’s do it

Reps & Sets for Apple Watch
The Reps & Sets app for Apple Watch. Photo: Repsio

The California Gold Rush was about more than just money. It was about a dream of fast success in a new world. And somehow, I just can’t let go of that dream. Each time a new opportunity to enhance our app comes along, like iOS 7, HealthKit and now WatchKit, I think that maybe, just maybe, this could be our moment to strike gold.

I’ve been developing Reps & Sets, an iPhone gym-logging app, for a couple of years now with my partner, Martin Algesten. We work on it in our spare time and we outsource some of the programming tasks. When you allow for the ongoing costs for hosting, bug fixing and compatibility updates, we barely break even.

On a couple of occasions, we’ve been featured prominently on the App Store and the resulting sales have been amazing. But for the most part, it’s just been a steady trickle. Clearly, further investment in new features is not commercially justified.

Real hobbies don’t earn billions

So why are we doing a Watch app? Because it’s our hobby. But not in the Apple TV sense. Apple famously describes its set-top box as a “hobby project,” even though they’ve sold 25 million, earning more than a billion dollars in a year. Some hobby.

Most hobbies don’t make money — you do it purely for the pleasure of doing it. And for me, that pleasure comes from being involved in Apple’s next big thing. I get a buzz out of designing for a brand new platform and learning how the Apple Watch user interface works.

Plus, I actually want to use this Watch app myself. The whole reason I started working on Reps & Sets was because I wanted a better iPhone app for logging my gym sessions. Now I use it every day. That’s how I know it will be even better on my wrist.

The Apple Watch interface is designed for brief, frequent, lightweight interactions, which is exactly how I use Reps & Sets in the gym, checking off each set as I complete it. Plus, our app features preprogrammed rest timers. Naturally, these are ideal for a wristwatch as well.

In other words, I’m personally excited about using Reps & Sets on my new Apple Watch, so I know we’ll have at least one user.

The dream lives on with Apple Watch apps

I haven’t quite given up on the dream of striking gold, either. Although the rational part of me knows it’s a serious long shot, I still can’t shake the feeling that this Apple Watch app could finally be our big break. Or is that just the gold fever talking?