How to develop your first iOS app for iPad and iPhone

Chalk drawing of a smart phone on a blackboard with the words "Mobile App." in pink chalk next to it.

Introduction to your first app development on iOS for iPhone or iPad

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple after the years of his self-banishment the atmosphere in the company was nervous. The charismatic founder of the company was believed to be evil incarnate, a bossy dictator ruling with an iron hand. Perhaps it is true, but we shouldn’t forget that this very hand is a part of the same body which his heart and mind belong to. And both these organs collaborated to create a company that at the moment when I’m writing down these words is on the very top of the most valuable companies in the world! What’s more, according to the financial statements the Cupertino company has larger reserves that the United States does. How did it happen? What was the basis of this enormous success? It was Steve Jobs’s idea and how he had faultlessly incorporated it into life.

When presenting the first iPhone, Steve Jobs said that he was going to “reinvent” the telephone. Now, three years after these words were spoken, we can easily confirm that he flawlessly fulfilled his ambitious goal. The iPhone has become a symbol of pop-culture – a coveted, fashionable, high-class product. It has changed so many segments of the market that it’s now difficult to recollect how things were before the iPhone had been introduced. This device is even now still unparalleled in terms of its usability, and the plethora of functions and – no doubt about it – applications.

What would the iPhone have become if it hadn’t been for the opportunities given to independent developers? Well, it would probably have ended up as an exclusive and overpriced phone. Fortunately, it wasn’t the case. Millions of very gifted people were given tools that let them realise their ideas on the 3-inch wide screen. And what followed can only be called the App Store revolution.

The App Store – a system of digital software distribution for iPhone – became the crucial factor in popularising not only the device itself but also the creators of applications and games. The App Store helped the iPhone exist in the minds of millions as a product that can do almost everything, and allowed the developers to shape and publish even the most daring ideas.

As though it wasn’t enough, after two years on the market, the operating system iPhone OS was renamed as iOS, and the iPhone was followed by its younger but definitely bigger brother – the iPad. This device managed to become the most spectacular success in recorded history. Even after one year and a half, it has no true competition. Various specialists and market analysts claim that people don’t simply want any tablet. They want bread and the iPad to comfortably watch circuses. Therefore, it’s no wonder that the iPad makes up – according to various research data – 80 to 95% of all tablets sold, and in the coming year, it may lose not more than nineteen percent of the market share, remaining the tablet leader. Neither Motorola Xoom nor Blackberry and its Playbook, nor even Samsung with the second generation of the Galaxy Tab managed to repeat the success of Apple’s child prodigy. A child that had business-wise become the second most important product regarding earning big money. The first one is, obviously, the aforementioned iPhone. The great part is that to develop an app for both devices, you only need to mark the relevant option while starting the project, prepare graphics in two sizes, and slightly remodel the screens. The rest completes itself, and the app is ready to conquer the hearts of the users.

Apps or Games?

As the years were passing, it became clear what products have the potential for success and what ones are destined to fail. Naturally, there are exceptions from every rule, including this one. From time to time the popularity charts are conquered by mysterious products that escape the current trends. However surprising it may be, it also proves that the App Store environment is dynamic and diverse.

To recognise what kinds of products are worth the time, one should examine apps and games that have been occupying top places on popularity charts in every country from the moment they were published. Angry Birds (three editions), Cut the Rope (the first and the second edition), Doodle Jump, Slice It! – These four series earned tens of millions of dollar, while Angry Birds also became a worldwide phenomenon that conquered the mass market and achieved the same high status as Fifa, Need for Speed or – looking at another market – Cityville. Numerous conversations with the employees of Rovio lead to the conclusion that a number of reasons and events contributed to their success, luck being one of the key factors in winning enormous popularity. Although Angry Birds can now be found on almost every existing platforms, still it’s the iOS that brings the most profit. Having examined the business decisions of both the largest publishers and the independent developers, it becomes clear that the iOS is treated as the determinant of the possible success. If a given app or game fares well in the App Store, a port to other platforms is likely to bring profit as well. Or, what happens quite often, one can invest the money into a sequel, trying to expand that newly-won popularity.

However, not only games and not only their sales contribute to the financial success. Apps for lifestyle, entertainment, scientific, medical, navigation, dictionary or abstract purposes… all of them have the right to exist, which can be easily proven. An app called Saver allows for adding up your expenses, creating your own product categories, taking pictures, making notes and displaying comprehensible pie charts. Navigon lets you determine a route between two points while taking into consideration traffic jams, motorways and speed traps, hence it changes your iPhone into a full-fledged traffic navigation. Pulse makes reading and sharing news easy, fast and attractive. The app runs smoothly, offers a unique user interface, and it is free! Several flashlight-apps help find the road at night, while dating-and-what’s-after guidebooks beat records of popularity. And so do office applications, cash point finders, shopping lists, cooking books, unit converters, leisure time managers, various reminders. Competition is strong and bringing something innovative and attractive to the market seems almost impossible. Still, many try to do their best.

Let’s try developing an app ourselves!

When a ready and potentially profitable idea just waits to be developed and published, these are steps to be followed:

1. Creating an app developer account

If your business is profit-oriented, it’s necessary to obtain the license, presumably the option for an individual, costing 99 dollars yearly. However, you can also create a free account if your products will be available for free. The last kind of the license is for corporate consumers, costs 299 dollars and allows for, among others, loading the app into hundreds of devices, in contrast to only one hundred in the case of the individual license. Creating an account doesn’t take long – two weeks after faxing the form together with your credit card details to Apple, you should be ready to upload your apps to iTunes Connect.

2. Buying a Mac

Technically speaking, buying a Mac is not a necessity. Practically, it helps a lot. The Mac is indispensable if you want to create an app and sign it digitally with relevant certificates yourself or if you want to access and modify the source code. It’s enough to say that a Mac is truly useful. New Mac mini costs 599 dollars and more, but secondhand Macs are only 360. When you’ve already got a computer running on Mac OS X, the next step is to download a free tool named Xcode from App Store. Xcode is a complete development environment necessary for creating apps and games. It includes a series of useful tools, from gadgets checking optimisation and memory leaks, to iPhone and iPad simulators. It’s extremely helpful but beware: in the case of more advanced applications, the simulator cannot replace the actual device. The more iPhones, iPods Touch and iPads you test your app on, the better guarantee you have that your customers won’t have any unexpected problems resulting from the limitations of the simulator.

3. Mobile app development

Depending on your expertise, here begins actual programming or looking for a person/company offering such services. It’s not the focus of this article, though. However, there are a few things worth mentioning where it comes to the development stage.

Firstly, it’s always good to have constant access to the project documents, to management systems of both the actual project and the errors and bugs. For the former one may recommend such titles as Red Mine, MS Project, dotProject, or JIRA; for error reporting, I suggest Mantis Bugtracker, however, RedMine and JIRA can be used as well. All these tools are user-friendly and accessible for everyone familiar with the Internet.

The development stage is very complex, and my brief description here doesn’t do it justice. That’s why I would like to stress that the purpose of this article is to guide through the submission and management stages of apps creation. Let’s just assume that a finished product (package of source codes) was delivered to you and it’s time to let the world see it.

4. Actual app publishing

This process is quite simple. It all comes down to generating two files, packing them into the .zip format and sending it to Apple. To do so, you will need Apple’s Application Loader, which is downloadable – like all basic applications – from developer.apple.com. However, before you log into the program and choose the file, it’s crucial to upload your app to another important web page: itunesconnnect.apple.com. This is the place where applications are added to developer accounts. What’s more, there you also have access to all crucial data about your account, such as bank account data, contact information, team management, app records. Still, there are better places where you can check how your app is doing, for example with a region filter. I’ve been using AppAnnie, and I must say I need nothing more.

To the point, though: publishing your app involves several screens and forms. You need to inform Apple about the default language of your products and the developer name displayed in the App Store. It can be anything, your first and last name, company name or an eye-catching Whatever Studio. The next step is to provide basic data about your app: the title, the SKU number (at first usually something around 1.0), and the Bundle ID, which can be found on developer.apple.com, section iOS Developer Program – Provisioning Portal. The App ID will be displayed there. Then you choose a given product from the drop-down list.

Now, even more important decisions await you: a release date and price. I discuss these topics more widely further in this text, for now, it’s enough to assume that both decisions are already made.

5. Description and screenshots

Here starts the magic. On the Metadata screen, one fills in all key information about the app, which often determines whether it becomes successful or not. The version number should be copied from the SKU number, but it’s the description that is critical. It can influence customers’ decision to buy or forget the app. It’s my advice to do your best when writing the description. When you have doubts if you can handle the task, you can always contract it to an agency or a freelance copywriter. A good strategy is to answer these questions: ‘What can I gain by purchasing this app?’ or ‘Why is this game worth buying?’. The customer has to be convinced that they’ve come across a unique and original product, or at least the best one in its own category. However, don’t be ridiculous, don’t exaggerate too much and don’t praise an average calculator as the best app in the market.

You also have to choose the primary and secondary categories of your app, which is quite important but relatively simple. After all, who knows better what category to choose than the very author? However, we should discuss a few points. For instance, you mustn’t hide inappropriate content in your app. Apple is very cautious and does not approve of pornography, which is good. If it turns out that your app violates this policy, not only it will be removed but also your account will be banned. That’s why I recommend treating your product rigorously and appoint a safe age category; an additional advantage is that it should shorten the acceptance process since there won’t be doubts whether the category is high enough.

The uploaded screenshots are just as important as the description. Together with the app icon, they are the only graphic elements at hand to convince prospective customers. If the screenshots show only the title screen and an unattractive menu, or something contradictory to the description, there’s little probability to win the customer. It’s a good strategy to look at the largest publishers and learn from them. An interesting idea is to use these five slots to show more than five depictions of the game or app. Slogans and captions, added to the screenshots, are also welcome.

6. Uploading your app

This part is easy. An app added to the iTunes Connect will be shown on the list in the Application Loader. Having certified the software build (presently the Provisioning Portal is much more user-friendly than a year ago, so the certification process shouldn’t pose a problem), you highlight the package and watch it upload. However, sometimes errors occur. To the most common ones belong wrong icons sizes (the correct ones are 57×57 and 114×114), and wrong SKU numbers (they have to be consistent with the Xcode data). When the uploading is finished, you are notified that now your app awaits reviewing. It may take a few, up to several days, depending on the type of the app. My experience suggests that Apple reviews games more closely than, for example, content readers, but it’s not the rule. It may happen than updating from 1.0 to 1.1 will take three days, while 1.1 to 1.2 update as long as three weeks. My advice is to be patient.

Big Bang Theory

You can advertise your app yourself or contract this demanding job to someone with more experience if you feel you lack it. There are plethora of companies offering such services, and they boast extensive databases with addresses of websites, blogs, electronic and printed magazines, and other media publishing information on the App Store applications. However, months-long observations lead to the conclusion that the best ad strategy is to submit an eye-catching and innovative product which takes advantage of the newest iOS version. Why? Because Apple highlights such apps in the App Store itself. It’s the dream of every beginning publisher (who is often the developer at the same time) to make it to the New & Noteworthy list. Or even better, to become the App/Game of the Week. Such distinctions, contrary to positive reviews, do guarantee success and at least breaking even. However, it’s not the only way. In fact, the least that can be done is to send an extensive and attractive press release. You should include both the largest websites (Engadget, Tech Crunch, cnet, IGN, Touch Arcade, Pocket Gamer) and dozens of smaller blogs. Their reviews, encouraging comments, verdicts, awards, prizes – it all may win you customers. Some kind of contest or a Facebook/Twitter campaign is also worth considering. It’s difficult to remain innovative in this area, but from time to time someone succeeds with such advertisement.

A curious thing – it’s a well-established practice to publish new games and apps on Thursdays and Fridays. People tend to browse the store on these days, just before the weekend, when they’re less busy at work or school. With your first title, you should also avoid bargain sales or other big events. Electronic Arts and Gameloft usually start their sales just before various holidays, while important market events (such as CES, E3, Gamescom) are more attractive to the media and customers than “some press release from a newbie”.

Recently, quite popular became joining forces with websites that offer bargain sales on apps and games. There are a few conditions, though: only selected and quality products can participate, the product has to be free of charge for an agreed period of time, and its description has to include a hotlink to the website. Consequently, if your current pricing policy is failing, a price reduction or even a temporary giveaway can change the odds. Apple has decided that customers with Promo Codes cannot submit reviews anymore, which means that exchanging a free copy of the app for a review in the iTunes is no longer an option. Still, Apple seems unable to cope with reviews by family or team members – although it’s ethically questionable, it’s always an opportunity.

That’s the conclusion of this ‘My First App guide’. I hope it will help you succeed on mobile platforms. What’s curious, though, strategies designed for the Apple products don’t always work on other platforms (Android, JAVA). But the most important thing to remember is that over the years the App Store has developed so much, that it has no use for mediocre products. Publishing something for the sole sake of doing it can bring you only disappointment and financial loss. Nowadays most apps are either big successes or spectacular failures, with little space in between. I’d like to finish with a positive tone, though:
I encourage all developers and publishers to remember that promoting your product is not a sprint but a marathon, which demands a gifted person, lots of work and one more crucial factor – good chance. So, here’s wishing you good luck!