You come to be because you want to have something everybody else has, but to “exist” you need to differentiate yourself from your competitors. Said like this, it seems oxymoronic.
There used to be a few reasons why someone would write an application:
- It did something no other application could do
- It took an existing concept/application and added some functionality that was lacking
- It tied a specific interface to a specific service that couldn’t be accessed any other way
Quite frankly, any development that meant more than a few man-hours couldn’t sail if at least one of these criteria wasn’t met. And that was mainly due to one thing: exposure. Finding software for your computer was hard. Of course, services like versiontracker or macupdate was there to help, but a piece of software had to be made, buzzed about and sold by its editor. It had to be “worth it”.
The popularity of the App Store has changed that, for good or for ill. No “respectable” company out there would want to miss on the huge market and public that is composed of iPhone and iPad (and to a lesser extent Mac) users. You just have to have a least a presence there. And the competition of the store is fierce.
So, the companies do what they have to do: at least exist on the app store. With that objective in mind, it’s more a matter of building an image than an app. Therefore, the two axes of communication weight way more than any kind of usefulness. You have to be there (do like everybody else), and you have to be seen there (make yourself known). Essentially, an app can be useful, but an app can exist solely as part of a communication strategy.
For public relation purposes, that more or less precludes any kind of singularity. You want to have at least like all your competitors. Then you have to do better or different in a way that’s not too unnerving, or expensive. And yes, being outrageously shocking is a different way of doing the same thing. Anyone can run naked in the street to grab attention. Changing the way people deal with their daily life is a whole different pie.
I was chatting with a colleague earlier, and he was lamenting that R&D is dead. But R&D serves a different purpose: it’s about long term investment. You pour money and time and effort into building something new without any kind of guarantee that you’ll get a return on your investment. That takes a leap of faith (harder to achieve when you have a responsibility towards shareholders and/or employees) and means (harder to have when you are a freelancer). Therefore it’s really not what most of the paying gigs we get talked into is about.
But I disagree that innovation is dead. Yes, it may seem like that for us freelancers sometimes after the tenth “news pushing” project. But even with projects labelled “do the same as app X, but with, you know, a more ‘our company’ feel”, there are ways to have some leeway and some fun. It could be through the way you make the user interact with your app, the details you want to get back from it to the server, etc… And sometimes, it’s the developer that offers suggestions as to how to make his day less miserable.
Face it, developers: we are responsible for that state of affairs too. Freelancers maybe a bit less than software farms, but the policy of churning out made and re-made apps on the cheap versus being hugely expensive doesn’t promote innovation either. Yes, we have to eat and pay our rent and whatever. But given the ridiculous quotes/conditions some people with innovative ideas get when they talk about them, it’s no wonder these projects are boxed and forgotten.
Personally, I try to “give” at least 15% of my time to projects that seem whacky. Maybe they won’t find their mark, maybe I’ll loose money over them, maybe we won’t even go past the planning phase. And sometimes, I get ripped off. But most of the time, at the very least, I have fun, and I learn something. And the partner/client/prospect/person in front of me can explore fully their idea.
Yes, your idea will be lost among thousands of apps that are there only to exist. Yes, the chances are great that it won’t make you a millionaire any time soon. Yes, finding a willing developer is hard. Yes, it costs a lot of time and money and effort to get anything done. But you know what? If it’s not out there, the chances of it proving to be a good idea or indeed make you a ton of money are precisely zilch.