This post will give hard numbers representing the current state of piracy on the iPhone platform. Its main purpose is to help independent developers that are considering working on the iPhone decide if they should invest their efforts into the platform.
This post analyzes the piracy rate of my iPhone application, StockPlay. The article begins by describing the application used for measurements, then argues that the real piracy rate for the application is over 90%, and explains why this state of affairs is unlikely to change. The post closes with advice for individual developers considering entering the iPhone market.
StockPlay is a simulated stock trading game, where the virtual market is strongly correlated with the real market. The game is backed by a Ruby on Rails server that the iPhone client must connect to in order to play, which made it possible to get hard numbers on piracy.
The game retails for $9.99 (price tier 10) in the App Store, and is available world-wide since April 6, 2009 (19 days before this writing). This post on the game's official blog explains the motivation behind the pricing. The game does not contain any copy protection like Ripdev's Kali, and solely relies on Apple's DRM obfuscation.
StockPlay was cracked and became available on the most popular site for cracked applications 1 day after its launch.
StockPlay's Piracy Rate
To this date (April 25, 2009), we have 40 sales, and 2902 users. However, as most pirates would say to defend themselves, some of these people only tried StockPlay because it was available for free. To account for this, I will restrict my calculation to the 456 users that were still trading (and thus actively using the application) 24 hours after they registered with the server. This yields a piracy rate of 91%.
Pirates also say that some people would not have afforded the application, but I claim that price is not an issue, given the cost of buying an iPhone and a data plan for it.
Apple Doesn't Care
After reading the above numbers, you're probably thinking that Apple will come in and fix the situation. This section argues that Apple has no financial incentive to eliminate piracy, and their behavior indicates that they're well aware of that.
First, the iTunes App Store is expected to break even. According to their statements, Apple doesn't expect to make profit out of operating the store. This means that they don't care if an application is purchased through the store, or downloaded from elsewhere, not using their bandwidth. On the other hand, more free (from the consumers' points of view) applications translate into better demand for Apple's hardware.
Second, Apple already knows about the issue. I filed a bug in Radar, explaining how easy it is to crack applications with Crackulous (yes, it's really that easy), and providing a solution to prevent piracy for server-based apps. The bug received the ID 6755444, and was marked as a duplicate of 6707901, which was probably filed in mid-February. I'm making this claim based on the IDs of my other bugs, and on the assumption that Radar IDs are serial. Bottom line: Apple has other priorities.
Last, but not least, Apple makes it ridiculously difficult for developers to implement their own solution. The iPhone SDK developer agreement bans developers from getting involved with jailbreaking, which is a prerequisite to understanding how our applications are being cracked. To make matters worse, Apple does not make it easy for developers to obtain the final application binary, as it will be distributed on the iPhone. This means we cannot implement server-side binary checksums without having to jump through a lot of hoops. Furthermore, implementing a decent anti-cracking system requires messing with the binary bits and application loader at a low level. This runs the risk of get your application rejected, which pushes your launch date back by a couple of weeks.
If you're hoping to make easy money on the iPhone, look elsewhere. Don't believe the hype about Apple users having better morals, and being much more likely to pay for software. iPhone users are educated enough to Google search for pirated applications, and dishonest enough to use them. Just like PC users.
The piracy rate of over 90% suggests that you're better off developing desktop applications. Sure, they'll be pirated as well, but at least you don't have to put up with Apple's approval process and you won't have to design and code around the excessive technical limitations of the iPhone SDK.
Want to avoid piracy and stay ahead of the pack? It's a great time to be a Web programmer.
If you're determined on writing an iPhone application (we programmers like to play with cool toys, after all), and want to monetize your effort, you should stick to one of the following:
- in-app advertising - admob seems to offer the best toolkit at the moment. Google has been experimenting with iPhone ads, but they don't offer an SDK to the public quite yet. Downsides: ads take up a sizable chunk of screen real-estate, so you'll have to work harder at designing your app. If the application isn't wildly popular, the ad revenue will not be worth the effort.
- traditional payment methods - if you have a server in your application (like StockPlay does), you can distribute the application for free, then charge for accounts on the server. Disadvantages: your users will have to have PayPal or other payment methods, and will have to log in using their mobile phones (I hate typing on iPhone). People may get frustrated if they blindly download the app because it's free, then realize they have to pay. Frustrated people give bad reviews.
- third-party copy protection - the best solution that I know of is Ripdev's kali. Ripdev plays an active role in the jailbreak community, so they're likely to stay ahead of the crackers. Disadvantages: they charge a setup fee per application, and royalties. You'll have that nasty feeling of being ripped off, as you're already paying Apple 30% of your revenue for the same service.
- develop your own copy protection - not worth it, unless you want the learning experience, or you're a big company. Copy protection is boring as hell, and it's unrewarding - no matter what you do, you eventually lose.
I wrote this post to help my fellow developers decide if they should pursue the iPhone as a development platform. When my friends and I decided to write an iPhone application, the development blogs seemed to agree on a piracy rate of 60%, so I wanted to share my completely different findings with the developer community.
I believe the findings are novel and worth sharing, because they are based on hard numbers, as opposed to proxy measurements such as declines in sales, or in-app analytics. Most applications can function without a server, so the majority of developers cannot obtain 100%-accurate user statistics.
My friends and I particularly cared about piracy because our application uses a server, which means that pirates are not just lost business, but also unauthorized consumers of server resources such as bandwidth and CPU time.