Saturday, April 25, 2009

iPhone Piracy: Hard Numbers For A Soft Problem

Update: Apple has fixed the piracy problem by implementing In-App Purchases, which use signed receipts that can be validated by servers. In-App Purchases have become available for free applications on or around October 14, 2009. Therefore, this post is only relevant for historic interest. 

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.

Now What?
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.


  1. Rewrite the app in Google's App Engine and you will save money on the server resources and such. You won't cure piracy, but you will increase your margin on the sales that you do make.

    Also, I don't know how the App Store really works since I just started looking into iPhone development, but don't you receive a customer list or something when a user purchases your app? You could tie this userbase into your web app to curb down on the pirates as well.

  2. @Anonymous: thank you for your helpful thoughts!

    Regarding the customer list -- developers complained about that, and it still hasn't happened. You can read about the bug I filed here:

    I have a plan that will solve my piracy problem and my pricing problem at the same time. The solution is using In-App Purchases to switch to a subscription model. The subscription payments are signed by Apple, so these are secured. Unfortunately, having a subscription-based app opens up a slew of problems, and I have to figure them out before I can roll out the change.

    I also explored pirating methods, with an emphasis on Crackulous, and I contributed my findings to George Hotz' wiki for everyone to find. So, right now, I have a pretty good idea of who is pirating StockPlay, and I can use that data when I want to shed some server load. More about that at:

    Regarding Google's App Engine... I wrote an app engine application in Python while working at Google, and it's not as fun as Rails. Personally I'd rather be less profitable and have some fun.

    I know GAE can support Rails via JRuby, but I read it's not a match made in heaven. I'll wait and see if Rails 3.0's more modular structure makes it a better fit for GAE.

  3. I'm not saying piracy is right, but wouldn't there be much less incentive to get the pirated version of an app that costs one dollar versus an app that costs ten dollars?

    All other things being equal, if the piracy rate really is >90% (is the 24hr mark significant b/c your free version has a 24hr limitation?), it shouldn't be too difficult to run a break-even analysis on how much more you'd make from selling the app at a lower price where it's not worth it for people to go to the trouble of cracking it or the trouble of finding and installing the cracked version.

  4. (From the same Anonymous that just posted above)
    D'oh! Nevermind, I just read the related post on why you set the price at $9.99.

    Oh well, c'est la vie - would've liked to try the app but have an iPod Touch, not an iPhone, so no cellular data connection...

  5. @Anonymous: Thank you for your interest and questions!

    First, the complaint in this post doesn't hold as much now. Apple has made In-App Purchases available to free applications. This feature can be used to authenticate purchases, but the coding required to implement it is non-trivial.

    If I find time to update StockPlay, I'll definitely switch to a trial + purchase / subscription model.

    Next I will answer your questions. The 24hr mark shows how little time it took people to pirate the application. It proves that apple's DRM is worthless. You can use StockPlay on your iPod Touch if you have a WiFi access point. In fact, I've switched to an iPod Touch as the main method for testing StockPlay.