I’m : a programmer, writer, podcaster, geek, and coffee enthusiast.

Sherlocking Myself Just Fine Over Here

I disagree with Justin Williams’ premise in Stop “Sherlocking” Yourself:

For some reason, developers are almost universally fascinated by building yet another todo list, notes app, weather app, or (most recently) a podcasting client.

“For some reason”? There’s a great reason.

In this modern App economy, stop sherlocking yourself out of the gate and focus on harder problems than just another version of Elements or Clear with a different interface skin. Those markets are saturated to the point where you’re betting against yourself before you even ship 1.0. Look to emerging markets that have a need ready to be filled, or even existing niche markets that have a few products poorly executed.

Whether you should enter a crowded market is complex, and it deserves a much more nuanced answer than simply, “No.”

Yes, there are a lot of to-do apps. But Justin’s representative for this category, Clear, was released just a year and a half ago, and there were a lot of to-do apps then, too.

Six months before that, Tweetbot was released into a very crowded market dominated by Tweetie, Twitterrific, TweetDeck, and Echofon, plus tons of lesser-known alternatives.

The podcast-app market shouldn’t exist at all, since Apple only permitted podcast clients in the App Store after they had been shipping one in iOS and iTunes for years. Yet there are many apps thriving there today, and more coming out soon.

And the weather market has always been crowded with seemingly insurmountable barriers: not only has Apple shipped a very good weather app since day one, but the few users who seek alternatives generally go with established names like The Weather Channel. Yet Dark Sky launched in mid-2012, did something different, and kicked ass. Great new weather apps come out all the time and find substantial audiences, such as Check The Weather and Perfect Weather, and I’m beta-testing another great one right now.1

Titans rise and fall quickly in most app categories, and iOS 7 is a clean slate that’s accelerating this process. Are you still using the same to-do, note, weather, and podcast apps today that you used a year ago?

A given category may seem crowded and impenetrable today, but if you want to start working on a new app of that type, suppose it’ll take you 6–12 months to ship 1.0. How many of the apps in that category today will still be widely used and frequently updated in 6–12 months? How likely is it that at least one new competitor will enter that market during that time and earn high praise from Viticci, Rene, and their audiences? What’s stopping your app from being one of those?

Justin’s right that “just another version of Elements or Clear with a different interface skin” isn’t much of a guarantee for success, but that’s grossly trivializing the differences between apps in the same broad category. As I wrote in my Overcast announcement, similar-sounding apps can differ tremendously by their respective developers making hundreds of small decisions differently along the way.

Seeking out new niches is good, but often, a niche is underserved because it’s underpopulated. Maybe there aren’t any apps to do X, or the only two X apps suck, because there aren’t enough people who need an X app for any developers to build and maintain a good one.

Emerging markets can also be dangerous because they’re extremely volatile. If your market hasn’t been Sherlocked yet, you don’t know what the effects or extent of a Sherlocking will be. Mature, crowded markets behave much more predictably: the chances of becoming a huge success are smaller, but so are the chances of being suddenly steamrolled out of business.

There are so many to-do, note, weather, and podcast apps because there are tons of potential customers in those categories, and the potential for differentiation is much larger than a simplistic category label suggests. That’s why so many people are dissatisfied with their to-do, note, weather, and podcast options, why so many of them will buy every major new one that comes out, and why there will always be dissatisfied developers making more.

  1. I bet almost everyone who writes about Apple stuff is beta-testing a weather app at least 50% of the time. ↩︎