The Evolution of an Underground Copycat App Environment

Back of the Envelope Math

Modern day “App Stores” have existed for roughly 5 years. In that time, two operating systems have emerged as the runaway victors: iOS and Android. iOS, Apple’s brainchild, and Android, Google’s platform, each possess a little over 800,000 apps within their app store. That’s 1.6+ million apps, which roughly equates to almost 900 new apps being submitted to these stores every day. Forget app updates and tweaks – that’s a handful just by itself.

And from a revenue standpoint, consider the following: Apple announced in early June that its developers had just accumulated over $10 Billion in App Store Revenue. With Apple taking a 30% cut, this amounts to roughly $14.5 billion dollars of revenue generated from app purchases on iOS. And with iOS raking in 74 percent of all app revenue and Android taking the rest according to Canalys, the mobile app market has generated close to $20 Billion in revenue in under 5 years.

And interestingly enough, as this industry has exploded in magnitude, the company that literally invented and popularized software licensing, Microsoft, has watched idly from the sidelines.

How the Players have changed

For the past thirty years, Microsoft has been at the forefront of all things apps, and they have had the revenue and margins to support that claim. There has been a simple logic to their approach, create an environment that allows developers to succeed, and the growth will snowball. Best-in-standard tools and frameworks such as Visual Studio and .NET, combined with massive developer support, have created a thriving Windows ecosystem that is estimated at over 2.5 million apps. History has been the ultimate arbiter of Microsoft’s success, which owns 90 percent of the desktop computing market, consumer and enterprise combined.

However, Microsoft’s software prowess hasn’t shown as brightly in mobile devices; Windows Phone has been dwarfed by iOS and Android. In an interesting turn of events, Microsoft, the company that turned software into an entity worth paying for, has struggled greatly to create developer support for its mobile platform.

Part of this has been because the software giant was late to the smartphone arena by two years. And the other part has been because they haven’t quite reached the critical mass to entice developers to their platform. According to Gartner, while Windows Phone sold approximately 6 million phones last quarter, Android sold 156 million phones – a telling tale of the disparity between the two. But, the lack of big name apps has had some unintended positive side effects for a select few.

A classier kind of Copycat

Copycat apps, or copy capps, if you will, have existed for generations. In the mobile realm, you’ll find they are even more prevalent. For every one Angry Birds or Fruit Ninja on an App Store, there are dozens of Cut the Birds. And ‘derivative’ works don’t just come from smaller developers – they come from large firms imitating smaller ones as well. Large gaming studios like Zynga have used their ample engineering resources to imitate smaller games like Tiny Tower. And obviously, large companies love to parrot other large companiesto maintain feature parity (see Instagram vs Vine). Small copying big, big copying small, big copying big – copy capping exists everywhere.

However, interestingly enough, a new form of copy capping has emerged in the Windows Phone platform, one that has emerged via an unusual set of circumstances.
Say hello to the classy copy capp.

Window Phone copy capps

What happens when large companies don’t code their software for small platforms? Windows Phone copy capps.

Chances are you have heard of the likes of YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, and Vine. These are some of the most widely used products on the web and mobile today, and you probably have some or even all of these installed on your smartphone. Unless that is, you own a Windows Phone. The platform has zero official support for quite a large number of extremely popular apps even apart from the above; however, a grassroots movement has generated unofficial support for the platform. Meet MetroTubeInstanceScrapbookSwapchat, and 6sec, the not-so-cheap knockoffs that Windows Phone has to its name.

Make no mistake, these are unofficial apps that aren’t supported by the actual companies – yet they are professional-grade. With millions of users on the platform, independent developers have taken the opportunity to create rich high-quality experiences that look professional, perform reliably, and match most or all the functionality that the official iOS or Android apps have. An ideal melting pot of tech conditions has enabled this class of high-quality ‘alternatives’ – first, lack of official developer support, second, a growing customer base on Windows Phone, and third, available APIs that allow independent developers to capture these datafeeds.

The proof in the quality of these copycapps has been telling from a revenue standpoint as well, as independent developers have been able to earn quite a bit from their work. Apps like MetroTube and Instance now sit at the top of the paid section of Windows Phone’s App Store, making it potentially lucrative for small developers to try their hand at building these apps.

So what’s next for the copy capp space? At least on these smaller platforms like Windows Phone – the demand for copy capps will grow. Ultimately, support for the most popular services like YouTube, Instagram and others dictate a platform’s success. And while the critical mass of these platforms don’t quite appetize large app makers like the Google and Facebook yet, small developers realize there is tremendous opportunity to make money by meeting the pent-up demand in the growing marketplace with unofficial, yet highly professional copy capps.

And that progression will continue, until inevitably, everyone starts litigating.

- Originally featured on Huffington Post

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