The Making Of An iPhone App

Back when the iPhone 3G was new and the App Store had just launched, it didn’t take much to get the enthusiastic user base to download your app. But four months, 5,500 apps and 200 million downloads later, it’s a bit more complicated. John SanGiovanni, the co-founder and VP of product design for Zumobi, tells me it’s like the dreaded search-engine optimization for the Internet, where you do stuff to get recognized by Google (NSDQ: GOOG) and get listed higher in the rankings. With the iPhone, it’s about making the app as discoverable as possible, so people are more likely to find it and download it, which can make it rise in popularity.
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Since coming to this conclusion, Zumobi has dramatically changed the company’s focus. Instead of creating a single customizable platform that fits a wide variety of interests, they are building a ton of small, individually branded apps that users will hopefully download more readily. SanGiovanni listed examples: Zumobi’s Olympics app, which aggregated news and photos from the games in China, easily bubbled up to the No. 2 spot in the sports category, and the No. 1 spot in the Olympics category. Same goes for the apps it created for 32 pro football teams. And, there’s the upcoming app sponsored by REI that will report the latest ski conditions. “It’s more likely that a user might type in ‘snow’ or ‘REI’ than ‘Zumobi,” SanGiovanni reasoned.
In this scenario, the business model also changes. Zumobi pays for the app’s development, and the brand pays Zumobi each time the app is downloaded. In the case of REI, it’s an advertising opportunity — while three of the four widgets are for mountain conditions, the fourth square is a link to the REI store. Before Zumobi was working alone to get users to download its core platform, called Zumobi, and then from there the users picked from hundreds of widgets that reflected their interests and were supported by advertising. To support the new initiative, Zumobi built an entirely new platform called Ziibii, which launched in the iTunes store over the weekend. The app is a little outside the above philosophy, but does draw on a number of brands. Once the app is downloaded, a user can personalize it with popular feeds, like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
The aggregation model isn’t new, and Yahoo (NSDQ: YHOO) has a similar product called oneConnect, but Ziibii does get points for creativity. Once it’s downloaded and personalized, a river starts flowing across the screen, and little rafts float by with updates from your friends and news feeds. The river can be sped up, slowed down, or stopped. Users can tap on an individual rafts to pull up the full text of a news article, or dive into Facebook. Zumobi can include ad rafts that also float down the river that can be tweaked based on the user’s interests represented in the feeds. For now, Zumobi intends on floating rafts down the river that promote the apps they are building for brands. If it works, it will drive downloads, which are the real money makers. The Seattle-based company, which has recently appointed a new CEO to head up the new initiative, is hoping that this will fly even in a downturn. For brands wanting a presence on the iPhone, Zumobi pays for the app’s development work, and then the brand only pays depending on the app’s success. SanGiovanni: “For us, it’s a recurring revenue stream, and for brands it’s low risk, but both have incentive to promote the apps.”