in iOS

The “One Day” iPhone App Experiment

I’ve been working full time on an iPhone app for the last three months. Realistically, I still have another month ahead of me. Four months is nothing compared to projects for current game consoles, but it’s pretty long for an iPhone app. It’s not like I’m slacking off (I swear that playing WoW has nothing to do with it!), but it’s a relatively complex project for an iPhone, involving 3D graphics, procedural geometry generation, custom user interface, and network access among other things. Definitely not your everyday, quick iPhone app.

teatimeitunesiconA couple of weeks ago, I decided to take a few days off from my project to enjoy the holidays with friends and family. Of course, I couldn’t stop thinking about the project. Soon my thoughts turned to how much more I had to go, and how some parts of the development process were still unknown to me, like the Apple submission process, or making a build for distribution on the App Store.

At that point, inspiration struck, and I decided to use one day during the holidays to write a quick, one-day app. That way it wouldn’t take any time away from my project and I would learn a lot from it. And maybe, just maybe, I would make a buck or two in the process.

The app itself was a very simple tea timer, inspired by tea maker machines: Enter the type of tea you want, the strength, and whether it’s loose leaves or in a bag, and it starts a timer with the correct steeping time for that particular tea. This was such a simple app, that it ended being exactly the way I had visualized the first time I thought about it.

Coding The App

Just coding the app itself was an interesting learning experience. Up until that point, I had spent most of my time on the OpenGL side of the iPhone. Tea Time! on the other hand, was 100% Cocoa Touch, so that was a nice change of pace.

Why did it take me a day? It’s such a trivial app that I should be able to throw it together in a few hours, right? Not quite. I had to deal with all the little quirks of Cocoa Touch, and get around the crippled functionality that Apple exposes in their API (while their own apps use a different API).

For example, it was a bit of a letdown to see I couldn’t add images to the picker control. But my disappointment was immediately replaced with excitement when I saw how easy it was to subclass it and display whatever you wanted in it. Unfortunately, the excitement gave way to annoyance trying to work around some of the bugs Apple still has on the picker control.

It’s really frustrating not having access to the same API Apple uses internally. I wanted to be able to turn off the iPhone while the timer was counting down, and have the device turn back on when the timer ends, just like the built-in alarm. Oh no, can’t do. Apparently that’s reserved for Apple. Fortunately, the longest you’re going to steep a cup of tea is 6-7 minutes, so I just disabled the power-saving feature of the iPhone so it doesn’t go to sleep while it’s counting down.

Even for such a simple application, getting a polished user interface in place takes some effort and time. The Interface Builder allows me to throw a user interface together in a snap just to get the basic functionality up and running. Later, I can come back and tweak it until I’m happy with it. Surprisingly, there are lots of things that the Interface Builder doesn’t allow you to do, so a lot of controls have extra code to tweak some of their parameters (increasing the target area of the info button on the top right corner, or setting the background images for he start/stop buttons, which require a special stretching pattern). Looking on the bright side, it’s very easy to combine a layout from the Interface Builder with custom code, which is a very important lesson for content-creation tools of any kind (and one that a lot of game tools get wrong!).

The rest of the coding time went into all the little things we don’t usually think about: Saving preferences, remembering the last used combination of parameters, getting the right splash screen, etc. All in all, the coding was about a day’s worth of work.

Creating The Content

There’s more to an app than code and a nice GUI layout, especially if you don’t want it to look like a boring spreadsheet: Graphics and sounds. In my first pass, while I was coding the basic functionality, I just grabbed whatever images I found through Google Images and threw them in. Then, once the app was pretty much finished, I set to replace them.

Tea cup

Original photo of my tea cup that became the icon for Tea Time!

That’s harder than it sounds because I’m not a graphic designer. I’m semi-proficient at the Gimp, but that’s about it. I do quite a bit of photography and I love tea though, so I decided to take pictures of the tea I was preparing at home. The main icon of for Tea Time! is just my tea mug with the tea I was having that morning.

The images had to be processed in the Gimp quite a bit. Tweaked colors and brightness, removed background objects, and even altered to fit the constraints of the GUI. For example, the little cups in the picker are the same picture that was then carefully colorized in the Gimp to match different tea types.

For the alarm sound, I was hoping to be able to play the system alarm sounds that come with the iPhone. But again, Apple lets us down by not giving us access to those (Why not???). So I hit a couple web sites with free sounds, selected a few that I liked, and tweaked them with Audacity to get the right length and sampling rate.

It was a really fun process getting all the content ready. I really enjoyed it and it was a nice break from coding, but it sucked almost another full day of work. So my “one day” app, was already almost up to two days. But at least I was done now. Right?

Submitting The App

I had done ad-hoc builds before, but I hadn’t prepared one for submission to the App Store. So I had to figure that out: Create a new distribution certificate, create a new configuration in XCode, test it… Not too bad.

Then I had to sign up for iTunes Connect and agree to a bunch of legalese non-sense. It was all done online and really quick, so that wasn’t a problem either. Finally I was ready to submit the app and be done with it. I had to write up a description, figure out the categories it would be listed under, take screenshots, and prepare a high-res cover art. I get all that ready, I fill out the submission form, and press submit. Done!

Oh wait, I get a message about not being able to get paid until I get a contract in place. What? Apparently when I signed up for iPhone development that only covered free applications, but I needed to set up a new contract in place with Apple if I was going to sell anything. So I had to enter bank ids, account numbers, tax information, and everything else. Once all that information was in place, my contract was in “Reviewing” state, and a couple days later it was approved without any hitches. Be warned that if you’re not in the US, apparently you have to mail a physical form to them before they approve the contract, so the process is likely to be much longer.

Along with the price (a very obvious $0.99), I had to set the “Availability date” for the app. I had read horror stories of developers who finally had their app approved, just to find it buried ten pages into the “New Releases” list in iTunes. The guys over at Veiled Games, explained how the release date is a combination of when the app is approved and the availability date you set. So I set the availability date to two weeks in the future and was ready to tweak it if necessary.

Are we done yet? Not quite. The submission page wanted a URL for a web page describing the app, and I didn’t have anything ready. I didn’t want to just point to a page in this blog, and I had been thinking that I should set up a company as a real legal entity for doing iPhone development and consulting. Fortunately, I had gone through this process before with Power of Two Games, so it was relatively easy and painless, especially since this was a single-member LLC. So the rest of the day was spent coming up with a company name (Snappy Touch), registering the domain (http://snappytouch.com), registering the LLC (in the state of Oregon no less because it’s a lot cheaper than California), installing WordPress in the new domain, and setting up a basic page describing Tea Time!.

Finally done! Total time: Three days.

Waiting And Waiting

But Tea Time! wasn’t on the App Store yet. It had just entered the review process. Now I had to wait for Apple to approve it (or reject it so I can fix it). I heard from other developers that the usual wait time was about two weeks, but between this coinciding with the new year, and Apple getting swamped with submissions for the holidays, I figured I would be more like three or four weeks. Glad nothing was riding on this app getting out quickly.

A few days later, when I was checking out the info for Tea Timer! in the Apple submission site, while it was still in review, I was shocked to see it was listed as requiring SDK 2.2. That made no sense! I made a point to develop it for SDK 2.0 so every iPhone and iPod Touch user could buy it. I made really sure I selected SDK 2.0 when I created the iTunes distribution build. What gives? Apparently just building against SDK 2.0 wasn’t enough. I actually had to change the project settings to set SDK 2.0 as the default. That’s a sneaky one!

So what to do? I rejected my own binary and uploaded a new, updated one. This one was correctly listed as requiring SDK 2.0. I wasn’t too happy at having to do that because I’m sure it put me back to the end of the line, but this is exactly the kind of thing I was hoping to learn with Tea Time! in a no-pressure situation.

Waiting is no fun, so I made things a bit more interesting. Since I had gone to the trouble of creating a legal company, I decided to change my Apple Developer account to be a company instead of an individual. That way the company information would show up correctly in iTunes whenever Tea Time! was available. I figured this would be a matter of checking off a checkbox in my account settings, but apparently not. I had to email the Apple Developer Connection support with the request, wait a few days for an answer, and then provide some legal proof that the company existed (like the articles of incorporation). Once I emailed those, they initiated the conversion process, during which time I was locked out of my account for three days.ย  What does it take to change one bit in my account record??? Fortunately I had nothing else better to do than wait by this time, and it wasn’t impeding any work on my other project.

Finally!

The very next day after getting changed over as a company status, I got the much-awaited email from Apple announcing that Tea Time! was approved. That was just a week and a half after my initial submission. That was fast, especially considering I re-submitted the binary half way through. I reset my availability date to that day, and within a couple of hours, there it was, in the App Store. Mission accomplished!

Now, I get to learn about the sales reports, and, if I ever sell enough units, getting payments from Apple. They won’t make a payment until you accumulate at least $250 in profit from a single territory, so I’m not holding my breath for that one ๐Ÿ™‚

The “one day” app really took three days of work plus a week and a half of waiting. All in all, two weeks from idea to the moment it was available on the App Store. The process could be faster, but it wasn’t too bad. The experience was a lot of fun, and I certainly learned a lot from my mistakes and what things to watch out for next time, when it really counts.

  • Why not make it a free app? It seems like something so simple that it wouldn’t be worth even the $1, but perhaps I’m mistaken? Do enough of these actually sell to make a profit off of them? I’m hoping you’ll write an entry about the sales of it later :).

  • foo

    “The tea types available are: black, green, white, oolong, and herbal.”
    Is oolong a real tea or is this working with Wolfgang’s engine? ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Thanks for sharing your experiences, Noel.

  • @Austin: Yes, I could have made it free, but I wouldn’t have learned all the aspects involved with setting up a paid app on the App Store, which was a huge part of it. I wouldn’t have had to set up the new type of contract, or deal with sales reports, or payments, or anything.

    Oh, and Oolong is a real tea type. It’s just that Wolfgang likes tea quite a bit as well (he was my beta tester ๐Ÿ™‚ )

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  • Oolong is real tea.

    Herbals, however, are not. ๐Ÿ™‚

    You need to add pu-erh tea, which can be steeped, oh, as long as you like, literally. 20 minutes is not unheard of.

    Ideally, it would be great to set your own steeping times and add your own teas. But there’s plenty of flexibility in the combination to alleviate that.

    It would also be cool to have it play some soothing sounds during steeping. And have the type of tea reflected in the waiting image. Or have steam rise from it. Because a tea timer is such a simple app, aesthetic concerns matter and can set it apart from similar apps.

    @Austin: Why should it be free? It provides value to me. Why should I get that for free? Because Noel is a fast and skilled coder and can chuck it out in a day? While it was a learning experience for him, it still took development time.

  • Hi!

    Glad we could be of help… And congrats on getting a quick and easy app out there. Anyone else thinking about developing for the iPhone, be sure to read our blog to find out a little bit of reality and advice on the iPhone development scene. http://www.VeiledGames.com

    Best of luck with your next project!

  • What do you lose sticking with 2.0 vs 2.2? Also do you have an estimate of how many people are still pre 2.2?

  • Jason

    Quick question: How did you increase the target size of the info button? I’ve been having some troubles doing that, got a hack working for it but wondering how you did it?

  • @Kevin: I’m not sure what percentage of people I would lose with 2.2 vs 2.0. The consensus in the Apple forum was to target 2.0, but then I read a discussion in another forum saying that most people are upgrading to 2.2. So I don’t really know. Probably my next project is going to be 2.2 because I want to use AVAudioPlayer.

    @Jason: In the view controller for the view with the info button, I just added this code to resize it the hard way:

    - (void)viewDidLoad
    {
    [super viewDidLoad];
    const int border = 10;
    CGRect frame = m_infoButton.frame;
    frame.size.width += border*2;
    frame.size.height += border*2;
    frame.origin.x -= border;
    frame.origin.y -= border;
    m_infoButton.frame = frame;
    //...
    }

  • derChef

    @Austin,

    I am not saying this in a trolling manner; Why should he offer his work for free? Everyone has this feeling of entitlement these days when it comes to software, music, and movies.

  • pierre

    Hey,

    IANAL, but, as you live in California, aren’t you required to ALSO register your LLC in California (and paiy the infamous annual $800) ?

    Thank you for sharing this experience with us.

  • @pierre, IANALE, but from the research I did, it seems that I can register my LLC anywhere in the US as long as I don’t have a “physical nexus” (as in, an office or a store). Since I’m a 100% virtual business, then I can do it anywhere and bypass the California $800 fee.

    Someone else asked me about that today, so I’ll write a quick post with what I found and how I registered the LLC. And if I’m wrong… I’d rather have someone point it out now than once the money starts rolling in ๐Ÿ™‚

  • pierre

    You may be right ๐Ÿ˜‰

    The trick is to know if you are transaction business in CA or not, and according to http://www.myllc.com/which-state-to-form-llc.aspx :


    Tip! – A good way to determine whether or not you are โ€œtransacting businessโ€ in your home state is if you lease office space or have employees there. If either of these are the case, then you will most likely be required to register to transact business in your state and it will be much easier if you just form your corporation or LLC there in the first place.

    If you do not have a brick and mortar business, such as an internet-based company or a consulting business, then you may have some more options open to you.

    Let’s see if someone else here has an opinion about that

  • Dean

    @ derChef I have to agree. If people don’t want to pay for it, they don’t have to buy it.

    Whenever someone says something like this, I tell them that I’d be happy to do that, as long as they’d be willing to go to where they work and work for free for a few days. That usually shuts them up.

  • Thanks for posting your experience. Interesting blog post about something I’ve been curious about for a while now, how quickly an iPod app can go from concept to being available through Itunes.

  • Jake

    @Austin

    Really, it didn’t take a leap of the imagination to put the sentence about pricing into the context of the whole article did it… I wonder how many other $0.99 apps are designed to test the waters… 3 days work is nothing if you think you can get 25% on top of something you’ve been working on for 4 months.

  • Hayden

    Hi Noel, These types of posts are brilliant! Ever thought how many global human hours you’ve just saved?

    regards

  • Andrew

    Just a thought; you could store the time that the timer was started in the core. That way, if you leave the program you could quickly calculate how much time is remaining ๐Ÿ™‚

  • @Andrew, Good idea. I can actually do better than that: I’ll use the system time to know when it was started, so if you leave the app in the timer screen, you’ll get the correct time remaining when you come back. I was going to push an update this weekend with a couple minor fixes, so I’ll add this in as well. Thanks for the suggestion!

  • Hi,

    I’m curious if your tea app has sold much. Would you be willing to share any sales numbers? I’m just starting out on iphone development myself and am just curious about these sorts of things.

    Thanks for the great writeup.

    jeremy

  • Jacek

    Hi Noel. That’s is a nice article. How are your earnings so far?

  • Tom

    Great article, really interesting. I was wondering how you made the icon; i presume you made yourself in gimp. What dimensions do you need? Do you make the rounded corners yourself or does apple add that? What about the specular reflection at the top of lots of icons?