The filmmaker behind ‘App: The Human Story’ talks about the struggles developers face

Ever since smartphones became the default computers that we carry our pockets, the apps that run on them and the stores that sell these apps have created a new kind of economy for software. Apple’s App Store has swelled to more than 2.5 million apps, while the Google Play Store surpasses that with 2.8 million apps available. But even as these companies boast about the payouts to app makers — last month Apple said that developer earnings had surpassed $ 70 billion — the truth is that many app makers have a hard time making any significant money from their mobile app businesses.

That’s partly what inspired filmmakers Jake Schumacher, Jedidiah Hurt, and Adam Lisagor to spend three and a half years producing a documentary about apps — or more specifically, the people who make them. “App: The Human Story” follows different groups of indie developers as they go through the app building, fundraising, store approval, and selling processes (including Cabel Sasser and Steven Frank of Oregon-based Panic, Melissa Hargis and Nicki Klein of Chorbit, and Ish Shabazz, who makes a variety of apps under the LLC Illuminated Bits). The “devaluation of apps” is a core theme of the film, according to Schumacher, along with the “struggle for sustainability.”

The film was screened last month as part of a peripheral event at Apple’s WWDC, and is slated to be released late summer. The Verge interviewed Schumacher about the inspiration behind the film, the biggest complaints he heard from developers, and his thoughts on the future of apps. The interview below has been lightly edited and condensed for length.

Lauren Goode: Are you an app maker yourself?

Jake Schumacher: I have a partner in an app that’s in the App Store. It’s just kind of sitting there. It’s called Quantify. It allows you to heat map interviews. You would rate the small talk as zero, and then as we get into things of interest, you could give it a one or two or three, so you have a heat-mapped audio recording and you can jump back to the key parts really easily. We made it as an interview tool, and then Marc Edwards was super generous and offered to design it for us.

LG: How long have you been working on the film?

JS: In earnest about three and a half years. We did six months of prep for our Kickstarter, and launched that three years ago almost to the day. And we’ve been in active production for about three years, and mostly editing the last year and a half.

LG: What made you want to make this film?

JS: My now co-director and I are both from a small town — Elko, Idaho. We were celebrating winning a small film festival there that I had entered and won. He was interested in getting into mobile development, and I was interested in making a feature film. It was sort of a world I found fascinating. I was going to document him making his first app, which in retrospect was a terrible idea. But then I moved to L.A. about five years ago, and I met Adam Lisagor who runs Sandwich Video. He happens to know a few prominent app developers, and he introduced us, and we just sort of went from there.

LG: Does the film only emphasize iOS app makers, or are there Android apps and app makers, too?

JS: Matias Duarte [the vice president of Material Design at Google] is in it. We have other [Android-focused] people around in it. We kind of focus on iOS as the main subject because of the stated values of Apple and what the App Store has become. And also, because of what was happening with indie developers. A lot of these people are longtime app developers who have stuck with Apple even since 1997. It’s kind of this unrequited love story.

LG: And how many developers total have you interviewed?

JS: Around 46 or 47. I think we’re going to release the full interviews from around 40.

LG: What surprised you the most in your conversations with app makers? Were there any consistent themes that kept coming up?

JS: I think the struggle for sustainability in the App Store. A lot of these people or companies are prominent developers, they’ve been making apps for a long time, they may be very successful companies, and they’re still talking about sustainability, trying to figure it out. I think early on the tools didn’t mature for mobile developers in terms of selling their [software]. On Mac or on the web they could do things like upgrade pricing, they could do free trials and say, hey, pay $ 50 to start, they could let a consumer kick the tires and make a decision.

LG: Last year Apple made some changes to the App Store revenue split for long-term subscriptions, they were really pushing subscriptions, and started to finally address some of the things developers had been asking for [The Vergewrote about it extensively], but is there one thing you heard developers say they still wish they had or would change?

JS: I think most developers wish, if Apple gave them everything they wanted…there’s a valuation problem that’s happened in the past. The devaluation of apps is kind of core to the film. So many people assume an app should be free. There are too many instances of a 99-cent app becoming “too expensive.” So even if developers had every tool tomorrow, there’s some damage that’s been done. I think if they could have something they would get more of a percentage back. That original pitch for the 30 percent [Apple’s share of revenue] — the promise of curation, and promotion — I don’t know if that was ever fully delivered on.

LG: There have been instances of very successful app makers, people making money, actually being spammy or downright scammy, like this recent Medium story. Is that addressed in the film?

JS: People in the film really covered the idea of addiction-based games. There was definitely frustration there. These are people who care about humanity or who are trying to build real tools, and these game makers…some people would argue that this is a free market doing what it will. But it’s not a free market. It’s Apple’s App Store. So I think one frustrating thing is that Apple shows the revenue paid to developers, but I think a lot of indie developers would like to see how much of that goes to spammy game makers.

LG: What do you think “apps” will be in five years? Right now it seems like there are trends towards people downloading fewer new apps, and there are contextually aware notifications happening that mean you don’t even have to open apps, and then there’s voice control… do you think mobile apps will still be mobile apps in five years, in the same containers, or will they be totally different?

JS: I sure like the trend towards disappearing apps, where apps are moving toward the peripheral. I like the idea of them being less in our face and [requiring] less interaction; apps that know what you need, when you need it.

Editor’s note: A trailer for the film can be found here. I noted to Schumacher that the trailer contains an overwhelming number of male speakers and only one speaking female developer, but Schumacher said that a new trailer is in the process of being cut and that the film itself features female app developers as a key part of the storyline.

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