Death by Fabulously Successful iOS Launch

By  |  Friday, November 5, 2010 at 3:14 pm

It’s become a bizarre rite of passage: Interesting apps for the iPhone and iPad keep appearing, getting attention, and then being literally overwhelmed by consumer response.

The latest example: Skyfire, the smartphone browser that lets you watch some Flash videos on an iPhone. It hit the App Store on Wednesday. Then throngs of people read about it and downloaded it. The app, which is as much a service as a piece of software–it relies servers which translate Flash video into an iPhone-friendly format on the fly–stopped working in any sort of satisfactory way, and its creators yanked it from the App Store.

Now it’s back, sort of –they’re letting in new users in drips and drabs by putting Skyfire on the App Store and then taking it down and then putting it up again. (It seems to be up at the moment.)

At least a couple of eerily similar stories from earlier this year spring to mind:

* In March, Line2, a VoIP app that did a clever job of working around the iPhone’s limitations, debuted, got a glowing review from the New York Times’ David Pogue, and then had severe problems registering new users, at least in part because of a weird denial-of-service attack. Line2 publisher Toktumi pulled the program from the App Store and started letting in users in small batches, and eventually recovered.

* In July, iPad “social magazine” Flipboard launched , got a flurry of enthusiastic coverage, and then suffered server overload that left many users unable to get the app working at all. Its creators reacted in much the same way as the Line2 folks. (They also felt so bad about the whole thing that they canceled their launch party.)

Skyfire, Toktumi, and Flipboard are all small companies; all make apps that rely on a service behind the scenes; all got tons of attention and downloads when they hit Apple’s devices. The nature of Apple’s platforms–millions of users voraciously downloading apps with great ease from the App Store–means that a hit app can go from no users to vast numbers of users in a jiffy, in a way that was less likely to happen on past platforms, and still doesn’t seem to happen on Android or other phone OSes.

Adequately prepping for the onslaught appears to be really tough, and it’s only going to get tougher as more and more people buy these devices.

Then again, both Toktumi and Flipboard managed to recover from their bumpy debuts, so it’s not as if it’s impossible to throw enough technology at this problem to fix it. Maybe they should open side businesses helping other startups sidestep the initial meltdown?


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  1. Rob Says:

    The problem for any of these companies is knowing how popular their app will be. If they overestimate the popularity, then they spend too much on the service wasting precious money. If they underestimate the popularity, then they suffer as you describe in the article. If they implement their service with scalability in mind and rely on one of the cloud-based compute services to provide the hardware, then as demand rises they can make a phone call (as it were) to ask for more resources. If they try to house the service in-house, then that's not possible.