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Is your iPhone app a purple cow?

October 19th, 2009 Jeremy Jeremy

purple cowImagine while driving down a country road you see a cow. It is “gamboling”—playfully skipping about—quite amusing, really. You may point out the window and show your kids.

You drive on.

A few more cows gambole by. You may look on with some interest.

As you drive on you begin to pass herds of hundreds of cows. You stop pointing; you stop looking; your gaze remains steady on the road ahead. Nothing new here.

All of a sudden, however, in the midst of the pleasant mediocrity, you see something odd in the corner of your eye. You can’t believe it. Pulling your car to the side of the road, you get out just to be sure… and yes… it is indeed…

A purple cow.

According to Seth Godin (from whom I borrow the illustration), this field of mediocrity is the state of the modern market in general. It also is the state of the app store.

Hundreds of apps flow into the beautiful country side that is the app store. Some of them are brown and muddy—throw away apps built to make a quick buck. Most of them are black and white. They are good, they are usable, they may even meet a real need (try searching “unit converter” in the app store). They all, however, have one thing in common: they are not remarkable.

If you want to succeed on the app store, your app must be a purple cow, it must be remarkable if it is to stand out among the sea of apps.

Of course, there are plenty of techniques to make your app stand out. Obviously, the name matters, the icon matters, the screenshots matter but those are largely superficial.

When someone starts using your app, do they say “wow”? Would they want to show their friends?

7 Examples

Lets cut the theory. Consider the following apps:

1253752228-originalRedlaser uses the iPhones unique features—namely, a decent quality camera and constant connectivity—to revolutionize offline shopping. Its barcode scanning actually works. Remarkable.

images-2OmniFocus gave heavy duty GTD enthusiasts every feature they wanted to fulfill their philosophy. Its not a light weight app and it isn’t particularly fun to use but to GTD enthusiasts, its remarkable. Over 50,000 people have payed $20 for the app.

imagesThings took a different approach. They built an easier and infinitely prettier solution to task management. It was remarkable and both products do extremely well.
images-1Appbox Pro took all the useful 99 cent widgets that were showing up on the app store and bundled them into a single 99 cent app. Remarkable for price and convenience.


The label eReader doesn't do Classics justice

The label eReader doesn’t do Classics justice

Convert, Classics, and Tapbot’s apps are not only useful but fun to use. Their interactions are remarkable.

Loren Brichter, the developer of Tweetie, realized that a Twitter client for the iPhone has to be crazy fast. He took the time to optimize—not only for speed but for the functions most tweeters use most. He also cleverly integrated with a plethora of useful Twitter services like TwitPic, TwitLonger, etc. to make for an all around remarkable package and a top grossing app on the app store.

Last, and in a completely different realm of remarkable, iSteam was novel. You blow into the microphone to steam up a window, then draw pictures with your fingers and watch the droplets fall (which, droplets you can manipulate by tilting your iPhone). This app, which I would categorize with apps like iFart, is remarkable because it is fun and novel. Trying to make it big on novelty is risky: it doesn’t happen often.

Other than being remarkable, one common denominator for all these apps is incredible success. These apps made it big. I use them to illustrate that there is a world of opportunity on the app store but don’t kid yourself into thinking you can win if your not a purple cow.


  • Read Seth Godin’s Purple Cow
  • Go through some of the top grossing apps and try to identify why each is remarkable (feel free to comment)
  • Evaluate how your app-in-the-making could be remarkable.

Extra credit: watch Seth Godin’s talk on why marketing is too important to be left to the marketing department.

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