Simon has been involved in software development since the days of paper tape. He has developed niche software for information management.
What Is Niche Software?
Niche software is software for performing some kind of specialized function of interest to a small proportion of potential users. Its potential market is a small proportion of computer owners, which makes it unattractive for software giants. Businesses commonly use niche software for functions related to their area of operation, and individuals may use it occasionally and often irregularly.
There may not be many niche application users compared to the number who might use something with a broad application like an anti-virus application (apparently the most popular), but over the hundreds of millions of computer users, there should be enough demand to create a viable product, and the Internet provides a channel for reaching potential users at modest cost. Niche developers are often individuals or small companies, often motivated by faith in the virtues of their products rather than financial gain. UK developer Andy Brice has a website containing a great deal of useful information for small development operations.
There is an enormous amount of niche software available. If it's possible to do it on a computer, there is probably some software available to do it. The near-ubiquity of internet connectivity and readily available government data in the developed world make it easy to develop sophisticated applications.
Choosing Your Niche and Naming Your Application
What niche you target with your application makes a big difference to your success, but your experience and interest will probably lead you to focus on a particular area. If you target a popular niche with a large number of products available (for example, anti-virus software), then you need to offer some very compelling reason why people should use your software rather than already existing products. Making your product free when your competitors all charge for theirs is not usually adequate unless you can offer equal or greater functionality and ease of use. Software for a popular niche may well have a high rate of downloads but a low rate of sales for paid software. If your software is permanently free, this is not an issue, and if the software achieves thousands of downloads per day, you will be able to obtain income from advertisements on your web site rather than from users.
If your target niche is narrow, with few or no competing products, then your download rate will be much lower, but downloaders are much more likely to be willing to pay for your product.
In today's search-dominated world, the name of a product may be the difference between widespread adoption and oblivion. There's always advice available—you can even use software to generate a name! Key points are to make it unique, memorable, search engine friendly and with an available domain name. Even if the name already appears on an existing product, it may well be different enough in functionality not to matter.
What Platform Should I Build My Niche Application for?
Whilst the choice of platform doesn't strongly affect how you'll market a niche application, it is an important choice. A search for "Desktop or Web Platforms for Applications" will provide a large set of opinions on this issue, some from clearly vested interests.
Platforms can be grouped into mobile phones, tablets, desktops, and web apps. There are many different aspects to the comparison between mobile devices and desktops; sales of devices, website visits, time spent on websites and likelihood of app purchase on mobiles and desktops. The pros and cons of the various platforms are listed below:
Whilst popular, these devices have small screens compared to desktops, and the touch-only interface constrains the design. Samsung (running the Android operating system) leads by market share, followed by Apple (running iOS). It is difficult but not impossible to build an application to run on both platforms. The main route to getting applications on mobile phones is via the Apple AppStore for iPhones or Google Play for Android phones. Both of these distribution platforms qualify apps before they are made available in the stores and charge a fee for listing. They will also take about 30% of any sales income. The costs of each of these options are discussed here. Other app stores for these platforms are appearing, but they have a much smaller range of offerings
Apple's iPad dominates this market, followed by Samsung. Microsoft also offers a tablet, running Windows 10. Apps for Windows 10 are available from the Microsoft Store, which has similar commercial arrangements to Google Play and the Apple App Store. Tablets have only a touch interface and use an on-screen keyboard for typing.
Desktops and Laptops
The desktop/laptop market is mainly divided between devices running Windows and Apple products running iOS. Windows devices dominate the market. Apps for Windows can be downloaded and installed from developer web sites or other sources such as software libraries. Apps for Windows 10 can also be obtained from the Microsoft Store.
Desktop deployment is fraught with problems—the different flavors and versions of operating systems, use of non-standard locations, unexpected apostrophes and interactions with other software, to name but a few, but generally offer a richer and more controllable user interface.
The development of a web application is attractive on many levels. Access via a web browser means that it is accessible from all platforms, and only one version of the code needs to be maintained. The code also runs in a much more controlled environment. Server rental and domain registration are both inexpensive. Users may prefer to use a web application rather than install a dedicated application, especially if the functionality is used irregularly. However, there are some downsides:
- A different interface may be required for desktops and mouseless mobile devices with small screens
- If the application requires the ability to send emails, the email server must be protected from hacking, as unprotected email servers may be hacked and harnessed to send spam, resulting in the IP address of the server and the domain being blacklisted.
- The interface may look different on different browsers
- Users have less loyalty to web applications than to installed applications
- If large data volumes have to be uploaded, users with low bandwidth connections will be experience reduced performance
What Tools Should I Use to Develop My Application?
There are many Integrated Development Environments (IDEs) available using a wide variety of programming languages, summarised here. IDEs provide compilation, debugging and build features in single package. Microsoft's offering goes under the name Visual Studio and in recent years it has been extended to allow development of applications for desktops, mobile devices (iOS and Android) and web applications from a single code base. Community versions of Visual Studio are available free for Windows and MacOS. These have all the features of the paid version but are restricted to single developers or small teams.
IDEs are large, complex applications and may have a forbidding learning curve, but once mastered they greatly simplify code maintenance and deployment. If you considering a multi-platform application, then separating the interface from the rest of the code will save you a lot of time. Whilst command-line applications can fairly easily be made to work on different platforms, interfaces are much more difficult and will often need to be completely rebuilt, especially if applications span touch-only devices such as phones and tablets and mouse-driven computers.
How Should I Price My Niche Application?
An emerging trend in applications is to provide a free option—almost all software offers a free download. The major exception is software from app stores. While many app store products are free (although often with an option to make purchases within the app), others require payment before downloading. Perhaps the rigors of placing a product in an app store give purchasers the confidence that they will be paying for something which functions as expected.
A free download may offer full functionality for a limited period (often described as a free trial license), limited functionality for an unlimited period, or full functionality indefinitely but with advertisements, which are removed on payment of a license fee. Applications may also be free for an unlimited period and without advertisements but provide an opportunity to donate to the creator. Free applications may require submission of a valid email address, possibly with consent to use the address for other purposes. Payment methods commonly use an online payment system such as PayPal.
The choice of price point is largely determined by that used by similar products. Your application may aim for a particular niche, but there are likely to be similar applications already available, which have at least some of the functionality which your application provides. If your application price is much greater, this may deter potential purchasers. Application licenses may be permanent or expire after a fixed period. As users tend to be influenced more by the size of payment rather than the period of operation it provides, they may be more willing to pay $10 each month for 12 months than to make a single $60 payment for a 12-month subscription, even though the monthly cost is only $5 for this option. The ability to create automatically repeating payments via a credit card makes the former option more attractive.
Selling a permanent license simplifies development, but a continual flow of license sales is required to maintain a regular income. This may be achieved by charging for a license to use versions of the software which have had a major upgrade. A large discount is usually applied if a license for an earlier version has been purchased. However, users may be reluctant to pay even a discounted license fee and may continue to use earlier versions of the application, which will require support.
Licensing for a period does provide some feedback on the value which the application is providing to users: if they do not obtain any value from the application, they will not pay to renew the license.
Making the application free indefinitely simplifies development and operation still further, but making an application free does not remove the necessity for good, simple interface design. Users would rather pay to use a well-designed application rather than a poorly designed free one. The availability of very cheap or free website hosting means that applications that look like student projects can be found, usually without any licensing constraints but with a donation button to allow users to contribute if they feel inclined. Such applications may be excellent technically but are often exemplars of poor interface design.
How Should I Market My Niche Application?
The effort required to market software is much greater than the effort to develop it. Developers like creating software, not marketing it, and small operations producing niche software are generally dominated by developers. The Internet offers the possibility of reaching potential users worldwide, but the competition for attention is so intense that this possibility is difficult to realize. There is some guidance available on marketing from companies such as Struto and Software Marketing Advisor.
Search and Pay-per-Click Advertising
With most users finding products on the Internet via Google Search, Google has become a verb as well as a huge industry player. Most of its income comes from advertising via Google Ads (formerly AdWords). Advertisers bid to have their advertisements shown in search results when a particular search word or phrase is used. The highest bid over a certain threshold gets the advertisement shown on the first page of search results. Bids below a threshold value result in the advertisements only being shown at certain times. Lower-ranking bids result in the ad appearing further down in the search results. Google is paid every time a user clicks on an advertisement, which usually leads to a product or service website. This type of advertising is called Pay-per-click or PPC. It is available in many online environments as well as search—social media such as Facebook and LinkedIn. Peer-review software library sites such as Capterra (which aims mainly at businesses buying software), may include user comments about applications. Here the PPC rather than the free option buys a higher position in the search rankings within their many categories and a link to your website. They also offer a free landing page design service.
Pay-per-click (PPC) advertising has become highly refined, but for niche software offered as a free download or install, users have to purchase a license in order to make a sale. The reality is that many users may download, most will install, but very few will purchase a license. Online software purchase statistics are discussed at length by UK niche developer Andy Brice. This is no different from general e-commerce websites selling tangible products, where few visitors will make a purchase. However, tangible products are not generally available without charge and do not require payment for access to updates, for additional functionality, or to remove advertisements. Selling software is a different proposition from selling products or physical services from a website. For this reason, pay-per-click advertising for low-cost software is unlikely to justify its cost, even if the click-through rate of the advertisements is high.
Of course, if your website is popular enough, it will appear on the first page of Google search results without any advertising. Search results based only on the relevance of the site to your query are known as organic search results. If you create a new web site with a description of your application, a facility for downloading the application installer and a method of paying for a license and follow all the guidelines for attracting traffic, you are likely to be disappointed. You will be lucky if your web site appears within the first 10 pages of Google search results if you search for your product name or its area of functionality.
The reason for this is Google’s web page ranking algorithm—new web sites with no links to them do not achieve a high search ranking to put them in the first few pages of search results. Google’s rise to pre-eminence started when it showed search results based on the number of links to a site containing at least one of the search terms rather than the frequency of occurrence of the search terms. This algorithm was easy to hack using ‘link farms’—separate web pages with multiple links to another web site. Renting or creating a link farm was a relatively easy way of boosting the search ranking of a particular site. Nowadays, Google (and most other search engines) use more sophisticated ranking algorithms, which prioritize sites with high-quality links pointing to it and newer content. These are much harder to manipulate, but this will not discourage Search Engine Optimiser (SEO) companies from contacting you via email to tell you that your website needs improvement and that they can get your website to appear on the first page of Google search results. A rule of thumb is that if they can do it, they are probably using methods that Google disapproves of, and if they find out, Google may blacklist your site so it cannot be found by search. SEO companies are unreceptive to suggestions of sharing profits from increased traffic—payment for their services always has to be upfront.
The process of obtaining software for mobile phones and tablets has been greatly streamlined by App stores. Apple’s App Store has over 2 million apps for their mobile products and the Google Play Store has over 3 million for Android devices. Microsoft Store offers a choice of about 700,000 apps for Windows 10 devices (desktops and tablets). There are also a number of much smaller, specialized stores. Apps can be browsed by category and searched for, and whilst many apps are free to install, payment facilities are integrated for apps that are not free to download.
For niche applications that are unlikely to attract millions of users, App Stores are unlikely to be cost-effective, but there is no other route for getting apps onto mobile phones, so free-to-install apps usually have an option to pay for greater functionality or removal of advertisements. There may be developer registration costs, and the App Store generally takes 30% of sales income. Microsoft Store only pays developers when total sales exceed $200. Windows developers can make Windows 10 (Universal Windows Platform or UWP) applications available as downloadable files without using an app store. The UWP application installation and operation uses a more modern approach than the self-extracting installers based on MSI file technology, which dates back to the early days of Windows.
Software libraries (also known as software discovery portals or software download sites) offer a wide range of software for download, often categorized and with search facilities. They provide a standardized interface and fund themselves via advertising. Software is required to be free to download, and there is not usually a cost or qualification process to have software listed, although there some libraries which check for the presence of malware. Some libraries accept submissions of software, while others select which products to make available. Examples of software libraries are Softpedia, Softonic, FileHippo, Fileour, and CNET. They all suffer from the same problem as PPC advertising— hundreds of downloads but no license sales. Some libraries perform independent reviews of software, which may be far more informative than the material produced by the organization creating the software, but these do not seem to convince users to purchase licenses. Libraries may keep up with new releases of software automatically, but independent reviews are usually one-offs. If you put a product into a library and it gets a lukewarm or negative review, this will tend to stay there even if you address all of the issues mentioned.
A further problem with software from libraries is support: applications can be found in libraries long after the developer has moved on to other things, resulting in contact facilities leading to a web site or an email address that is not working. In such cases, what you download is all that you will ever get. If the application does not work properly in your environment, then you're on your own to find a fix.
The Internet has revolutionized publishing: any web site, costing a minimal amount to set up, has a potential audience of hundreds of millions of people. In principle, any Internet-connected person can read what you have to say about your software, download it, and perhaps pay for it. The problem is letting them know your software exists in an Internet with over 2 billion websites. Writing for the Internet is now very common: one estimate of the current blog (short for weblog) count is 500 million. Writing a blog about the area your niche software is addressing is one way of attracting traffic—but you had better make sure you can create new, relevant, and interesting content on a regular basis. Numerous software web sites have a blog: often, the most recent posting is from several years ago. Blogs frequently attract spam - often a generically positive comment that could apply to any blog. Spam comments have a URL leading to a completely unrelated site, often about online gambling or porn. It is worth checking the URLs of all blog comments before approving them and being suspicious of any comment that does not relate to the material posted, even if highly complimentary. Facebook sites for software products are fairly common too, and tend to suffer from the problem of initial enthusiasm followed by neglect.
There are a number of user-generated content sharing web sites, which can be thought of as online magazines, some of which are reviewed here. They generally cover a massive range of topics, but they nearly all have a technology area. It’s possible to earn significant income as a writer for these platforms, but for the niche software developer, the platforms offer a very cost-effective way of generating traffic and sales through review articles. As a niche developer, you will probably have acquired a profound knowledge of your domain, and of products operating in it. If you can write an unbiased and thorough review of all the products available, it will attract a steady stream of visitors, most of whom will read the entire article. Readers will mainly locate your article via Google, and it may be that if users pick your review of a set of search results or a query like '[niche] software review' and then spend some time reading it, the ranking of your article, and thus your traffic, will increase. However, it’s a slow process: the two software review articles I have written both took 6 months to reach their plateau values, but together they averaged about 85 views per day 12-18 months after creation. The data confirms that Google is the origin of the majority of views for all articles, and most of the growth over time comes from growth in Google traffic.
If your review includes your product and it's available on your web site, the site will draw some traffic and downloads from the review. However, resist the temptation to rate your product more highly than others you include in your review unless this is actually the case. Review readers look for credibility, and artificially inflating your reputation will not help you in the long run.
Other articles which I have written, which in my opinion are of similar value, get far less traffic. Review articles have the advantage of much longer useful lifetimes than blog posts, but they should be reviewed frequently to keep the page date recent as well as to keep track of new software or updates.
In order to deter writers who simply want to obtain some links to their web site from these content-sharing sites (which can be very popular, with millions of links to them, thus boosting the search ranking of sites with links from them) there is frequently an apprenticeship process, whereby articles are restricted in the number of hyperlinks they can contain until a certain number of articles have been published. Sites go to some effort to obtain high-quality content: HubPages has a rapid automated screening process using Grammarly for some of them, followed by human review. It may take some patience to pass the apprenticeship.
Deployment of Your Application
No-fuss installations of software are a requirement for wide acceptance. Mobile phones accessing App stores have turned installation on mobile phones into a one-click operation Developers frequently assume that all users are as knowledgeable as they are and that they are capable of using software which does not appear in a list of installed applications in a desktop environment. Most Windows users want applications that can be accessed in the same way as common Windows applications such as those produced by Microsoft. For this reason, if you want to deploy to the Windows desktops of naive users, use a standard Windows installer.
Is it Worth Doing?
Individuals with a passionate belief that their software will be of great value to a small number of users will develop and try to market their products irrespective of any advice on the subject. They may build a web site, offer their product for free, and expect the world to come to them. It seldom does, but with some judiciously applied marketing, they may get enough usage to feel that their efforts have been worthwhile.
© 2019 Simon Kravis