The ill-fated tale of Phoneys, the stupid little sticker pack that went #1 on the App Store

If you can dream it, you can do it.” — Walt Disney

Wednesday night of this week, John Gruber wrote, “This is very clever, and I can see how it could be damn funny, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Phoneys gets pulled from the App Store.” Shortly after John’s post — I mean, you can’t buy press better than that, a post from Gruber about $.99 stickers so clever that Apple was sure to pull them? — Phoneys, the stupid little sticker pack I’d launched just a few days before, climbed to #1 Top Paid and #1 Top Grossing in the iMessage app store.

Thursday night, last night, Bill from Apple called me.

The days leading up to that roller coaster span of 24 hours were a surprisingly efficient example of the creative process.

A couple of weeks ago I tweeted out a photo of, if I do say so myself, a pretty clever iMessage sticker idea I’d had. Stickers that looked like blue iMessage text bubbles, that you could place over top of your friend’s texts, making it look like you put words in their mouth. “Think Apple would ever approve these?” I asked. It was a popular tweet as far as my tweets go, and the positive reaction to it throughout the day encouraged me to start cranking away on Phoneys v1.0 that night after the kids went to bed.

The tweet. John’s still an asshole.

After a couple late nights I submitted the stickers on Wednesday of last week — Apple has done an absolutely amazing job of streamlining the process of creating stickers — and that Friday evening got the email from Apple that Phoneys v1.0 had been approved. My wife was surprised, she was sure it’d never get approved. I decided I’d officially release Phoneys after the weekend, and spent more late nights working on the landing page, app store screenshots, icons, and marketing copy.

Monday morning of this week I “launched” Phoneys with a tweet. A dozen of my awesomely supportive friends and family bought it.

Tuesday, a handful of people, most notably Mike Rundle, tweeted about Phoneys and I sold 60.

Wednesday, Sarah Perez posted This crazy iMessage app lets you prank friends by putting words in their mouth on TechCrunch.

We’ve already talked about Gruber. #1 Top Paid and #1 Top Grossing. So, that brings us back to Bill.

Bill was nice, but to the point. Apple’s lawyers weren’t happy that Phoneys got through the review process. The stickers couldn’t be blue or green, they couldn’t use San Francisco as the typeface, and the app could no longer be marketed as a “prank” app, because Apple doesn’t approve prank apps (even though I myself had never used the word “prank” when marketing Phoneys, others did, and I certainly understood where he was coming from). They were not going to pull the app, Bill made sure to emphasize. They’d give me a week, until next Thursday, to fundamentally change it so that the bubbles looked nothing like iMessage bubbles, instead looking something closer to “comic book cartoon bubbles”. I said okay, thanks a lot Bill, and that was the end of the conversation.

By the end of last night I had over 60 negative written reviews of Phoneys, and several more 1-star reviews, on its app store page, ranging from people not knowing how to find iMessage apps, to people not understanding how to peel stickers, to people thinking the text bubbles should’ve been grey with an arrow pointing left instead of blue with an arrow pointing right, to people frustrated that Apple sent a promo link underneath the first sticker whenever the recipient didn’t already own a copy of Phoneys. I wished I could reply to their reviews and help walk them through the process, but of course, I couldn’t.

Everyone I had shown Phoneys to leading up to launch had immediately “gotten it”. But the negative reviews were from folks with @yahoo.com and @hotmail.com email addresses, and I didn’t foresee all the problems they’d have not only with stickers, but with the somewhat overly clever central idea of Phoneys itself. Before Bill called I had been working on an update that would’ve included an app store video preview of the stickers being used, more example screenshots, and updated marketing copy that went out of its way to try and explain things. Of course, now none of that mattered, because Apple would not be approving any more updates of Phoneys in its current form. The negative reviews, where I was called everything from a con-artist to an idiot, were going to keep coming.

And that brings us to today, Friday, when I wrote this post and found myself stuck between a 532 billion dollar company and a hard place. On the one hand, if I update the stickers over the next week like Apple has so generously allowed me to do, I will be “breaking” Phoneys for everyone who has already bought it. And the entire spirit of the app will be lost in a less fun and much less clever “comic book cartoon bubbles” version.

On the other, if I don’t make the updates, Phoneys will get pulled from the store next week, letting everyone who has already bought the stickers use them until they someday delete them, but upsetting all those who bought Phoneys thinking I’d update it with more stickers in the future. Plus, obviously, I’ll no longer continue making money off of an app that is still the #1 paid app in the iMessage app store.

I’m honestly not sure what I’m going to do. Neither option is good. They’ll both upset large groups of people. But they’re the only two options I have.

But one thing I do know for certain, is that the days leading up to next Thursday — or possibly sooner if Apple sees this article and takes exception to it — are the last days an app like Phoneys will ever exist on the iMessage app store. There will never be another pack of blue text bubbles stickers. There will never be another pack of prank stickers. There will never be another Phoneys.

So, if you “get” the idea of Phoneys, and haven’t bought it and tried it out yet, you might want to hurry.

And if you wouldn’t mind, leave a positive review, Phoneys could use it.

Update: Apple pulled Phoneys and I wrote a post-mortem that breaks down the numbers, makes some assumptions, and talks about lessons learned.