Free Apps Create Cloudy Future

Ben Brooks wrote a few months about about app pricing:

Then came a flood of developers who looked at that price and couldn’t imagine, themselves, paying more than a buck for an iPhone app. By the time it was clear that people are willing to pay for iPhone apps, and are willing to pay more than a buck, the expectation of $0.99 apps had already been set.

My personal thoughts since the beginning have been that anything $1.99 and under is an automatic purchase. Anything over $1.99, requires me to stop and think about whether it’s worth the money. I have since changed my stance slightly. Now when an app is free, I don’t automatically pull the trigger.

Brooks and others have enlightened me to the hidden agenda that developers have who give away their software for free. What are they doing with my data and other personal information? How will they fund future development? Will there be bug fixes and new features? Obviously there are exceptions to this, like an Amazon app, where I know they are making their money other ways. But nowadays I don’t necessarily get excited about free apps.

Most people do though. And as Brooks talks about, when an app cost more that $0.99, many users will hesitate to purchase it. Some will never purchase it all. And this makes life terribly difficult on developers. Let’s take MarsEdit, the great blogging software from Daniel Jalkut as an example. It has lots of great features, including support for multiple blogging platforms and is very stable. It currently costs $39.99 in the Mac App Store. Let’s say that some guy living for free in his parent’s basement decides to write a comparable product and then sell it in the Mac App Store for $0.99. At the end of the day that could cost Jalkut sales. And maybe the $0.99 app will be better. But regardless, it starts setting a precedent.

Users will start expecting lower prices, and that puts developers in a tough position. Maybe not people like Jalkut, who had an existing user base and loyal following, but it means that new developers will have a tough time charging a higher price for their apps. This creates a “race to the bottom”. And while this sounds like a good thing, history says otherwise. The best example of this can be found in the airline industry.

Wikipedia has a decent section on the airline deregulation that occurred in the late 1970s. Basically the government created a free market for airlines, and thing snowballed from there. It didn’t become cheaper to provide airline service, but there were more options which forced everyone to lower prices. Now air travel is a nightmare for most people. Baggage fees, cancelled flights, delayed flights and crowded flights have all made air travel a nuisance, instead of a convenience. That is what happens when the market becomes a “race to the bottom”.

The problem in the airline industry was that big companies already existed. United, American and others already had years of time and billion of dollars invested. They couldn’t just close up shop or pivot to something else. Many developers of mobile and desktop apps these days are at most a few people, and plenty are just one person. It’s a lot easier for them to pick up their ball and go home.

At the end of the day, desktop and mobile apps aren’t going anywhere. I am not trying to imply that development is just going to stop, but the quality is going to suffer. I think a forgone conclusion will be a lot more “one and one” type scenarios where developers release an app and never publish fixes or updates to it. Because the apps will be cheap, users will buy them. But if developers don’t maintain quality, it’s only user’s who suffer.

This is why I prefer paid apps these days. If the developer is making a career out of selling their apps, it means they are serious. It hopefully means they aren’t selling my information. But most importantly, it increases the likelihood that the app will continue to be maintained and developed.