More on Software Race to the Bottom

App.net app Riposte comments on Tapbot’s decision to make their app free:

We believe that one of the mistakes that all of us iOS app developers made since the launch of the iOS App Store was teaching customers to expect cutthroat prices for apps. It was a race to 99-cents in those days, and it set a pricing expectation that has proved irrevocable. We had high hopes that App.net clients could help correct this problem, especially since App.net users are a network of 30,000+ people who all believe in paying a premium price for a premium experience. Netbot is a popular, trend-setting app. By making it free, Tapbots has effectively stamped out the possibility of changing customers’ expectations.

This is exactly what I wrote about a few weeks ago. App.net is a new social network that is extremely similar to Twitter, except that it is not free. Part of what App.net does with it’s money is give to developers of much used applications to help encourage development. It’s a great idea. Supposedly it’s not enough money per user to cover the cost of most apps, so it’s not designed as a replacement for income, just to augment it.

Tapbots makes a very popular Twitter client, as well as other apps, and created an App.net client that is extremely similar to their Twitter client. A little while back they made their App.net application free, and create a firestorm. There was a lot of rage from people who accused them of using their deeper pockets to basically take a stranglehold on the App.net user base, and therefore push other developers out. Tapbots’ argument was that they did this to encourage App.net growth and that they didn’t have devious intentions.

Whatever their intentions were, are irrelevant. As the Riposte team says, it’s the result that is the problem. That result is that the bar is set at “free”, and for any developer to get users to pay any amount of money they must give them a very good reason. This problem isn’t limited to just App.net, it pretty much exists everywhere. And nothing has changed since I wrote that article on this topic a few weeks ago. What is a bit different is the fact that Tapbots is a known development shop who has many other apps for purchase, and them making a move to give away their application is a bit strange. It’s the kind of move I expect from a company that is either folding, or planning to no longer support their application. The former seems unlikely, and time will tell if the latter is true.

Regardless, the question is, what happens now? The barrier to entry for new App.net clients just got more difficult, but not impossible. Without revenue from their application, the question of whether Tapbots can maintain development and remain profitable looms. Free or not, if they can’t keep up they will be overtaken at some point. Personally, I will continue to support the best applications, free or not, and hope that the reward outweighs the few bucks.