Hey, Big Spender

“Oh hell, another App Store thinkpiece.” Yeah, I know, not really my department even, so I’ll try to through it quickly. I just can’t help but think about some ideas and facts that can’t all be true at the same time.

Let’s start with this: 5 of the last 6 Kickstarters I’ve supported (check out my profile there) have been for software projects, games specifically. None of them are for iOS, only one is for OS X, and collectively, they represent far more than all my purchases on the App Store combined over the last 7 years (and that’s coming from someone who dutifully plunked down $50 for OmniGraffle for iOS and buys the new $5 Pinball Arcade table I-AP every month).

Sure, a big part of my total pledges comes from going in for $450 on Muv-Luv, a project that became an embarrassment of physical-goods riches as it blew through all its stretch goals (and if I had $300 to spare, I’d be in for the pilot jacket too), but it’s not just atoms-versus-bytes. For most of those other Kickstarters, I’m just in for the Steam key.

Too much Muv, not enough Luv

And Steam is something that interests me, because how is it that Steam has a culture of enthusiastically spending money — every time there’s a sale, my Twitter is flooded with friends gushing about how much they’ve spent — while the App Store is dominated by cheapskates who think a $4.99 app is “extremely expensive” and fire off one-star reviews for trivial slights?

The App Store is terminally toxic. Anecdotally, more than 90% of iOS users will never pay for apps on the store, and the first hard stat I found for this says 43% have never paid more than $1 for an app. All the trials and upgrade pricing in the world won’t make that sustainable for serious apps.

Over Thanksgiving break, my daughter was playing her Skylanders game for iPad, and it was a real surprise seeing console-quality game graphics on the iPad instead of the usual indie-game Sprite Kit stuff. But that’s because Skylanders makes its money off physical toys you link to the game via Bluetooth, so they can afford to develop a console-quality app and give it away free, because they make their money elsewhere. That’s not generally an option for other apps.


All of this makes me think the iPad Pro is pretty screwed. We’re told it’s potentially a laptop replacement, ideal for productivity apps. That’s great, but who can afford to develop any such apps, when most people won’t pay for apps, and when Apple’s own iWork apps set $0 as the appropriate price for best-of-class productivity apps? What’s a third party supposed to do to monetize an accounting package or an audio-video editing suite? Sell you a “Spyro the Dragon” figure to unlock advanced features?

This prompted me to put a poll on my Twitter:

Obviously, I completely disagree with the crowd on this one. I see a lot more people willing to pay to unlock the animal of their choice in Crossy Road than pay for apps that will do something. Some will pay for content, but almost none will pay for functionality.


And that brings us to Apple TV. Lots of people pay for content there: $8 a month for Netflix, $8 or $14 for Hulu, an Amazon Prime or cable/satellite subscription that’s partly or even mostly for streaming… again, lots of people will spend more in a month on streaming content for their Apple TV than they ever will on apps per se. Early indications are that the Apple TV is overwhelmingly being used, like the previous model, as a streaming media box: as the AppFigures blog pointed out, “the top 10 apps are all streaming apps from popular services and cable channels.”

It’ll take a while to see if either the iPad Pro or apps for Apple TV take off at all, and whether they can be anything more than their predecessors: a content-consumption luxury item (iPad) and an over-the-top streaming puck (Apple TV). It’s much too soon to declare success or failure, but I bet if it’s not coming together by, say, next WWDC, it wouldn’t be out of the question for Apple itself to get involved more deeply. When nobody would write OS X apps, Apple created or acquired many of the “Pro” apps we know today (Final Cut Pro, Logic, etc.), and I can totally see them doing the same thing to give iPad Pro a shot in the arm (or if it comes down to a choice of “first-party or no party”, they’d have to have something cool to show, just to move the devices).

And as for the Apple TV, I keep wondering if Apple might ever deign to get directly involved in video streaming, making it easy to create livestream or VOD channels (that would no doubt work only on Apple platforms), either to boost its own products and standards, or just to not cede online video to YouTube/Google entirely, although the latter may be a fait accompli by this point.

Maybe third parties will find a way to make development for one or both of these platforms more viable than iOS has been for most of us. But if they do, I bet it’ll be in the form of streaming content and in-app merch.

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