Can’t Buy a Thrill

MacWorld ran a story last week to remind readers that A $5 App Isn’t Expensive, and imploring readers to stop being such cheapskates for the sake of the App Store economy.

Earth to MacWorld: It’s already too late. The market has spoken, and it refuses to pay for apps, even when the toxic side-effects of that are manifest.

MacWorld’s piece comes in part as a response to Michael Jurewitz’s five-part series on app pricing, posted on the eve of his return to Apple (and, presumably, a lot more circumspection about his future blogging). Jury sees the app pricing race to the bottom as a self-inflicted wound and urges developers to charge what their apps are worth.

Great advice… for anyone still around to take it.

As a developer, it’s easy to get outraged at cheapskate users who complain that a $1.99 app is a “rip off” because it has a bug or doesn’t do what the user expected it to from the description. It’s galling that the comments on the MacWorld piece justify stinginess (or outright piracy) on the grounds that iOS apps don’t easily afford a “trial” system. To say that you got a bad $3 app once and can never trust app purchasing again is like saying you once had a bad burger at McDonalds and will therefore never eat in any restaurant again (or maybe every restaurant should have free samples of everything on its menu available at all times).

Yeah, OK, I could go on like this for a while, but the fact is that appealing to the better nature of the general public usually doesn’t work out. We are stuck with what our customers believe, and that means that they largely aren’t willing to pay for apps.

So what’s the proper response? Obviously: don’t write apps for sale in the App Store anymore. This has already happened. But it hasn’t manifested itself as a mass migration off the iOS platform (what, like Android users are any more willing to pay for apps?), but instead a migration into what one article (that I can’t find!) called the “middle class of developers making apps for corporate clients”.

Of all the full-time iOS developers I know, almost none of them work primarily in writing apps for sale to end-users. Nearly all of them, myself included, work for clients for whom an app makes sense in some other business model. For example, an app that lets end-users make use of some subscription service (like Netflix or Dropbox), or a physical product (the remote control app for my Roku). Or an app that will make the business’ own employees more productive. Or an app that flogs the company’s products. All of these apps generate value for the paying customer, but that’s the company that’s hiring us, not the end-user.

In other words, while there isn’t a competent business accounting app for the iPad (an equivalent to QuickBooks or AccountEdge, and not just a companion app to those desktop programs), there are plenty of apps to help multi-level marketing professionals maximize their downlines. And that’s because Amway will pay developers for their time, and the “$5 apps are a ripoff” crowd won’t.

True story: I was going over a GUI design for a client’s Mac app in a group chat and I said “man, I’d love a touch version of this on an iPad.” The client said they’d love to do it, but could never charge enough on the iPad to cover the development costs.

Think about that for a second. With 100 million iPads sold since 2010, versus a Mac installed base of about 60 million, the iPad market is nearly twice as large, yet cannot justify development or even porting.

As a user, I’d like to ditch OS X someday and go entirely iOS — I cling to the belief that iOS can get better faster than OS X gets worse — but that can’t happen if essential apps I need are never made for the platform. The lack of productivity apps for iPad is part of the reason I started teaching a class on the iOS productivity APIs at CocoaConf, but raising awareness and enthusiasm for this stuff doesn’t solve the real problem. If developers can’t recoup their investments in these apps, because the pricing power in the App Store has collapsed, then we won’t develop them at all.

A few years back, we figured Android apps were a non-starter because the Android user base would never pay for stuff. Who knew that this would apply to iOS apps as well?

Comments (3)

  1. This is timely and thought-provoking. I would love it if you could find that article on development for corporate clients.

    I was at NSConf and saw Jury’s talk. The biggest thing I took away from the conference was the tension between two things.

    On one hand, there was the romantic ideal of the indie developer, developing his own product, making it wonderful, selling it directly to customers, and therefore (this is the idea) living the dream of independence, creative self-fulfillment, and at least a decent living if not big money.

    On the other hand, there was the reality. This is that, when you scratched beneath the surface, most people seemed to be making their living as employees, or by consulting/contracting to make apps for companies, like you say. I think the proportion of folks making their living only by selling product directly to customers was small, and that they were doing so because they enjoyed working that way, not because it was financially competitive.

    The most clear illustration of this, I thought, was the excellent talk by Dan Pascoe, the CEO of Black Pixel, where Jury works. Basically, they do a ton of contracting work. They are still trying to transition to living by selling product, not client work. And they are known as one of the most capable, well-known shops out there. So if they find that transition hard, or money-losing, that says something. It says, maybe, that making a living purely by app sales is unrealistic for many, or realistic only as a substantial financial compromise versus what you could be making otherwise with the same skills.

    This thought makes me sad. I’d be delighted to be dissuaded of it. Anyone? Anyone?

    If there is a mismatch between the ideal and the empirical economic reality here, I’d say the starkest example of this was at one point in the conference when the organizer announced that some attendees had requested that the “real indie developers” all meet for a chat in the front right of the auditorium to discuss real indie developer issues. If real means a business based purely on customer product, then it occurred to me that Jury and Daniel, two of the conferences best speakers, would not be eligible to join that group because of their company’s dependence on contracting/consulting work.

    So if that’s the definition of a a “real indie developer”, then we’re clearly not keeping it real about what’s real.

  2. […] Chris Adamson wrote a great blog post on app pricing. Basically the amount that people are willing to pay for an app is not enough to make it worthwhile for a programmer to code an app. People want apps, but only ones for a buck. There is a tremendous demand for apps and a tremendous want on the part of developers to make apps, but the economic of app pricing have precluded this from happening. […]

  3. […] in the $20 and up range) is toxic to an overwhelming percentage of potential customers. As I mentioned on my blog, I was reviewing the design of a Mac app with a client earlier this year and remarked that it would […]

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