Patronage model? Good luck with that

In Castro is now free with patronage, Samantha Bielefeld writes:

Castro was updated to version 1.5 today with some great new features like Spotlight search, in-app Safari, and support for 3D Touch. Another change that went live today? It’s now a free app, every feature is available without charge, and they added an optional non-renewing patronage model. Sound familiar? In my original Arment piece, The Elephant in the Room, I said: “What he is most certainly doing is increasing the odds that no other third party podcast app will feel viable in the market by charging up front for their offering.”

Are we now seeing this theory become a reality? Absolutely, and this is only the first of many in the category who will likely do the same. You can argue that Arment is only one developer in a sea of many, that he can’t alter the revenue model of the entire App Store ecosystem, but you simply cannot argue that his recent change doesn’t signal a fear amongst other podcast apps, and Castro becoming entirely free is proof of this.

[…][T]he fact remains that it would be disingenuous to believe this isn’t in response to Overcast becoming entirely free. Marco has indeed accelerated the race to the bottom, and he comes bearing a well made app that is difficult not to feel satisfied with as a user when faced with other apps that charge up-front. Why should I pay for an app when this developer has made it seem unnecessary? The patronage-only model is so new, and very experimental, but has that stopped others from replicating it? No, and this is because they are being forced into adopting it in order to hold onto their existing customers, and hopefully bring some new ones on as well. The only good thing about this move by Castro is that perhaps Overcast won’t remain the default choice champion simply because of having a price of zero.

This piece is worth a full read, as is the quoted The Elephant in the Room (in case you had missed it). It made me think about this new patronage model, and I’m quite sceptical about it. Just a few personal observations:

1. I’m not a particularly eager podcast listener, I only follow four podcasts currently: Release Notes, with Joe Cieplinski and Charles Perry; The RetroMacCast with James & John; John Gruber’s The Talk Show; and Covered, by and with Harry C. Marks. Apple’s built-in Podcasts app should be more than enough for my listening needs, and I also tried Arment’s Overcast. Still, I opted for ShiftyJelly’s Pocket Casts because I like the app itself, but more importantly because I want to support developers who offer reasonably-priced iOS apps that I can pay up-front (and, if it’s the case, pay any major update that might be released at a later date). I like the occasional free app like anybody else. I don’t like ‘freemium’ models, of any kind.

2. I appreciate many, many great iOS (and Mac) developers and the apps they’ve created and maintained over the years, and I also appreciate — as a struggling author myself — what it means for indie developers to try to turn their hard work into something profitable. That’s why sometimes I purchase paid apps which are so well made that I don’t really care if they overlap or replicate features of apps I already purchased. By doing this (when I can), and/or spreading the word, I express my support for this or that developer. I don’t think I’m alone in this, but I do think I’m in a minority.

3. I also think that the so-called patronage model doesn’t scale well and may ultimately be unsustainable. While in principle I could decide to offer my support by basically ‘subscribing’ to an app instead of making a one-time purchase or In-app purchase, if more developers decided to move to a free-with-patronage structure for their apps, I simply wouldn’t be able to offer my support to all of them — not even to all those among them I’d theoretically love to support.

4. I believe that the patronage model isn’t for everyone. I think it may work out for those developers who have already established an audience of fans of their app(s), and that it may work as an option after a certain amount of success/notoriety. I see patronage as a sort of pension which could potentially sustain apps that have already worked their way to success.[1] I don’t see how it could work as a starting option for any app. A lot of App Store customers are cheapskates: they look for the free app or — when there’s not a free app for the task they’re after or that fits their needs — they tend to settle for the cheapest among the ‘good enough’ apps. If you’re a little-known indie developer debuting on the App Store with a free-with-patronage app, I guarantee you’ll hardly make a penny out of it. If your app is great and gets popular, maybe you’ll start getting patrons later. My educated guess is that you have better chances if you price your app at $0.99 from the start.

5. Finally, another aspect of patronage’s probable unsustainability is that — always assuming more developers decide to follow this route — patronage might end up working reasonably well only for the early proposers. True, App A may get the patronage support of many fans of App A’s developer, while App B could very well thrive thanks to App B’s developer’s fan club, and the same might happen to App C thanks to its supporters. But since we’re talking of already moderately successful operations (as per what I postulated in point 4), sooner or later it’s possible to find people who equally love App A, App B and App C. What are the chances of finding people willing to be patrons of all three apps? (Or five, or eight, etc.)

As a regular App Store customer who is simultaneously budget-conscious and willing to support paid apps where possible, if you’re a developer considering the switch to a free-with-patronage model for your app, my humble suggestion is to think hard about it before doing something you may have difficulties undoing.

Some have said that, if the patronage model starts spreading, it may exacerbate the already serious problem of the race to the bottom in the App Store, but I think that its probable unsustainability may make it backfire first on the developers themselves. Because what do you do when a lot of people grab your app for free, but very few of them are willing to support it as patrons? How long can you go on updating and maintaining an app that generates little to no profit? Not many indie developers can afford that.

 


  • 1. The only three cases I know of free apps with an optional patronage/subscription option are — in chronological order — the original Instapaper (before Arment sold it), Overcast 2, and now Castro. In Instapaper’s case, people were willing to support it because it was a useful app that quickly became truly popular and successful. In Overcast 2’s case we have another well-made app by a prominent developer (Arment again) with a huge audience and lots of fans. In Castro’s case — well, it’s too soon to say, but the app is by now well-known, has good ratings on the App Store, and has certainly built up enough audience to make support via patronage an option worth considering (see also Bielefeld’s remarks I quoted at the beginning of the article.)

 

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