These past few days, I’ve seen many sources point to Damage, an article written by Matt Gemmell analysing the causes that have brought most damage “to the perceived value of software and the sustainability of being an independent developer”.
The subject of Gemmell’s main focus is, unsurprisingly, Apple. The gist of his criticism, if I got that right, is that Apple has structured the (iOS) App Store in a way that has facilitated the so-called ‘race to the bottom’ in app pricing, and that, in turn, has made things difficult for indie developers who want to make a living by selling their software on the (iOS) App Store. I find Gemmell’s analysis to be compelling, but I think the picture he paints isn’t complete; that there are other factors to be considered as well.
When the App Store debuted in 2008, a lot of the apps that were made available at the time came from two types of developers:
- Big companies that could afford to provide apps for free or for very low prices. Examples include eBay, Amazon, AOL, Facebook, Google, Yelp, PopCap Games (developer of Bejeweled, and a subsidiary of Electronic Arts), Griffin Technologies (remember iTalk Recorder?), etc. Most news apps (USA Today, ABC News, NYTimes, AP Mobile News, NPR Mobile, et al.) were provided free because in most cases the provider made money from readers’ subscriptions.
- Amateur developers/hobbyists, offering average-to-low-quality apps (and/or poor copies of more popular apps), usually at very low prices. For these people, developing apps has never been their main or sole source of income, therefore they could afford to publish throwaway 99-cent apps and games because they basically had very little to lose.
The first iPhone OS interface and visuals were a clear derivation of Mac OS X Dashboard’s widgets. The idea behind such widgets was to offer very simple single-purpose quick-access utilities to extend the functionality of the Mac operating system. In the classic Mac OS days we had desk accessories, which are the ancestors of Dashboard widgets. Desk accessories before, and widgets afterwards, were always considered simpler, lesser versions of regular software applications. When the iPhone was introduced, most of the accompanying first-party apps looked quite similar to many of the default Dashboard widgets Apple provided for Mac OS X. The public was quick to view iPhone apps as widgets, i.e. simpler, lesser versions of regular software applications. The brief pre-App Store period when Apple promoted the creation of Web apps for the iPhone, and later the early offering of so many low-cost and free apps from third parties, strongly reinforced this idea in the eyes of most consumers; that these apps were simply low-value additions designed to extend their iPhone’s functionality. ‘Mobile apps’ were not viewed as regular software packages, but something smaller, lighter, etc. This, in turn, didn’t justify having to pay for these little apps more than one or two dollars.
With this kind of prejudiced perspective, educating consumers on the true value of software, especially iOS software, has been a road uphill since the beginning of the App Store. Gemmell is right in pointing out the aspects of the App Store structure and design that have, directly or indirectly, contributed to affect the perceived value of software and the sustainability of being an indie developer. But his analysis (in my eyes, at least) reads as if it was Apple’s intrinsic design of the App Store to drive the pricing race to the bottom and in turn ruin indie developer’s lives. I concede it may have been one of the main factors, but I also posit that most consumers considered iPhone apps as little more than throwaway widgets right from the start, and the early availability of so many apps for free or very low prices, mostly produced by entities with little or nothing to lose, helped cement that assumption.
Apple didn’t prevent developers from pricing their iOS apps in the $10–30 range (the most popular for indie Mac software); Apple didn’t prevent a developer from releasing a paid update by pulling the previous version and releasing a paid 2.0 version as separate app. The biggest obstacle was the consumers’ early preconception that phone apps are worth less than traditional computer apps. By contrast, the Mac App Store may be “nigh-abandoned” by Apple, but its structure isn’t that much different from the iOS App Store. And while today the Mac App Store is full of small, single-purpose utilities that are sold at very low prices, you’ll also find a lot of more sophisticated apps (and games) that command much higher prices, and you’ll find them with more frequency than in the iOS App Store. This is the Mac App Store main page I’m seeing right now (click to enlarge):
There are 16 apps featured in the ‘New Apps’ category. Only 5 are free. Of the remaining 11 paid apps, the only ‘cheap’ one is Tomates, at €3.49 (which would be considered ‘expensive’ in the iOS App Store). As for the others, we see medium-range pricing for two apps (€7.99 and €10.99), one that is priced at more than €15, and seven that cost more than €25, with games like F1 2016 and Total War: Warhammer costing more than €49.
Apple may have concentrated more on the iOS App Store, but I don’t see a direct correlation between Apple’s involvement and app pricing. I don’t think that, if Apple had given the same amount of attention to the Mac App Store as they did to the iOS App Store, we would have witnessed a similar pricing race to the bottom for Mac software and games.
True, there is now a part of the consumer base that has grown so accustomed to the low price of so many iOS and Android apps as to expect lower prices for traditional computer software as well, but for the most part, from what I can see, a lot of regular people still tend to give more value to computer applications than to apps made for mobile devices. As I said before, this is a tough preconception to dismantle; and as I wrote previously, I believe tech writers and reviewers should do their best to educate people on the real value of those many ‘little’ apps that enrich their experience with smartphones and tablets. But is Apple the main offender in creating this toxic culture of undervalued software that’s becoming more and more unsustainable to develop and maintain for indie developers? Perhaps it is. Perhaps Apple should have been more proactive in creating certain safeguards and more developer-friendly features. But the damage is old, the consumers’ bad habits are ingrained, and the whole picture is more nuanced and complicated than that.