We’re Selling Ourselves Out and Developers Short with Free Apps


I buy a lot of apps. Yeah I have a lot of apps in general (almost 920 last check of iTunes), and a lot of them are free. Some were just free and a smaller portion were from review codes by app developers, but a lot, I bought. And while we all like free apps, when an app is free to download and use, there is always a cost. Nothing is ever completely free, someone has to get paid. However app developers are under two conflicting pressures: people wanting free apps and developers wanting to earn a living.

There is the popular adage in marketing (especially as far as Internet services go), if something is free you’re the product being sold. Facebook makes most of its money through ads, their SEC filing will tell you that. Apple makes most of its money selling us stuff, likewise that is public record. Now we get into apps. I use a lot of apps, like Songza (which I’m listening to while writing this post), which are ad supported. I’m paying for the app through my attention (of lack of, because I don’t generally pay attention to the ads). Would I pay a couple bucks for an ad-free version of the app? No problem.


See that’s a problem as well. When I buy an app for $1 or $3 or $5 most of the time that’s the last time a developer will get my money. Most of the time all the updates to the app are free. Right now Apple doesn’t have a mechanism for subscription or license fees for apps. Magazines? Yep. TV shows? Yep. Apps? Nope.

So for app developers the only way to keep generating revenue through an app’s one-time sale is to keep selling more apps to more people. Offer it on sale, have a big upgrade that gets people’s attention. Something that will kick off another wave of purchases.

Then there is the in-app purchase model. Apps like Paper by Fifty Three are free, and heck are even awesome as free apps, but if you want more you need to buy the upgrade. This model works because over time developers can encourage more people to pay extra to get more features.

Then there is the model 1Password recently followed. They launched 1Password 4 and launched it as a completely new app. A new app that you had to buy if you wanted it. It’s not a cheap app either, about $8. Agile Bits has the philosophy that if you blow people away with amazing apps that do what they do better than anyone else, people will buy them.

I think they are right, I’ve bought not just the new iOS version, but the previous version as well. Not to mention the Mac version, twice (Mac App Store and regular).

Why is the discussion important. Essentially this. By demanding more and more apps be and remain free, we are only selling ourselves. Developers like to earn a living too. They have rent/mortgages, like to eat, have clothes, buy stuff…live. If we don’t pay them for their work, either once or through an in-app purchase, they will have to fund their app other ways. Those other ways almost always involve selling us to advertisers. Sure there are apps from big companies that are free and don’t have ads, but I bet if you read the terms of service, there is a clause in there that they can run ads and/or selling your information to advertisers.

I think to maintain a vibrant and thriving app culture we have to pony up more. I think we need to be more willing to buy apps. Maybe even pay more for apps than the usual $1–2. If an app is free and there are worthwhile in-app purchases, buy them. If you like the app and use the app, and want to tap into more functions, I don’t see the problem paying for it.

It all seems obvious to me. I work hard and expect to be paid. Developers work hard at making apps, they expect to be paid. Many of those app developers work hard at making apps that let me do my job better and faster, so I probably owe them a little more than the purchase price. Which is why I often talk about the apps I buy and use here in my day to day work, like Writing Kit, which is where most of this post was be written, and Poster, which I learned about today from Ben Brooks and bought for posting to iPhoneHacks (and my own blog) from my iPad.

So, let’s tell other folks about the apps we like, especially the ones we like and paid for, so we have encourage app developers to keep working on apps the make our devices awesome and fun to use.

Inspired by: The Verge

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  • Pacomacman

    Well said! It is difficult for developers as you say, as we only sell a product once and have to perform a lifetime of updates just to stay ahead of the opposition apps, all for free. I’m constantly contacted by the same users requesting new features, all expected as freebies. The problem is that only a handful of app developers make the big bucks, the rest only scrape a living. People seem to think ALL devs are cashing it in when the truth is only the big named companies and brands make any money because they don’t need the advertising, people already know their products. What you will find (and its already happening) is that devs are pulling out of mobile development, others are only there as a loss leader for the same titles on other platforms. Only the bedroom devs can afford to give their time for free. As a developer myself I no longer develop for Android because users aren’t prepared to pay for apps. Android Marketplace and Apples App Store are already getting stagnant with the same old apps occupying the top positions in the charts. It was only 6-7 years ago when I could happily charge £15-£20 for my Windows Mobile apps and make a reasonable living. Now the whole industry has been devalued and those same products don’t make more than £2-£3.

  • http://rounak.me/ Rounak Jain
  • Kiwiholden

    Yes they do deserve to be paid for their work but some don’t deserve to get as rich as they do off something so simple. Manly the big companies charging ridiculous amounts for in game currencies.

    • http://www.iphonehacks.com iPhoneHacks

      How does it matter if the idea behind the app is simple or complex?

      If people think its not worth it, they won’t buy it and the developer would be forced to drop the price, however big or small. The App Store functions as a marketplace where the right price for an app or in-app purchase is ultimately based on demand.

      • Drusenija

        This particular issue is bigger than just the App Store. Mobile gaming has given rise to the whole social gaming craze, which has since been monetized and optimised not for fun but for addiction. We’ve got a generation of “game” developers focused on making the digital version of crack and charging ridiculous amounts for the privilege. And the whole “it’s only 99 cents” craze just makes it easy for people to become addicted. They get a game for free, which then proceeds to tell them “you can wait an hour or pay 99c to do x now”. That eventually becomes “you can wait a year or pay $99 to do x now”, however at that stage people are addicted.

        On the topic at hand though, yes, developers do deserve more, but I don’t see how this would have worked otherwise. Had the average App Store price remained at the $5-$10 mark, it likely wouldn’t have become as popular as it is, meaning developers may still not have made their money anyway due to lacking a critical mass.

        Getting back out of the bargain basement is difficult though. Since the article talked about 1Password, lets compare their model to LastPass. LastPass only allows access to their mobile app if you’ve paid for a premium subscription at $1 a month. They offer their app for free but as its a server side service they can restrict it accordingly,

        It’s not a model that would work for everything admittedly but might be worth considering for some developers.

        Of course, you can always make more use of the IAP model. There is definitely a perception of negativity towards IAP in some cases, but if utilised effectively you can offer new functionality as optional upgrades rather than included content. You’d just want to ensure that you make that clear up front to avoid user backlash (and never remove old functionality once paid for).

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1740590440 Abel Goddard

          If you think gaming has ever NOT been about the addiction, you’re crazy. Particularly for anyone trying to make money at it, but even someone truly just creating a game for fun wants the game to be played over and over and over, and that factors into how the game is designed.

          • Drusenija

            Yes, but they at least use fun as the basis of the addiction; games like FarmVille and Smurfs Village aren’t “fun” in the traditional sense (although I suppose that’s a largely subjective comment).

  • Matt

    It’s not totally true that subscription services are not available in apps. MotionX GPS Drive is a good example. If you want live voice guidance you have to pay on an annual basis

  • So abe

    1Password isn’t the only app that has gone the deprecate the old app to create a new app that is not free. It is the only mechanism they currently have and it is a useful one as long as they keep the same functionality in the new app so you don’ t have to keep 2 apps loaded.

  • Kimk69

    Interesting, good read & comments. But I don’t get it totally. I’m having problems in my business and nobody’s standing up for me. Selfish right. Not that it matters here or to anybody but your what you make of yourself and if there’s no money then why do it? Oh, for the love right. Come on. If your not working for one of the “big” companies then why not do that and dev. On the side for the love of it while making some money. That’s everywhere.
    I don’t know, I’m not trying to be a deushe but if you have something good people will buy over and over. Just like Tris said. How many times he bought 1 Password app for all devices. How much money I’ve spent on tweetbot for all devices when there’s a free counterpart. Some apps just aren’t worth much and my guess is those apps don’t take as much of the time to make them to equal a full time job.

  • DrDave

    I would buy more apps if I was able to try them before I buy them. Many of the paid apps on my device have free lite versions to try first. The ratio of junk to quality is just way to high. I have already had the misfortune of paying for an app that was junk. Trying to get a refund after the fact is not a solution.

  • Vesi4a

    I have to agree with Kimk69 + most of the good apps sell more than 1000000 times,these guys are millionaires , I’ve been working hard all of my life 10hrs a day and never see this money,I want to be able to afford the apps and Apple devices!!!

  • Jailbreaker

    Is it just me or do i like games that have ads.

  • justathought

    Is it not feasible as a possibility that with the industry being so new and massive so quickly, that the regulations are yet to catch up and or be proven highly worthwhile? It is as though we can not recognise the value of acting any more intelligently than a school of fish in avoiding danger. “Personal” information is a tool that can be used for harmless intent but also in negative ways. As this is quite plainly obvious, does it not make sense to expect a little more respect of this than less? By less I mean that it is known that the average will not read through all terms of service and fully give weight to online contracts. While that is their choice, however well thought out, do we not protect people from their ignorance in other areas for good reason?
    You aren’t allowed to drink your ass off and go driving no matter how dumb that is, because you could victimize others etc.. It is seen reasonable however, that you choosing to sign up for an online service give away varying degrees of information about others without their being involved. This to me at least, is dangerous over time. Not specifically in the critical nature of the example given, but as a trend for the publics to allow these practices because they have little imagination and memory.