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