A couple of years ago, Panic built Status Board, providing insight into ongoing projects and useful info. Yesterday, it got released as an iPad app. It costs £6.99/$9.99 and already there are complaints about how expensive the app is, which I find a pity. The App Store really has destroyed people’s sense of value when it comes to software and games. While £6.99/$9.99 would be expensive for a one-note throwaway app, it seems perfectly reasonable for a productivity aid you might use daily.
On this subject, iMore’s Rene Ritchie yesterday asked an interesting question:
If, in 2008, the lowest selling price for apps had been $10 instead of free, how different would the App Store economy be today?
Under the assumption that free apps also wouldn’t have been allowed, a much higher tier-one price-point would have made things play out very differently on the App Store.
First and foremost, it wouldn’t be so full of junk. I rifle through new-app and new-game lists a lot and most of the content is awful. Anyone can make an app and then anyone can attempt to sell it at a low-low price. However, this also means that anyone can make an app and then anyone can attempt to sell it at a low-low price. In other words, despite what some people would have you believe, this isn’t always a terrible thing—some of the low-cost apps in the App Store have been indie marvels that have subsequently propelled the authors on to greatness. (It would of course be nicer if all the gems floated to the surface rather than too many of them sinking in the App Store sludge, but if life was all sunshine and roses, Brits wouldn’t be able to constantly moan about the weather. Or something.)
Secondly, the app revolution would have been slower rather than an explosion. People were clearly very happy to impulse buy at the low App Store tiers, but that wouldn’t have been the case had everything started at $9.99. Instead of iPhones full of apps, most people wouldn’t have gone beyond stock apps, and more tech-savvy users would have been considerably choosier. This would have had the knock-on effect of eradicating many one-shot utilities and probably the majority of games. There’s an expectation with higher-cost content, after all. I doubt Apple would then have been issuing press releases with the kind of huge sales and app-download numbers we’ve seen since the App Store’s launch. (One benefit, however, is that those apps that did become very popular might have been more likely to result in a viable business, compared to products that sell plenty of copies for a dollar and still don’t provide enough income to the developer.)
Thirdly, at the very high end I doubt a great deal would be different in terms of general quality. The very best apps and games on the App Store are phenomenal, despite (or in spite) of the current pricing structure. Stepping into a world of ten-dollar minimums wouldn’t, I think, make those very best apps any better. It would, though, probably cut down on the range and experimentation on offer, given that fewer people would be buying; and in the current market there’s always that possibility of a sale when you need to boost your app’s visibility on bargain sites. There’s more scope for risk with varied pricing.
A final thought is that perhaps a high App Store tier-one would have also galvanised web apps much earlier (almost immediately). Many cheap apps (and even games) we now see on the App Store would have been created online instead, using web standards. For advocates of ‘free’, ‘open’ and interoperability, that would have been a huge win, but it’s hard to see how in a world of free and dirt-cheap apps how people will be dragged away to web apps (well, unless they’re as good as Forecast). For Apple, though, this would have been a loss—its primarily “there’s an app for that” differentiator would have been largely meaningless if all the apps were online and ably supported by rival platforms. (Open web advocates would argue this is where we’re headed anyway in the long term. I remain a little sceptical of that, unless the open web can boost product discoverability and deal more ably with monetisation of web apps.)
My thinking, then, is that I’m mostly glad Apple didn’t force a high tier-one price-point. However, I do wonder whether it should have gone for more of a middle-ground. Indie dev Jeff Minter of Llamasoft recently said he’s pretty much given up on iOS, because it’s not sustainable for him to make games on the platform and sell them at tier-one or tier-two prices. He was hoping people would gravitate towards the ‘price of a pint’ for their games. Unfortunately, evidence suggests people now even baulk at paying anything at all for an app or game (although some are subsequently happy to buy lots of in-app purchases once snared). Since 2008, developers have been concerned about a rush to the bottom—to the 69p/$0.99 price point that makes survival tough; now, they have to deal with potentially receiving nothing at all for their work, and figuring out how to get some income from microtransactions. Perhaps by injecting more perceived value into apps by raising prices a little, this can, to some extent, be avoided, but ‘free’ now almost seems like an inevitability; on that basis, it’ll be interesting to see how the battle plays out between free native apps and free web apps.