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Should Free iPhone Apps Be Eliminated?


My friend Joshua Schnell wrote a good post the other day at his Macgasm site “ in which he talks about the iPhone App Store, something being rotten in the state of it, and how it is currently broken and in danger of losing more good developers.

He also argues that it is time to abolish free apps on the App Store.  While I agree with a lot of Joshua ‘s sentiment behind his post, and with many of his points about the need to support developers, I have to disagree about the need to eliminate free apps.

Here are some of Joshua ‘s sentiments and points that I can agree, or at least empathize, with:

Put the real development groups in one section, and the fly by nighters in another section. Because frankly, the half-assed developers that are driving down the prices need to be put out to pasture, and the real developers, the ones putting their heart and soul into a game that can ‘t break a 5% conversion rate need to be coddled a little until the tides turn, before they ‘re gone for good.

I like the spirit of this idea, but I don ‘t know how viable it is.  Who gets to judge which are the half-assed devs and which are the real ones?  In a lot of cases, one man ‘s crap app is another man ‘s fun little novelty app. 

Having a separate ‘Novelty Apps ‘ section of the store is an idea that has appealed to me for a long while “ though again I don ‘t know that it would be very easy to draw the line on what is a pure ‘novelty ‘ app as opposed to a ‘valid ‘ entertainment app.

The Sony PSP games start at approximately 19.99 on the lowend and about 49.99 at the high end, and I ‘ve played some of those games frankly a lot of them pale in comparison to some 1.99 games that I ‘ve paid for on the iPhone. Sure, there ‘s a lot of crap on the AppStore, but there ‘s surely enough meat and potatoes available that the 1.99 price point is a steal when compared to other devices.

I ‘m not much of a gamer at all, but my impression is that iPhone apps do stand up quite well compared to major gaming platforms.  And certainly the pricing of most iPhone games seems incredibly low compared to other platforms.

Programming for the iPhone isn ‘t profitable unless you have a huge name behind you, or Apple decided to feature your application. For the rest of the developers it ‘s a giant game of chance

My impression is that is true a lot of the time “ but that there are also still some notable exceptions to this.  I still see some success stories coming out of the App Store for smaller development outfits “ like Lima Sky and Tapulous as just a quick recent example “ though admittedly these do seem few and far between of late.

Here ‘s where Joshua ‘s wish to support good iPhone developers gets to advocating a change that I think would not be a good one at all:

Apple needs to do everything it can to help these developers be successful, and frankly I think it ‘s time we eliminate free applications. There ‘s no such thing as a free lunch, so why the heck is Apple encouraging a free app?

I believe free apps should stay around, and that they are beneficial to the App Store, to developers, and of course to users for a number of reasons, including:

Free does not necessarily mean crap.  Take a look at the current Top Free Apps shown in iTunes.  On the list are Facebook, Pandora Radio, and excellent games like Tap Tap Revenge 3 and Paper Toss.

Free doesn ‘t always mean rags and ruin for the developers.  Backflip Studios have had huge financial success on the back of their free Paper Toss game and others they have published.

Free apps are a huge draw for the App Store and I imagine for many first-time users of mobile apps.  I also feel “ without any hard evidence of this “ that free apps likely have a sort of  ‘gateway drug ‘ effect on many new users, and lead them to purchase plenty of paid apps down the road.

The recent changes to allow free apps to include the in-app purchase capability strikes me as an ‘everybody wins ‘ scenario for free apps.  Users and developers win because this allows a lot of room for making an initially free app the equivalent of a free trial on other platforms.  And for developers it provides a strong new way to get users to try out their app and then upgrade through in-app purchase to unlock more powerful features or the ‘full ‘ version of it.

Free apps are also just nice ‘treats ‘ to keep us visiting the App Store frequently “ especially younger users and even parents of younger users.  Surely getting people visiting your store more often is a good thing for anyone whose goods are in that store. And I don ‘t believe that because you use free apps you inevitably become averse to paying for apps.

I know that in my own case I have very happily paid $10 and upwards for many iPhone apps, and continue to do so “ but I also have many free apps that I ‘ve got great enjoyment out of (including both Pandora and Paper Toss).  Similarly, I have paid for many apps for my six year old daughter, but I ‘m not unhappy when she comes along with a request for a new app that is a free one.

I would love to see more success stories for small iPhone developers, and I ‘d certainly like to see developers earn more for their stellar efforts.  But I don ‘t see that eliminating free apps is a good move for the App Store, or one that necessarily increases the odds of success for iPhone developers.

What do you all think?  As users it ‘s easy to jump straight in and say ‘Yes we want free apps ‘, but thinking about the big picture and supporting developers so that continue to make great apps for the iPhone, what are your reasons for wanting or now wanting free apps to be around?  For those of you who are developers, what ‘s your take on this?

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  • The other thing about free apps is that it often makes sense for well-established companies to offer free apps either as a way to sell merchandise (e.g., Amazon) or to promote their products (e.g., CBS). This is no different than Apple offering iTunes as a free download to sell content and iPods/iPhones.

    My view on paying for apps or not is that if I believe that the app provides me functionality and the app developer isn't making money off me in some other fashion, I am happy to pay. On the other hand, I would really never pay Amazon for the ability to shop from them from my iPhone. Nor am I willing to pay an entertainment company for the privilege of advertising their products to me.

    • Lots of good points Lesley. I agree with pretty much all of that.

  • Most developers, especially "indies" wouldn't mind with Joshua's opinion, because "who doesn't want money?"
    It could be a motivation to develop higher quality apps. It could also be nothing and doesn't change the mindset of some developers.

    The problems I see so far for us as developers is:
    – Not all iPhone users are reasonable, willing to pay, or willing to support developers for apps.
    – Lots of them are not mature (if we consider some of the young population of iPhone users), and you know how most teenagers or kids think toward software (take a look at what happened to pirated software/games in Windows).
    – But teens or kids, could be our most important consumers (that's why games sold a lot of units).
    – Some people with a 99 cents app, could make it big while only spending very little time on development.
    – Some serious developers like tapbots, at around 99 cents could also have a chance to "not" make it as big as them who's releasing a lower quality app.
    – Some developers will be blamed for greed, if there are similar apps for free. Yes, some companies or devs don't charge users for their apps.
    – Development efforts are "meaningless" in the eye of users or consumers. So they don't know whether an app is $4.99 because it requires considerable amount of efforts to develop, or whether it's over-priced.

    It's just a very tough game for us especially indies, where we rely a lot on App Store purchase, instead of VC funding, or any other payment mechanism outside the App Store.

    In-App purchase is a good and useful system, but it's quite hard to use this system for:
    – Apps in their mature versions (needs code modifications, and various UI redesigns).
    – Apps that would be crippled, if it's disabling some its features, before an upgrade.

    Some users also complained about "being charged" for every feature upgrades.
    If it's a game, book, or any content subscription, then it's suitable to use this system, other than that I'm not really sure.

    The best improvement I would prefer so far is the usage of trial system for paid apps.

    • Yeah – it does certainly seem that Apple makes it as difficult as possible in many ways for devs. I hope they become better at communicating with devs (and not just the huge publishers) and making some of this easier.

  • Free apps have NEVER been the problem in my opinion. There are an incredibly number of VERY good apps that are completely free. There are also massive amount of apps being sold for 99 cents and more that are utterly worthless. The pricing point is by far the least of the App Store's problems. I find it amusing, if not ironic, that Joshua states the only people making money on the App Store are the big developers. I personally have only bought one or two apps or games from well known developers. I have purchased dozens of apps and games by relatively no-name developers and enjoyed the hell out of them and convinced other friends to buy them.

    I personally feel Joshua is stuck in the mentality that many people in our country seem to be stuck in. They see problems with a particular area of subject and tend to compare it to old business models that used to work great and somehow come to the conclusion that the business model is the problem. I'm not insulting Joshua at all and I understand why he and many other incredibly intelligent people feel that way. I just personally think these people need to realize this is a completely new business model and it works. At least for now, it's working very well. Both well known developers and newcomers are able to make a great deal of money if they produce a quality product and market it half-decently. Due to the incredibly large audience, word of mouth is also giving both large and small developers a massive amount of free advertising.

    That said, the App Store is in dire need of help. I completely understand the initial frustration Joshua was feeling which led him to come to these conclusions. I strongly disagree that the price point of apps is the problem. The problem is the terrible 'interface' that is the current App Store. I don't have a solution. If I did, I could probably make a lot of money implementing it in a website. Many people are trying, and some are starting to touch on the right ideas. Websites which have reviews (moderated unbiasedly), ratings, and communities where people can openly give their impressions are what is needed. The current App Store comment system is worthless. Most anybody with any experience browsing the App Store knows that the majority of comments are meaningless. They're posted by people that don't know what they're talking about or they're posted about a problem which has since been fixed in newer releases of the app. Not allowing the developers to interact with their users is by far one of the biggest problems and has been commented on by many developers in the past.

    The approval process of course has many flaws, but that's been beaten to death and I won't bother getting into it here. The categories should probably be expanded even further than they have been. The search engine needs some serious work. Searching for the specific name of an app many times gives you completely worthless apps listed first just because they mention the app name you were searching for in their description. Browsing through the App Store is a terrible experience. Scrolling through app after app 25 at a time. No way to quickly 'star' or 'bookmark' an app to look at more closely later. No real way to find what you really want without getting lucky with searches or even luckier stumbling upon it while browsing.

    Like I said, I don't have a solution, but it's blatently obvious the App Store was not designed for the incredible number of apps that it now contains. It needs a massive overhaul. Not only that, but developers need to realize the store is not an advertising medium. Claiming that they aren't getting the exposure they desire because they're getting crowded out by free apps is almost silly to me. If you want more exposure, like with any product since the beginning of time, you need to advertise. In many places. TV, websites, in other apps, blogs, twitter, etc. Every app I've seen use all these advertising mediums (many at no or very low cost), ends up getting a massive amount of exposure and makes a great deal of money. This is true for both App Store apps and jailbreak-only apps. The thing is, it is an easy platform to develop on. There is a lot of competition. If you write a crappy app, it will not end up getting the word-of-mouth advertising that is necessary.

    Sorry for the long rant. Just bothered me a bit that somebody thinks removing the free apps is a good idea. Free apps are what make the iPhone what it is. Even developers releasing free apps are making a great deal of money when the app is good. Either through advertisements in said free app, or getting customers to buy their services once they use the app.

    • Great long rant! I don't have any solutions either for the worst issues – but agree it's in dire need of help.

  • @sysrage nail it.

  • as a developer myself (http://www.mobile1up.com) – i think there are some valid points to abolishing free applications from the store.. heck, it is a STORE – apple should really come up with an alternative way for developers to self-sign free applications and let them distribute them on their own websites

    • I have to say as a user I'm not super-keen on seeing apps distribution become more fragmented. I love the idea of one central store (or at most 2-3 counting jailbreak stores) – I don't want to have to start going to developers' sites to find good apps.

  • Good point on prices and what is 'worth it' always being very relative.

  • steve

    one nag I have with the app store is the notation that an app is free and then when you go to it, you find it takes a charge to secure the added benefits waiting for those who got it free

    • i think most free apps that employ that scheme make it quite clear how things are in their app description, don't they?