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Why Most Apps Should Be Free

I have an unfounded fear that every time I “buy” a free app it will eventually result in a developer sitting on the side of the road, holding a cardboard sign reading, “Will Code for Food.” This is to say that, even though I think most apps should be free (or very close to free), I want developers to be paid.
Still, I want my free apps.

I know I’m not alone, but I also know that developers often face a daunting task when it comes to their monetization strategies.

“People increasingly prefer free, ad-supported apps for their tablets and smartphones, yet many developers still aren’t sure how to tackle the free vs. paid issue. Deciding when to charge for your app, and when to try an ad-supported model, is one of the hardest decisions developers must make.”

– John Manoogian III, TechCrunch: How Free Apps Can Make More Money Than Paid Apps

Apps should be free because consumers are constantly willing to pay that price. Apps should also be free because developers can reach more people that way. Though I’m not a coder, I am a writer, and we share many similarities. For instance, we give away much of our work for free, hoping to earn a buying fan of future products at the expense of their current offerings. Authors I follow often make their Kindle titles free for a day or a week on Amazon. This earns them new fans—people who would never have checked out that author’s work unless the free price point hadn’t been to their liking.

How many future-buying fans does a free app create for a developer? If the app is both great and free, I’d have to think the number’s fairly high.

It’s not as if developers are left with no way to make money should they make the app itself free. Freemium models with in-app purchases allow for income after the app itself has already made a willing-to-buy fan of the software. Even ad-supported apps would be OK to a certain extent. The general public understands the unspoken agreement that their attention can be sold so long as they receive a certain service for free.

There are many ways, and many I’ve left out, for a developer to earn back their costs and turn a profit without having to charge for an app. However, from my admittedly limited view, these ways are more time-consuming than simply charging a certain number of dollars per app.

The most telling sign that apps should be free (and that devs won’t go homeless) rests in the app store’s Top Grossing category. Of the top 50 grossing apps as of early April 2013, only three cost money to buy. Of the top 10, only one (Minecraft) requires you to spend money.

When most apps are initially free and developers put in the extra work to monetize their product in some other way, I believe it’s a win-win situation for both consumers and developers.

If you’re a consumer, are you more prone to downloading a free app or a paid app? Do you believe that you get what you pay for?

If you’re a developer, what issues do you have to wrestle with when deciding on whether to release a free vs. paid app?

What do you think? Should most apps be free, or close to free?

About Matthew Snider

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4 Replies

  1. As a developer (although not an iOS developer…yet) I can’t help but bristle just a little at this article initially. Giving it a bit more thought, I see where you are coming from, but I have my concerns:
    1. When you as a writer create something, typically it is done once you publish it. You may go back to a piece and update it if something changes but typically I don’t believe this happens very often. When you are a developer, if you release an app you have to stick around and continue to support that app. Depending on the complexity and quality of the app to begin with, this in and of itself can keep a developer busy.

    2. Freemium apps can be done tastefully to the benefit of both developer and user, but often this is either abused by the developer or not implemented in a very appealing way. So for example, a mail app could be free for 1 email address but $2.99 for unlimited and that often works well.

    3. Ads, in my opinion are never a welcome site. I have yet to see a tastefully implemented add inside of a n app.

    At the end of the day, the developer is providing a product that they in theory commit to maintaining and upgrading as needed (which it is always needed). So, I see where you are coming from, but knowing what goes in to creating and supporting an app I will have to respectfully disagree with some of your main points in the article.

    1. Demian, thanks for the insight. Like I said, I’m not a coder, and there’s much about the behind-the-scenes work of app development that I don’t know about. My article was definitely written from a consumer’s viewpoint. I agree with your points 2 and 3. Regarding ads, I was attempting to say that the general public is used to such a trade-off. They may not really like it, but they’re used to it. Do you appreciate apps that are free and ad-supported with the option of paying to remove the ads?
      Also, as a dev, what do you think is the best way to monetize an app?

  2. Ad supported isn’t helpful in some scenarios. For example, I have an app that I sell that tracks PTO/Vacation time. You know how often people us that kind of app? Once in a while. It’s not like a game where everyday you go into the app and check things out. My revenue from selling the app is 5x the ad revenue. Not every app is a game.
    The other thing with ads are that you only get paid when someone actually clicks on the ad. And even then it’s a crapshoot how much. Sometimes it’s $.21, sometimes it’s $.01. But it’s mostly $.01.

    Also, claiming that you can get more “followers” for your next app doesn’t work well. Sure, if you put out “Cut the Rope” and then come out with “Cut the Rope: Experiments”, it helps. But when you come out with apps that are disjoint, how do you even advertise that app to the previous group? It’s not like the app store pops up and says, “Hey, I see you have FooApp by John Developer. Check out John Developer’s new app: BarApp”. And of course, you want BarApp to also be free 🙂

    Also, “Top Grossing” is probably favored heavily by games where it’s fairly easy to get people addicting to spending microtransactions. You’re not going to have that same luck in an officesuite for example. “You have 10 document opens left. Click here to purchase more!”. I’d hate to have that, wouldn’t you?

    1. Bryan, thanks for the insight too. I should have been more careful with my generalizations since there are so many different kinds of apps out there. Whether due to space constraints or naivete, I didn’t take into account the hundreds of variables that can play into why an app may be free vs. paid.
      I assume you typically monetize by just selling the app. Is that correct? Do you think considerations are different for large development firms vs. lone ranger developers, i.e. is one more prone to do ad-supported or freemium apps vs. paid apps?

      For the record, I’m not against paid apps, thus the “most” in the post title.

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