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?