The cost of relying on free apps

The cost of relying on free apps

The true costs associated with free apps isn't limited to free-to-play-games, or the consequences to just our wallets. Michael Jurewitz, who up until last year worked as a developer evangelist at Apple, has outlined another profound cost on his blog, Jury:

Last week brought a couple high profile announcements in the tech world. Google announced it would shutter Google Reader on July 1 and Dropbox announced it had acquired the hugely-popular-but-how're-they-gonna-make-money Mailbox app. At face value, these were two separate and unconnected events but they bear a lesson for all of us to take to heart: Running a sustainable business requires generating sustainable revenue. Charge money for what you create.

Both during and after his stint at Apple, Jury has been a consistent voice on this. Make a great product. Charge a fair price. Align your interests with your customers. It's a virtuous cycle.

Free can be done well and done right. But free is also a dependency for everyone involved. Companies that make free products cede control of their own destiny to venture capitalists and those who would acquire them. Customers who use free products cede control of their data to servers that are more likely to change hands, perhaps multiple times, or disappear entirely.

With Google Reader, we ultimately lost out to their Google+ agenda. With Mailbox, their customer was ultimately Dropbox and not us. Something even better could replace Google Reader. Dropbox could make Mailbox the email client of the future. But we didn't buy either of them, and ultimately we got what we paid for.

Whether you're a developer or a customer, read Jury's piece and think about whether investing your money is better deal than investing your time and/or data.

Source: Jury

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Rene Ritchie

EiC of iMore, EP of Mobile Nations, Apple analyst, co-host of Debug, Iterate, Vector, Review, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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Reader comments

The cost of relying on free apps


Mailbox said that they were going to add premium features later i personally was hoping for exchange support.

We will see what happens to both soon. Maybe some other apps will step up in their place. Was shock about Google Reader. But I guess he makes a point about free.

Exactly, and the desktop app was $10. I think Renee was bored or hard up for a topic. At the end of the day, there is no such thing as security in anything no matter how much you pay.

You can disagree with a thesis without being rude. Sparrow couldn't make ends meet and got bought. How would being free have better ensured the app stayed around?

Alright alright, I'm sorry. Was more teasing, not intentionally trying to hurt your feelings.

As for Sparrow, we were using that as an example of charging not being a full-proof way of purchasers of the apps having safety that the app will stick around. Sparrow is by far the best email app out there for iOS (even without the push). Yet even with a relatively cheap price it wasn't a safe purchase. I assumed the thesis of your post was the same as Jurawitz's:
"Running a sustainable business requires generating sustainable revenue. Charge money for what you create." By giving the post the title you gave it, it came across that you agreed with him versus opening it up for discussion. By agreeing with him, you leave out all the apps that fold who do charge money, hence my statement about charging. Even a good successful app doesn't guarantee a users purchase.

That's why? I thought Sparrow was bought because Google liked their UI and capabilities and wanted to bring that into Google iOS/Android application.

that means exactly what needed to happen happen. They didn't need to be making apps. The market decided. At $2.99 it wasn't worth it and at free they couldn't make money. There was no price point that worked. Product fails. That's how it works. What they created was not valuable enough to enough people to pay for it.

Same thing happened to palm. they wanted to sell devices but not enough people wanted them to justify continuing. welcome to the marketplace. I think it's fair.

Why do you say "there was no price point that worked." Those who paid $2.99 may have paid more. I think Sparrow underpriced their product. Why would a productivity app that is used every day only be worth $3 measly dollars. It was worth at least five times as much.

Yep - they didn't charge enough. $3 is a coffee, not a productivity app that you use every day. It should have been $15 or more.

I'm always a fan of paying for a worthy product. I don't get how 1. Someone can afford a $200-600 tablet or smartphone, but isn't willing to spend 99 cents on a quality app. You get what you pay for, and developers who get paid have the incentive to continue making better products. That being said, I am a fan of 'try before you buy' models in either a timed trial or a 'lite' or ad supported version (removed when buying full version) as it allows you to try an app out before buying it sight unseen. If I then like the app and have a use for it, I'm fine with supporting the developer's work and buy the full version.

I don't use Google+ because I think it's horrendous, and from what I can tell since today for the first time in probably a year, I looked at it and I have no new posts since like 5 months ago by anyone in my circles, clearly no one else uses it either, so maybe that's not worth consistently putting resources at Google into and they should focus on things people actually use, like say Reader and Exchange services.

Sometimes paying for an app might also result in a better user experience. Having played real football 2013, I don't think I would play another freemium football game from the Real series. It was so pathetic. Maybe the gameplay would have been better if it were a paid game??

There have been lots of free apps and web services over the years that I have wondered - how do they make any money off of this? At one point, I was even wondering how long Twitter would last. It is sad to see good apps disappear because they tried to remain free and folded. I don't mind paying a few bucks here and there for any app that proves its worth. I'm willing to pay a little to help ensure it is around for the long haul.

Free equals info distribution and/or ads. Money has to be made somewhere or it will fail. But even so, people will always complain about $0.99 apps as they are buying their $6 Starbucks coffees. Technology people like freeware, the world is a greedy place hell bent on making money and something's gotta give. Unfortunately that means a loss of free, the world and greed still win every time. And until the greed abates, I'm content to pay for quality.

it doesn't mean distribution or ads. You mention Starbucks. Starbuck's app is free and they don't sell your info. It's free because they have products to sells. They are a sound business using an app as a tool to further there customer's enjoyment of their products. These others just offer an app that's often not that special.

I only buy apps after I try them out via jailbreak means. I try it out for a day and if I like it I buy it. I don't keep it. The only exceptions were cut rope and tweetbot that I've happily bought without using jailbreak. Amazing apps. Free apps need to be marketed properly with freemium models.

Freemium is the worst model. It's just a way to rip off your users. And what's absurd is that people will refuse to pay a dollar for an app but will gladly spend upto $100 in in-app purchases. There are very few freemium apps that have fair pricing. It's better to pay once and enjoy a premium experience. Look at all of the freemium games by glu mobile. They are all pay to win games. Dead trigger is the only game so far that doesn't require you to pay to win.

I prefer freemium when it helps SPEED up processes; I hate it when you need it in able to win. That is dumb and I do not support it.

Thanks Rene... That was a great article that highlights some really important factors when building applications for mobile platforms - or any for that matter.

Though I'm using an iPhone these days and lovin' it, I am studying on the side to develop applications for Windows Phone. I love pretty much every platform (Windows Phone, iOS, Android and even BB10) but given that I'm a .Net software developer by profession as well as a hobbyist, jumping into the WP development bandwagon made most sense. (Though I am also looking into .Net capable development platforms for iOS and Android - Xamarin to name one)

The article in question really highlights some of the things that I've been thinking about lately. Free vs Paid is a popular discussion among developers these days and honestly, "if you're trying to build a sustainable business with your own blood, sweat, and tears..." it's understandable to put a reasonable price on it.

A few of my friends are already involved in application development for iOS and other platforms at their jobs and they mentioned that most of the time they have an outstanding application submitted for Free for users of the platform, but then to get return kill the overall experience of the application by hogging it with advertisements and pop-ups among other things.

It's a fact that users love free apps, but create something substantial and worthy of the user experience, and i'm sure users will run to it...

absolutely! i laugh at all these people that are all butt hurt about free apps. Sorry if people won't pay for your product you're product's not good enough or there isn't a market for it. And there isn't a market for most pay apps because most simply don't give you a value over the free version. And i'm not paying for them anyways.

Developers shouldn't be targetting those who don't want to pay, no matter what the app does. Developers who aren't producing a "companion" app (e.g. Starbucks app to sell coffee) should be targeting those who recognize value for money and are willing to pay by setting an appropriate price.

Free doesn't do it. But neither does charging too little. If you don't have a mass market app, don't give it mass market pricing. Games as mass market pricing work because of the volume. A productivity app or client for a service that limited people use may not be. And if you make a good client, then charge a good price that lets you pay the bills. Those who value their time will pay money if you help them save time with your app. At least the smarter ones will. The other upside is that you have less technical support load and are still able to make a living, rather than a huge support load for the same revenue.

Apple has done something similar to Reader when they introduced Ping, also a free service, and then shuttered it. Obviously it's not affecting as many users as Reader, but Jury's comment also seems to suggest that Google may have continued Reader as a service if only they charged or it, and that seems ludicrous to me. There is a huge difference between a startup providing Mailbox for free and Google or Apple, well-established companies, providing their services - gmail and iCloud mail, calendar and contact sync services, Reader, and even the music manager software iTunes - for free.

"ultimately we got what we paid for"
That's true. I think of that every time I hear someone complain about changes to any free service. Take for instance all the moaning you hear whenever Facebook makes a change to the interface.