The Problem with App Store Pricing

After the Monument Valley pricing kerfuffle a month or two ago, there’s been a lot of talk about pricing on the iOS App Store.  Many people say that apps are undervalued, and that if an app isn’t $0.99 or even free, no one will download it.  To a large degree, I think this is true, but I have one more point to add: the Mac App Store isn’t any better.  Ironically, though, the Mac App Store has the opposite problem.

But let’s start with iOS.  I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t like paying for apps.  Part of this comes from the fact that I’m just a student and I only work summers.  However, I think that my aversion to paid apps is a learned behavior.  I’ve owned an iOS device for about four and a half years now, and over that time frame, I’ve downloaded a lot of free apps.  Sure, some are awful, but many others are great.  This has resulted in an unrelenting mantra being drilled into my head: “Sure, this app costs $1.99, but I bet there’s a very similar one that’s free.”  (This doesn’t really apply to games, since most games are one of a kind.  However, most productivity apps have plenty of competitors.)  I’ve learned that a free alternative may not be quite as good, but at least it was free.  On the one hand, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this approach.  There’s definitely nothing wrong with being thrifty.  The problems arise when we entirely rule out an app for no reason other than the fact that it costs money.  Developers could spend thousands of dollars making an excellent app, only to find that no one will pay even a few dollars for it.  This doesn’t seem fair, but unfortunately, that’s where we are right now.

The Mac App Store also has a pricing problem, but not the same one as iOS.  I’ve mentioned in a previous post that the Mac App Store is pretty disappointing.  Not the least of the reasons for this is the fact that very, very simple apps are often kind of expensive.  There was one app I looked up the other day that was supposed to mute the startup chime that goes off when you first boot up your Mac.  As far as I could tell, that was all the program did, yet it cost $2-$3.  I just don’t see why such a simple app should cost money.  To be fair, it’s more difficult (and less accepted by users) to put ads in desktop software.  This is especially true of a background program like the startup chime one I just mentioned.  How are they going to make money on advertising if I only open the program once, configure it, and never open it again?  Aside from this point, however, I have a sneaking suspicion that Mac App Store developers know that Macs are more expensive, and so they assume that people who own Macs have more money, and are willing to spend more on apps.

So if I had to give only one suggestion on how to fix each platform’s problems, what would it be?  For iOS, I’d suggest app demo periods.  There are actually a lot of people calling for this right now.  I have been burned before by paid apps that don’t work – or don’t work as well as I would have liked them too.  Allowing a seven day (or even three day) trial of the full version of an app would allow people to determine whether the app actually works.  Developers can sort of achieve this now by making the app free, but limited in features – an in-app purchase unlocks the full version of the app.  This approach works OK, but it can be confusing to people who thought the app was free.  On the Mac side, what I think is lacking is simply competition.  The point of my previous post was that there really aren’t that many apps on the Mac App Store.  This is a problem in and of itself, and by solving it, I think the issues with overpricing would (to some extent) even out on their own.

Meanwhile, if you have found a paid app that you enjoy, I encourage you to recommend it to your friends (and me, I’ll be your friend too).  This helps others with the uncertainty of paying for something they haven’t used, and it also encourages developers to make great apps by letting them know that people are willing to pay for them.  ••

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