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.  ••

The Unrealized Potential of the Mac App Store

Pretty much all smartphone platforms have their own app store.  This provides a unified place to find and purchase applications for one’s device.  This is really nice; it makes finding software easy.  Apple pioneered this approach with the iPhone App store (which launched in 2008), and followed with the Mac App Store (in 2011).  When I first got a Mac last spring, I was really excited to use the Mac App Store.  My other computer runs Windows 7, which doesn’t have any sort of app store (the closest thing I have there is CNET).  It sounded really great to not only have a unified place to find apps, but also a unified way to update them (similar to iOS).  In practice, however, I haven’t used the Mac App Store much.  The reason?  The selection is pretty disappointing.  There just aren’t many good apps there.  The couple of times I’ve gone to the Mac App Store looking for something I’ve come away disappointed.  Subdividing this problem of selection, I’ve determined two major reasons why the Mac App Store has such as small assortment of apps.

1.  Sandboxing
Sandboxing is required for all apps on the Mac App Store.  Sandboxing is a term that many people have never heard used in a software context (only in a children’s playground one).  Basically, sandboxing means that each program is completely isolated, in its own “sandbox,” if you will.  The benefit of this is that apps can’t meddle with other apps.  For example, Microsoft Word can’t go over and, say, wreck Firefox’s awesome castle.  This sounds good in principle, until you realize that apps can’t work together either.  Maybe Firefox wanted Word to help with his castle.  The final problem is that apps can’t use common operating system resources that other apps might use too.  Microsoft Word wouldn’t be allowed to play on the swings, because it might hog them and not give Firefox a turn.  Bad analogies aside, sandboxing is something Apple is big on.  They are only now starting to take a step back from sandboxing in iOS with extensions.  Going back to the Mac, many apps simply can’t make themselves available on the Mac App Store, since they require advanced functionality that they can’t have while sandboxed.  This is really a shame, and it means I only have two App Store apps (Microsoft OneDrive and Apple’s Xcode) actually installed on my Mac right now.

2.  Pricing
This is just a pet peeve of mine.  I (like most people, I assume) like free software.  I almost never pay for software; there’s almost always a free alternative out there.  It may not work quite as well, but at least it was free.  The Mac App Store is not a good place to find free software.  For example, the other day I was looking for a way to change the date taken in a photo.  I don’t have iPhoto, and since Apple’s going to replace it with a (free!) “Photos” app in the next year, there’s no reason for me to spend $15 on it.  Searching online, I found a program called “Photo Date Changer.”  This program basically exists just to change the date on photos.  I thought, “Perfect, just what I need.”  This program is on the Mac App Store.  $8.  There is no way I am going to pay $8 for a program that just changes the date on a photo.  I have a theory as to why Mac App Store apps are more expensive.  The reason is that Macs are more expensive.  I guess developers assume that someone willing to spend more money on a Mac is willing to spend more money on software.  I, however, am not.

In conclusion, I hope the Mac App Store gets better.  Maybe Apple will start to open up sandboxing as they have done in iOS.  Maybe, as time goes on, more and more apps will become available on the store.  I hope this happens, but I’m not sure that it’s going to.  Fortunately, there’s always CNET.  ••