How App Bundles Are Killing Independent Developers

02/05/2014

Over the years, I’ve bought a number of Mac app bundles. You know the kind: you get ten apps, worth $527, for only $50. In general, there are one or two “headliner” apps that you’ve heard of, and the rest are smaller apps from independent developers, ones that have never been on your radar. You may have planned to buy one of the headliner apps eventually, and you end up getting that, plus nine other apps, for the price of the main draw.

Some of the headliner apps are from big companies, and they’re delighted to get the exposure that a big bundle brings. They get lots of new users, some of whom will stick with that app as it gets upgraded. Parallels – the virtualization software that lets you run Windows on a Mac – is often at the top of these lists, and they don’t care about giving away the app to acquire new, long-term customers, and get exposure: they make most of their money from enterprise customers.

Some apps in these bundles come from companies that make Windows software who are trying to get a foothold in the Mac market. This is especially the case for the endless “video converter” apps that all seem to be clones of just one such program.

The problem with these bundles is that they’re killing independent developers. The prices paid per copy for bundles is ridiculously low. A developer may get offered a buck for a $20 app, with the understanding that they’ll move tens of thousands of copies, and get loads of new users. It’s a tough call whether this amount of money is sufficient. Let’s say a bundle sells 50,000 copies. If a developer were to get $50,000 for their $20 app, they’d get a nice check, and they’d have lots of new customers. (Certainly not 50,000 customers; no one uses all the apps in a bundle.) These customers would be likely to buy upgrades if they really like the app, and they may also talk about the app to their friends.

The downside is that the developer will have lots of support emails to deal with. Some apps don’t require much support; a well-written FAQ might be enough for most issues. But others may be the kind that lead to many questions, or feature requests, drowning the developers in support queries, preventing them from actually developing.

Each developer will decide what the right price is for being part of a bundle. But bundle offers have gotten so low as to be laughable. One independent developer I talked with was recently offered $500 for 100,000 licenses of an app that sells for $10; that’s ONE HALF-CENT PER LICENSE. That’s 0.05% of the app’s selling price. For $500, this developer would have to field hundreds, maybe thousands of support requests.

Another developer told me that he was asked to give an app for free, with the rationale that it would get “lots of exposure.” So the developers would get nothing but exposure, but the company running the bundle would make money.

It’s always been hard to sell apps, and it’s even harder now, with the Mac App Store limiting what can be sold within its boundaries, and making it harder for non-Mac App Store apps to get noticed. People are more and more hesitant to spend a few bucks for great apps that represent years of work, in part because of the low prices of iOS apps. Low-balling the prices offered to developers just perpetuates the idea that apps aren’t worth paying much for. Independent developers need support, not this attempt to erode the value of their work.