How Low Mac Software Prices Harm Users and Developers

07/13/2012

Some time ago – never mind how long precisely – most indie or shareware Mac applications cost at least $20 or $30. It wasn’t uncommon to pay, say, $50 for a useful utility, or $100 or more for a word processor or text editor. Now, browsing the Mac App Store, you can see that most apps sell for $10 or less, and those that cost more are the exception.

While these decreased prices are good for users in the short term, I think they represent a dangerous long-term trend, and that, over time, this will result in less good software available for the Mac.

I recently wrote about a utility I use to control iTunes, called CoverSutra. At the end of my article, I said, “It’s worth far more than the $5 it costs,” and, in fact, the first time I bought CoverSutra, several years ago, it did cost more: it was $20. (I know this isn’t the best example, as there was quite a kerfuffle when the developer released version 3, after having promised free upgrades to users of version 2, but I don’t want to go there…)

It was a fair price to pay for a utility that I use constantly – there, I just used it again to adjust iTunes’ volume. There are other utilities that I use daily, whose price of $30 or $40 is fair. (For example: LaunchBar, €24; Scrivener, a steal at $45; BusyCal, perhaps a bit expensive at $50, but much better than iCal…) But these days, as prices drop, users are no longer willing to pay more than $5 or $10; yet they’ll happily dump more than that on a movie, or even a cup of coffee.

Users seem to have lost sight of the value of software. And in some ways, Apple is to blame for this. When Apple opened up iOS to third-party applications, the rush to the bottom in pricing was nearly instantaneous. Developers could benefit from high sales to sell apps for a buck or two and still make money. These were often very simple apps that didn’t require a lot of development or support. When Apple launched the Mac App Store, it even started selling its own software at bargain basement prices. Pages, Numbers and Keynote are $20 each, rather than the higher price previously applied to the entire iWork suite. Heck, even Mac OS X is only $30 (and Mountain Lion, due out in a couple of weeks, only $20.) With full-featured applications selling at those prices, how can an independent developer justify selling a utility for the same price? How can a utility be worth more than an operating system?

Another problem is that software sold through the Mac App Store doesn’t offer demo versions (unless the developer offers a demo on their website; many don’t, because they’re happy letting Apple handle everything). If you can’t try out a $40 program, and you find it’s not right for you, then you’re out a lot of money. At $5, you might be tempted to take a chance, and just delete the software if you don’t like it.

By not offering demo versions of software, the Mac App Store is certainly losing sales. For example, my eyesight is not great, and I have found an annoying trend in software where developers don’t want users to be able to change fonts or font size. If I buy a specific program where I need to read text and discover I can’t change its size, then I simply can’t use the software. So, if I can’t download a demo version to find out, I’ll just look somewhere else. There are plenty of ways that a specific program just won’t “work” for specific users, and not offering demos prevents users from buying programs they may find useful.

Beyond that, I simply won’t buy an application that’s, say, $40, if I can’t try a demo. It’s too much to pay for a crap-shoot, and it’s the fault of the developers if they don’t offer demos. While I understand why some don’t want to bother with this, they’re harming themselves and other developers. Because most users think like me; they won’t cough up more than a few bucks on an unknown app unless they’re confident that the app will be useful.

On the other hand, I know a number of independent developers who are selling apps for $5 or $10, and who find that the cost of support far outweighs what they can make from these apps. Some developers are increasing their prices to compensate for this. Yet the Mac App Store still features plenty of apps in the less than $5 range.1

Over time, as users frown against spending more than a couple of dollars for software, we’ll start discovering that there isn’t that much great software. Sure, a young developer can make an app in his spare time, start selling it for $2, and find some success. But when he tries to make this his day job, and realizes how much work it is, even if he sells a lot (a lot is several thousand copies), he won’t be able to make a living from this. So he’ll sell the app or kill it off, and move on to another job.

This deflation in software pricing isn’t inevitable. It simply needs two things. First, developers need to price their software realistically. Sure, they can run promotions from time to time, dropping their prices to $2 or so to get their apps noticed, but they need to maintain realistic prices that reflect the value of their work. Second, developers who sell Mac software at more than $5 or so simply must offer demo versions on their web sites. This is not just a courtesy, but should be an obligation. Expecting someone to drop $50 on an app they haven’t tried is simply foolish. Finally, Apple should offer a way for developers to provide demo versions of software from the Mac App Store. This shouldn’t be hard to do, since all software downloaded from the Mac App Store is tied to an Apple ID.

Notes:

1. There are certainly many exceptions to this: to name just a few, Coda, OmniOutliner and 1Password are all priced more realistically. But the overall trend is toward low prices.