Matt Gemmell

TOLL is available now!

An action-thriller novel — book 2 in the KESTREL series.

★★★★★ — Amazon


tech 3 min read

No company has done as much damage to the perceived value of software, and the sustainability of being an independent developer, as Apple.

Not that other companies wouldn’t have done the same thing — they would have. It’s just that Apple was the successful one.

It’s resolutely the fault of us as consumers, and it’s actively encouraged by the App Store. Apple wants developers to:

  • Target the largest customer base, so they get 30% of the biggest potential income. That means selling at a low price, because most customers will only pay low prices, and all customers prefer low prices. This teaches customers that software’s average value is low.

  • Build a universal app (iPhone and iPad versions, in the same package) to increase the attractiveness and convenience of owning multiple iOS devices. You’ll earn a “+” in your app’s buy-button on the Store. This teaches customers that supporting multiple devices isn’t something to pay extra for.

  • Also include an Apple Watch version within the iPhone app. As above.

  • Provide regular updates, at no cost; so much so that there’s no mechanism for paid upgrades at all. This teaches customers that they should expect free upgrades for life, no matter how little they paid for the software initially.

  • Make exactly one sale of an app per person, ever, regardless of the number of devices they own, how often the app has been updated since they last used it, and so on. This also teaches customers that they’re entitled to come back to a free app at any point in the future, no matter how long ago they paid for it.

  • Ideally, make exactly one sale of an app per family. This reinforces the commodification of software; it’s to be shared around.

  • Sell only through their store, with their distribution mechanism, their product page design and user flow, and their 30% cut — which doesn’t provide for marketing or discovery of any kind beyond searchability, and the very small chance of being featured in some way. The majority of customers probably have no idea that the price they pay for an app is almost 43% higher than the amount the developer will receive, before tax (i.e. that Apple takes 30% off the top).

There are consumer-focused reasons for a lot of those points, but consumer focus isn’t the reason for any of them. And in almost all cases, they’re also deeply hostile to the sustainability of a small business as a software developer.

One measure of the value of a person’s creative output is what another person is willing to pay for it. Low prices actively court those who place less value on work. That’s not an admonishment; it’s just a simple fact. And no, you can’t balance the price-point and the sales figures to achieve the same income: there are far, far more people who will only buy at $1 (or free, if you’re trying to sell in-app purchases). If you sell at $3 instead, your number of sales will go down by much more than the factor of three that you increased the price by.

If your goal is just to make money temporarily (which is up to you), then the race to the bottom — with all its attendant risks, and its environmentally corrosive effect — is probably your best bet. You also need to acknowledge that you’ve marked your work as being essentially worthless, and that it’ll be discarded just as quickly. Your most vocal supporters will turn on you the minute you ask for more money (remember the extra levels for Monument Valley?). They simply won’t value you enough to even consider paying again, because you’ve already taught them that your work isn’t worth it.

Has Apple created a huge market, in terms of potential customers? Absolutely. It’s just done so at the expense of its platform-invested developer community. Judging by the company’s value and income, it was a very wise move, and you can justify it on that basis if you choose. But don’t ignore the reality of the situation. Apple is not a benevolent entity; your human-centric partner in aesthetics and ethos. If that was ever true at all.

The Mac App Store is a different place, of course, but then it’s also nigh-abandoned by Apple. If they chose to make a success of it, it would be by the same mechanism of devaluation to chase huge numbers of tiny, disposable purchases.

For developers who target the Mac, the last segment of the glass-and-aluminium Cupertino hardware line-up to still have plausibly sustainable economics, there’s only one course of action: pray that Apple remains disinterested.