Universal cheapness

Today, I would like to complain about the following two groups of people who are cheap:

  • Developers
  • Users

Ok, not all of them, some of you are quite lovely. But I’ve been noticing a couple of trends of late that I think deserve comment, and a couple of people today really pushed me to the point of anger. If I blame everybody equally, it cancels out, right?

Firstly, universal iPhone / iPad apps, or the lack of same – particularly in the field of games.

When the iPad came out, there was a slew of seperate HD versions of apps with appropriately HD pricing. “No”, said the developers, “we’re not just price gouging because there is a shiny new device out there which we think we can make a vast profit from. Look, we need to create these lovely high resolution assets. That costs real money!”.

And that was, on the whole, entirely true.

Then the iPhone 4 came out, and a lot of iPhone games have been updated recently for free with Retina display support with lovely high resolution assets. Some strangely familiar high resolution assets in some cases.

So, you might now be paying twice for exactly the same game, with exactly the same assets. These games are crying out to be universal apps. By all means charge more money for a universal app, that’s not the problem – I like paying money for good software – but don’t charge me a second time for the same thing.

Now this doesn’t apply to all games, and certainly doesn’t apply to all apps. A complex, well thought out UI on the iPhone doesn’t always scale to the iPad, and vice versa, even if they now have a similar number of pixels. But some games are pretty much identical on both. And those, my friend, should be universal apps.

I think what bothers me most is games that start out on the iPad, and then migrate to the iPhone. They’ve already done the hard work making it look amazing on the iPad, and I gladly paid the HD price for it. But now there’s an iPhone 4 optimised version coming and you want me to pay a second time? That makes me unhappy.

A recent example that did this right was Geometry Wars – they started out as an iPad app and added a universal app in a recent update. This made me feel even happier about my original iPad purchase. Pleased to the point that I’m telling you about the game now. Go buy it, it’s great fun.

Osmos is another really great game I bought for my iPad, and it sounds as if they are about to bring out a separate iPhone version, rather than a universal one. That makes me feel worse about my original purchase. They are both great games from great developers, but making your customers feel happy is an important thing.

Angry Birds is a more complex example – they’ve been great at doing lots of free updates to their iPhone version, and have earned a hell of a lot of customer loyalty from it (and a shedload of money as a result). But they also have a separate “pay again” HD iPad version, which I’m told frequently lags in updates behind the iPhone one. Boo, and boo.

Every time I buy a new game on the app store that isn’t universal, I sigh a little bit more, knowing it’s constrained to one device for reasons which are not always purely technical. I’m informed by the always wise Neil Inglis that universal apps bought in iTunes only count in the iPhone sales charts, and that could account for one reason why developers like having two separate apps. But that seems like it could be easily fixed by Apple. But then, Apple gets 30% of all the extra sales of the other versions… CUE CONSPIRACY THEORY!

Anyway, yes, developers are just after your money. But you know who else is cheap? Users.

This week, I saw a comment about my PCalc which basically said “How come the Mac version is twice the price of the iPhone version? I think all Mac software is overpriced.”

No, no, NO.

PCalc is $19 on the Mac, $9.99 on iOS. Leaving aside the fact that buying the iOS version of PCalc gets you a code which gives you a generous $9 discount on the Mac one, a more correct conclusion that they could have come to is “Perhaps all iPhone software is underpriced, and it might not be a sustainable market in the long term”. Or perhaps “I wonder why people will pay more for something, the bigger a screen it comes on?”.

I expect Apple will bring out an App Store for Mac OS sooner rather than later. I wonder what will happen to pricing then, if it will stay the same, or be more in line with the iOS apps. And I also wonder whether Apple will be able to ask for 30% of all sales. It would be a major shake up for the Mac software market, and I’m willing to bet 59p that it will happen.

Finally, I got an email today from somebody who had been running the Mac version of PCalc for many years, and had been faithfully clicking the “Not Yet” button every time he launched it. He decided he wanted to pay up, but when he finally saw the price, he decided against it, because he only ever really used the widget. For all of the many years he had been running the software without paying for it.

Oh, and the best bit? He was an indie developer as well…

I think I might be too generous with the trial periods in DragThing and PCalc. When the two week trial is over, they both keep working on the whole, requesting politely that you pay, but not being too obnoxious about it. They were both created in a different age, where that approach was normal and expected. Should I change them to stop working completely as soon as the trial period expires? The user in me says no, the developer says yes.

What do you think?

Author: James Thomson

Indie iOS / Mac developer, maker of PCalc and DragThing. Occasional writer, conference speaker, and podcast pundit.

17 thoughts on “Universal cheapness”

  1. I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but I find that I base my software purchases to a large extent on the developer. If I like the developer’s work, and I like how I perceive the developer’s online presence, I tend to buy and use their product. On the other hand, if I like their work, but dislike them on a more personal level, I tend to avoid their product. For instance, I have used TextMate and Transmit for years, but then Panic came out with Coda. I like Panic, their products and people. I have had some recent issues with TextMate, and the fact that it seems to have become abandonware, so I bought a copy of Coda, even though I didn’t really need it. Essentially, I have my little pool of money, and my little needs, and I will try to meet my needs, but I will carefully distribute my money to those that I want to get it. I realize that this makes me less of a consumer, and more of a patron, but it makes me feel better.

  2. I’m a developer myself (sorry, had to start it that way) and I totally agree with you. I’m working in software projects, so I’m not selling products but my time (and to some extend my skills, loyalty,…).

    As a customer, I’m more of an “over buyer”, I have quite some licenses for software, I could have used on a trial base. But if the software gave me a real benefit, I’d like to value the work done by the developers. Most of the software I own saved me a few hours of time (maybe except for games and windows vista) and if you save me only one hour of my time (over a month/year/lifetime), you can charge me quite some money…

    If I were you, I’d think about changing the trial: For example, make it fully functional for two weeks, fully functional with polite requests for buying for another four weeks and non-functional until the end of time (or purchase).

  3. I think that over the years I’ve probably paid for PCalc a number of times. Yet I don’t care. I’d rather cough up a bit more money and ensure you are writing great software for everyone than be a cheap bastard and save $10 somewhere along the line.

    Really, how can anyone complain that $19 is too much for software they actually use? That’s like the price of a pizza or something.

  4. I’ll take your 59p bet.

    I—without any data here, so take this with a box of salt—doubt that you’ll get a significant increase in sales if the trial period stops working instead of nagging. Take the user you refer to: if he balked at the price now, he would’ve balked at it when the two weeks was up as well. So he’s not a lost sale for you—though he is a lost sale for your lower-priced competition as long as he keeps using your trial version. That’s not much of a win for anyone, though.

    I disagree with you about iPad and retina display assets. Because of the factor-of-3 difference in DPI, most apps, even I think most games, won’t be able to share assets well between the iPad and iPhone 4 versions. An image designed to be a generously tappable half an inch across on the iPad is going to be a minuscule 1/6th of an inch on the retina display. Any developer who cares about the user experience is going to be making sure they produce appropriate assets for both devices. And that costs money.

    1. Depends if we are talking 2D or 3D assets – higher resolution textures and models would be equally applicable on iPad and iPhone 4 I would say. Yes, there is an argument that I’m preventing a competitor from getting a sale too, but that’s not a good thing either for the platform!

  5. @jamesthomson @CraigGrannell I’d say iPhone Apps are and should be (much) cheaper because you (should) get vastly more sales. Other factors bend prices about, but that’s the bottom line.

    It’s economics, right? If it wasn’t the case, if iPhone Apps cost the same as normal Apps, you’d get a HUGE payoff for writing one… lovely, but in about a microsecond all the coders in the world will write iPhone Apps, and… oh, the price will go down until this doesn’t happen any more. Until your total expected return on a unit of work is about the same as any other software field. What – that’s already happened? Curses – I should have got in to this sooner .

    I’d be interested to hear if you get a similar return from your iPhone and Mac Apps?

    🙂 That’s my thoughts on it, anyway.

    1. Ten years ago, we made a lot more from Mac apps than we do now from iOS apps. But now we make a lot more from iOS apps now than we do from Mac apps!

  6. “iPhone Apps are and should be (much) cheaper because you (should) get vastly more sales”

    Should or could? Could: perhaps. Should: no way. Apps should be priced at what they’re worth. Devs shouldn’t inflate pricing on a specific platform over a very, very similar platform ‘just because’.

    From Neil Inglis on Twitter, it seems Apple’s at least partly to blame for the iOS split, since uni apps bought in iTunes are assigned to the iPhone charts only, not both iPhone and iPad. He says only uni apps bought on an iPad count towards the iPad charts, which is idiotic.

  7. For the OS X one you coudl switch to a 30-day trial and make it stop working after the trial. Anyone who hasn’t made their mind up by then isn’t going to pay for it ever anyway, so why let them keep using it?

  8. I disagree with David. I think it’s in your best interest to let users keep using for a long period of time. The point isn’t to take retribution against people who are using your app without paying, but rather to nudge them into paying for your app. They will, of course, never pay if they stop using your app, but some of them will eventually pay months or years later out of guilt or gratitude or a realization that they’re getting more value out of the software than they thought they would.

    Exactly how to accomplish that nudge I don’t know. Perhaps you can keep a running total of the “value” that a user has derived from your app in some way? Total hours used once it accumulates to a big sounding number? Cost if they’d hired a CPA or a dozen monkeys to run all those calculations for them? A-B test a few different “sales” that only show up after a few months or years?

  9. I’ve been on the fence about a calendar app, let’s refer to it as iCal Pro (since they do). I’m not entirely sold because I don’t like replacing core Apple apps with other people’s solutions. They lag feature adoption or whatever. I’m a bit of a purist…

    Anyway, “iCal Pro” looks good, but I can’t dedicate the time to really dig into it, so I put it aside for a week. I try again, but get interrupted. Another week and guess what… my demo period is over and I am not allowed to launch it. Well screw that, I wasn’t sold anyway.

    A year later, I see an update to iCal Pro, I think to myself, I really should buy that and solve all these problems I have with iCal (free, but crappy). So, I download the latest version intending to check it out again, knowing I really SHOULD buy it and be done with it, but wishing I could be more convinced first…

    Double click, and… Sorry, I’ve already had my allotted audience with his highness iCal Pro and I’m not allowed anymore. God forbid, I might… USE the software without paying for it.

    As it is, the author won, fair and square. You can be absolutely sure I won’t be using that software without paying for it.

    Well, to be more concise, you can be absolutely sure I won’t be using that software.

  10. “The point isn’t to take retribution against people who are using your app without paying, but rather to nudge them into paying for your app. They will, of course, never pay if they stop using your app, but some of them will eventually pay months or years later out of guilt or gratitude or a realization that they’re getting more value out of the software than they thought they would.”

    The harsh reality is most won’t. If someone loves an app, but it suddenly stops working after 14 days (or whatever), they will pay. The longer they can get away without paying, though, the less likely they are to bother. Most devs who run ‘donationware’ say they rarely if ever receive payments; this is presumably why iStat Menus jumped from donationware to a flat fee, the perception originally being that it was free.

    For James’s stuff, I always thought it was lenient and that’s to be applauded, but there’s also nothing wrong with giving people a trial. The problem with trials only comes when they’re too restrictive. I was attempting to review an app for MacFormat recently, but couldn’t get in touch with the dev. It had limited launch, but crashed a few times. Within 20 minutes, the app locked solid, and so it got ditched. To that end, ensure trial limits are sensible, and, if possible, use non-consecutive days. (I despise it when you get a 30-day trial that lasts for 30 calendar days. What if I’m busy for 29 of them? I won’t have time to use your app! Give me ten days, but ten individual launch days whenever I want them!)

    “Exactly how to accomplish that nudge I don’t know. Perhaps you can keep a running total of the “value” that a user has derived from your app in some way?”

    That could be one idea, I guess, guilting users into paying with “You’ve now been using Fantastic-o-App for 214 hours – maybe you should think about registering!” but while that’ll maybe get a few guilt purchases, it’s still dead easy to click ‘Cancel’.

  11. Hi, James.

    I don’t think you should make PCalc stop working after the trial period. You should just make it start giving wrong answers occasionally!

    OK, kidding. But seriously, what if you, say, limited its precision to 3 sig figs or something? Sort of a “pay for precision” model?

    Just wanted to give you a little “outside the box” thinking 🙂

  12. I hack a little here and there, but by no means consider myself a developer. That said, I _definitely_ think Users are particularly tight-fisted. It’s really absurd – I think developers suffer the same problem that Musicians and other artists suffer in the digital age. For some reason, people don’t place significant value on intellectual property – recognition of the talent and the hard work that goes into creating it.

    While I agree with you that Developers can be pretty cheap at times as well, that doesn’t bother me as much because they are only shooting themselves in the foot – they only exacerbate the problem with the Users and make it less likely that people will buy their software.

    I _really_ value a fine piece of software and so am more than willing to pay a fair price when I come across something that makes my socks roll up and down. The idea of shareware is nice in that I like being able to try before I buy, but I think that you as a developer also need to protect yourself – you should completely disable the software after the trial period is over. If they like it, then they should pay for it…

  13. Hi James,

    There are always going to be cheap users and overly greedy developers in this world. The wonderful thing about life is that we have the choice to serve them or not. I’ve been a developer since 1975 and released some of the first shareware/donateware/nagware/trialware software around. It’s a great way to let folks try out your software and decide whether it’s useful enough to them to pay or not. The catch (as you’ve pointed out) is that if you don’t limit the time they can use it or the functionality in some way, there’s little incentive (other than being honest OMG) to pay for it. Human nature as it is, I believe you have to push them a bit to ‘do the right thing’.

    At $19 your software is not priced too high and anyone who truly appreciates a well crafted tool they use regularly should be more than willing to cough up and pay. Your IOS versions people have to buy on faith as there is no facility to try it out other than perhaps a free lite version (which I think is worse than trialware). With the upcoming Mac AppStore I think your problem may be solved (in some ways) if this new way of selling Mac software models itself after the IOS store.

    If you choose not to support a product in the Mac Store then by all means time-limit and/or function-limit PCalc and let the chips fall with the honest folks of the world.

    Keep doing what you are doing and don’t feel guilty about wanting to be compensated for your creativity, your hard work and your ethics.

    Happy Holidays, Art

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