Buying Apps in the Age of Free / by Simon Abrams

You know you wanna buy some apps...

You know you wanna buy some apps...

When I like stuff, I'm the worlds goofiest, most enthusiastic evangelist of said stuff. I'm always recommending an app, a restaurant, a piece of camera gear, etc.

Often, especially when I'm talking about a mobile app, I get stopped mid-spiel with the same question: "is it free?". If the answer is no, then the pitch usually fizzles shortly thereafter due to loss of interest.

So many people have a strict "I don't pay for apps" philosophy, which I really don't understand. I mean, yes, who among us couldn't stand to be a little more fiscally conservative, and even small sums add up. But on the other hand, our devices - specifically our mobile devices - are such an integral part of our daily lives now, so expecting to only ever pay once (outside of the monthly cost of whatever the carrier's charging for your plan) to effectively extend the value of those devices is perplexing to me.

Let's take a mobile app that costs $5 as an example. If you're going to balk at the cost of the app, ask yourself a few questions first:

  1. How will that $5 impact your quality of life in the forseeable future? If the answer is "dramatically", then forget it - discussion over, don't buy that app.
  2. In your day-to-day life, how many other goods or services can you name that would you spend $5 on, and expect to have support and upgrades for, continuing in perpetuity? If Chipotle changed the recipe for their carnitas burrito tomorrow, would you expect an upgrade to the one you had yesterday? Maybe a better comparison would be a Starbucks latte, since that is probably closer to $5 in value.
  3. Speaking of value, do you think you would get any value from the app in question if you bought it? How much value? Would you use it once? Daily? If you ammortize that value over the amount of uses you expect to get out of it, or over time, doesn't it seem like a better deal?
  4. Will using this app/software in any way help you to earn your income, and thereby keep the lights on and a roof over your head? Will it in any way contribute to your peace of mind? How much do you value peace of mind? How about entertainment? $5 seems a small price to pay to be entertained, even a little bit.
  5. The most obvious question to ask yourself is, if you made that app - if you had worked hard, stayed up late, researched new techniques, pulled your hair out and bashed your head against your keyboard squashing bugs and figuring out new API's and cross-platform compatibility issues, and sacrificed time spent with your spouse and kids and pets, and skipped out on going to current movies in the theater to create this app - would you not want to be compensated for your effort?

One of the reasons I don't mind paying for an app, is because part of what I'm paying for is an implicit agreement with the developer. If I'm not happy with the product, or if the quality or functionality (aka value) changes after an update, then I believe my payment for the app entitles me to voice my opinion at least a little bit. Well, maybe a little bit more than if I'm just some free user. I could be wrong though. Conversely, I feel that having paid for the app, I'm probably more invested in its continuing evolution and improvement, so I'm more likely to offer reasonable suggestions and feedback to the developer - and they will probably take me more seriously, because they realize that I'm invested. Again, I could be wrong.

I totally understand the impulse to get the free version of an app that's "just as good". If it really is just as good, then sure, why not. But a lot of the time it's not just as good. Or there are ads, or your giving up privacy in exchange for "free", or the developer might just abandon the app.

Incidentally, I guess my exception is that I will almost never pay for any of those god-awful in-app purchases for games like Clash of Clans, or even my beloved Real Racing 3, where they make the game suck and hold your fun hostage, but oh, look - if you just cough up some doough, you can play some more. Eff that. I'd rather pay for the game outright (eg. Super Mario Run).

Here's an incomplete list of apps and services that I happily pay/paid for, because when I ask myself some of the questions listed above, at bare minimum, the answer is that I would easily get value for my money, whether in the form of peace of mind (Backblaze, 1Password), or saved headaches (iCloud, or even pure entertainment (Netflix):

Of course, my financial situation is different from many people. I don't have kids, and my wife and I both work full-time jobs. Our rent is reasonable (by Brooklyn standards), and for the most part we live below our means. Being the more responsible of us, she doesn't have any credit card debt, but I'm almost there too. Her student loans are paid off, and I never had any (because, being an international student, I wasn't eligible for them - at least that's how it worked in the olden days, I'm not sure how it works now). We don't have a car either. I think the point I'm making is, the next time you come across an app or service, and your knee-jerk reaction is "It's not free? I ain't paying for that", ask yourself why.