Paying for Apps

It seems odd that I felt so angry and depressed reading Marco Arment's recent blog post about why the market for "paid-up-front iOS apps" is dead. I'm not a developer. The market forces affecting software development have no effect on my livelihood. But I am a lover of software, and the flowering of my love for software (if I may be so melodramatic) coincided almost precisely with the flowering of the very software market Arment is now declaring dead. It feels like he's killing, by his very pronouncement, the thing I love. And I want him to be wrong.

The irony is that Instapaper may be the first iPhone app I ever paid money for. In the early days of the App Store, I remember consciously resisting the urge to buy apps because it felt like a waste of money, like they were glorified video games or something. As a result, most of my early exposure to independent iOS development was a free but sad parade of bubble popping, cat chasing, fish poking, funny face making, and farting apps.

But then I read about Instapaper. For years, I had been copying and pasting articles from the web into Word documents so that I could read them later. Instapaper sounded like my dream app. And yet the $10 price tag still felt like too much. I couldn't shake the irrational fear that it would somehow be a rip off, a swindle. So I used the free version instead. Arment has detailed why free versions actually don't help sales, and he's right. I put up with good enough for at least a year after that, far too long. It was finally John Gruber's post about Instapaper, and how much Arment sweated the details, that got me to fork over my cash. I can't possibly estimate how much Instapaper has meant to my reading life since, how much value those $10 dollars have reaped.

Instapaper was the gateway drug. Between my iPhone and iPad, I've since purchased countless todo apps, notes apps, mindmapping apps, rss readers, text editing apps, journaling apps, reminders apps, weather apps, calendar apps, photography apps, drawing apps, music making apps, Twitter clients. These apps have helped me organize my life, exercise more, lose weight, map out my hopes and dreams, capture moments of my children's lives, and enriched my knowledge of the world. I regret almost none of my purchases, even those I don't use anymore. If anything, I wish there were more great apps I could try.

In a previous blog post, I quoted Gary Snyder's poem "Why I Take Good Care of My Macintosh," where he gives as one of his answers, "Because my mind flies into it through my fingers." I feel the same way about my iPhone, except that it's no longer a one-way flight. These devices are my primary tools to capture, digest, share, and communicate information about the world, and it's the apps that make that experience possible. And what makes truly great iOS apps (like Day One, or Reeder, or Vesper, or Tweetbot, or Clear, or Paper, or Instapaper) stand apart is the sense that they create an unique space to live in for a moment, a place were all the details have been considered and savored and honed for a purpose by another human being.

I fear that Arment is saying the money for these spaces has dried up. Because there aren't enough people like me willing to pay for them. That it's only us outliers in the "upscale-geek world" who care about these things enough to foot an upfront fee, let alone a decent such fee.

But then I think about what I used to spend most of my spare money on before I spent it on apps. I spent it on music. And not music by mainstream bands, but bands on independent labels. These were bands who made a decent living touring and selling merch but rarely from record royalties, who yet still made some of the most indelible music of my life. And they didn't make that music to get rich. They made it because they loved making music.

So maybe it's true. Maybe the possibility of an independent developer making it rich or even making a living primarily off an iOS app simply by selling it to users has passed. I don't know if that's the case. It's possible future generations of users will see the value where most adults (software newbies) currently do not.

But I have hope that developers will continue to make and design the apps that I want to live inside, and that they'll sell those apps to me, simply because I hope they love designing them as much as I love using them.