Reader Will recently asked about how my feelings on In-App Purchases (IAPs) have shifted over the years. It has been a long time since I've done an OpEd, and that sounds like an excellent topic! Especially after yesterday featured the video of my infamous rally cry against Tabletop, as well as the release of Musyc; which is based on the freemium model.
Money for nothing
Tabletop is a good place to start, being the first major music app to explore and exploit the IAPs that had previously been relegated to games. In fact game developers had already soured everyone on the idea of IAPs by this point, with games designed to be unwinnable unless kids coughed up their allowances. Tabletop was playing for much higher stakes though. At release it was a $15 purchase, followed by approximately $75 worth of IAPs to get all of the app's functionality. This wouldn't be so different from apps like Auria today, but that initial $15 bought you jack shit. Basic functionality, like a mixer, was an additional $10 each.
Tabletop has changed over the years, and is now offering quite a lot; while making the base app free. In fact I can't think of any app that is quite that pernicious today. Maybe they've all become kinder about it, or maybe the initial shock has made anything else seem like a rosy alternative.
All of this was going on in 2010; the height of the global economic recession. I bought my iPad 2 on credit, and had just barely paid it off by the time Tabletop came out. My dog walking business was down 60% from where it was in 2008. On a very personal level I was furious at the notion of an app that would keep charging for content. That was supposed to be the beauty of apps: I pay $5 and I get everything. This was an excellent alternative to computer VSTs that usually run for over $100 each.
This was also a somewhat naive view of the economics at play here.
And your chicks for free
We arrived at $5 as the price of an iPad app over the course of a couple of years ramp up from the iPhone app model. Which itself was based on the idea that 100,000 people would pay $1 for a 12 second snippet of song, to use as a fucking ringtone. The promise of apps for developers was supposed to be that they would sell 100,000 copies and that would make up for the drastically reduced price. It didn't work out like that for most, and it didn't even approach that for niche audiences. We're a very niche audience. The reality is that even a good synth app will only sell 2,000-10,000 copies in a year.
If we go right in the middle of that number we're looking at $25,000 profit, or really $17,500 after Apple get their cut. You can't live on that in most first-world countries. There have been some interesting attempts to do so, and there are exceptions to this. For everyone else this is a hobby, or at best a part-time job they're making minimum wage for.
In the time that I've been doing this site I've gotten to know a lot of developers on a personal level, and I see the struggle there. They could all be doing anything else with their time, and making more money in the process. They are all aware of this. If paying for updates in the form of IAPs is what it takes to keep these guys interested in making us fun stuff to play with, so be it!
I know I give developers a hard time, and people who try to sell MIDI as an IAP will still catch hell from me. Yet I respect their rare combination of talents, as musicians and coders. These are extremely talented people who are essentially donating their time to our community. These are our nerds. If the Internet has taught us anything, it is that we've got to make sure we keep our nerds doing what they love. That way we get cool shit like the Internet!
Custom kitchen deliveries
Just like many of the developers are hobbyists, many of the people buying their apps are hobbyists! I think this realization of hobbyists funding hobbyists has been the most impactful in my way of thinking on IAPs. In addition to getting to know developers, I've seen this in your own passionate enthusiasm. You're not buying a $5 app to get on MTV, you're buying a $5 app because you just want to play. Provided you've been given ample value for your initial purchase, I can see no reason to oppose paying more for even more fun.
For the most part you guys seem to believe this as well. I've gotten a fair number of emails and comments along the lines of, "Yea, fuck IAPs! I just want to pay once!" But I've gotten an equal number of, "I know you don't like IAPs, but I'm glad to support the developers!" After reading all of these over the years I've come around to agree.