The Future of Software

Today I had a brief conversation with James Higgis (@higgis) on Twitter about the value of software. It originated from a comment he made about app.net’s attempts to fund a subscription-based alternative to Twitter and whether people would actually pay something like $50 a year for it or whether they would rather have an advert-based, free system.

The conversation evolved into discussing the value of software to consumers. One particularly pertinent point he made was that, “most people don’t value software because it doesn’t bring them that much benefit. They can live without it. The common mistake is to think that the amount of effort put into making it has anything to do with the value people get from it.”

This is completely true and something software developers need to be aware of. We like to think that the work we do is highly valued, that we are creating great things that will make the world a better place and that non-developers will thank us for it and gladly buy our software. The reality is that most people don’t really care and are perfectly happy to endure adverts rather than pay for something.

We also face a problem that is shared by the entertainment industries in that a non-physical product is perceived to have less value, if any, than a physical product. I know people who earn good incomes and are generally law abiding but pirate music and films. I usually ask them if they would walk into a shop and steal a DVD and they almost always tell me that ‘it’s not the same.’ These aren’t people who justify it by saying that it is because they can’t afford to buy the titles, that they can’t get the titles any other way or because they hate the forced anti-piracy messages or trailers. They pirate because they genuinely don’t see any harm in it. They’re not stealing anything as far as they are concerned.

As an indie developer all of this is troubling. My belief is that the ability to make a living of writing apps for consumers will diminish over the next few years. There is already an expectation that apps should cost $0.99 and even at that price point consumers want something of incredibly high value and unless you have a run-away hit making a good living at that price point isn’t easy.

So what’s the solution? At the moment I believe that it may be in writing software for businesses. For a start they are more likely to understand the value of time and productivity and they are also less likely to tolerate adverts.

I also believe that apps should be priced properly. Not pricing it at $0.99 might cut out a huge number of customers but that can be a good thing. Many of the customers might have been impulse purchases and the higher price helps reduce the number of people who didn’t read the description properly and complain that the app doesn’t do what they thought it did. It also goes some way to helping off-set support costs. A $0.99 app probably buys a customer about 15-30 seconds of support time before it starts to cost the developer more to support them than they paid for the app. This is not good for either the developer or the customer. A higher-priced app also encourages more ‘dedicated’ customers. They have invested in your app and that faith needs to be repaid but it also means that the customers are more likely to work with you to make the app better and will make suggestions rather than just leave ranting 1-star reviews.

As a developer it is your job to create something wonderful but part of that creation process is making sure that there is a viable paying customer base who will embrace your work and value it. Create something great but make sure that the right sort of people will also find it great and will be happy to reward your efforts with their money. It is all a bit of a gamble and there are no guarantees but you can, with some thought, reduce your exposure to risk and increase your chances of success.