It's Just A Phone

In a conversation with a friend a few weeks ago, we stumbled into an interesting discussion. He brought up that he'd been playing a particular game on his smartphone, and that it kept badgering him with "Pay to continue" messages. He made it very clear how, even as a casual gamer, the constant barrage of messages was exhausting to deal with, and in many cases would stop him from playing altogether. Leaving aside the whole "Free to Play" discussion, I asked him if he'd ever purchased one of those upgrades, or indeed if he'd ever bought an app or game on the Google Play store.

He paused, thinking about it, and finally said, "No." I then asked, why he wouldn't.

"I wouldn't, but I don't know why I wouldn't."

Intrigued I said, "You know it takes teams of people and months of time to make those games and apps; how do they make money if you don't buy anything from them? You downloaded their app for free, and refuse to pay anything for it."

He paused. "Wait, if I don't buy this, the developers don't make any money?... Wow. I didn't know that."

It sounds silly, but this isn't that uncommon a response. Neglecting the gross oversimplification of the app/game payment model here, I think this illustrates one of the most common problems that developers today face. We, as developers, love to imagine that people refuse to pay for apps because they are used to software being free. We love to repeat the phrase "Rush to the bottom" and mourn the loss of paid apps, but there's another problem here as well: A lot of people still don't know how software is paid for, or that the only source of income that the developer has are those in-app purchases or upfront charges (neglecting ads of course).

"I just assumed that the app was getting money for being in the store, or from Cox, Comcast, etc."

That took me by surprise. I'd never heard that idea before.

Really, this whole discussion was just as intriguing to me than it was to him. It means that there's still mystery surrounding apps and games, mystery about where they come from, and how they're made. We've heard that many people still believe that Apple writes all the apps in the App Store, that they're all paid for from ads, or something similar, but it just underscores the reality that most people don't see "pay for this developer's rent" in those little popups or up-front price tags, they see, "give Apple more money."

Speaking for Apple, (since I don't know much about Android, I won't group Google in this analysis) the fact that individual developers don't control refunds, and don't have the ability to respond to comments and reviews in the store really cuts the communication between developers and their customers to an unfair level. Apple did add quite a few improvements to the App Store at this year's WWDC, but the ability to better communicate with their customers was not one of them, and it's sad. Apple gave us a lot, and that's good, but it's not enough. I really hope that Apple continues with the theme of this year's WWDC and improves the App Store next year (though sooner would be better).

Ultimately, I think it's a communication problem; developers can't come out from under the rug that Apple throws over them and just talk to their customers. As the conversation continued, I posed other questions and got the usual responses:

"Would you pay for Twitter?"






That one surprised me; even Google, the homepage of the internet, doesn't get a pass.

To me this just underscores the reality that a large percentage of the population still consider software to be free, meaningless, and ephemeral additions to a device that they already felt was too expensive. Whenever the conversation gets this far, I make the comment, "Remember when software was hundreds of dollars?" Hell, Microsoft Word is still $99 or more (for the old versions that don't require a subscription, and now the payment model is arguably worse). Why do most people pay for that, and not a far better piece of software or service?

The response I almost always get is, "it's a phone." Phones aren't full-fledged computers in the popular mindset; they're toys. That, I think is the real problem. I'm not sure how to change that, maybe it'll come with time. We in the developer circle like to think that the popular mindset already considers smartphones a real computing or working device, but we forget that a lot of people, (probably a majority, though I have no data to affirm that) still consider smartphones expensive toys. Until this perception changes, apps are just meaningless, free toys to justify the price of our phones.

Filed under: wwdc, apps, development
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