What If Every iOS App Cost At Least $10?

An influential Mac designer explores a hypothetical App Store without free or cheap apps, coming to a surprising conclusion about why low minimum prices actually help the indie developer’s bottom line.

What If Every iOS App Cost At Least $10?

Designer and writer Craig Grannell posts here about Panic’s new iPad app, a paid, mobile-native version of Status Board. His post begins as dyspeptically as many iOS folks’ do when discussing App Store pricing norms, but takes a surprising twist at the end–when he argues that free apps have had the effect of slowing a natural transition from native software to the web. Via RevertToSaved:


[Status Board] costs £6.99/$9.99 and already there are complaints about how expensive the app is, which I find a pity. The App Store really has destroyed people’s sense of value when it comes to software and games.

Grannell indulges in imagining this hypothetical: what if the minimum App Store price established in 2008 was $10, not zero? He makes five assertions; the first two aren’t so controversial, but the last three are:

First and foremost, it wouldn’t be so full of junk. Secondly, the app revolution would have been slower rather than an explosion… Instead of iPhones full of apps, most people wouldn’t have gone beyond stock apps, and more tech-savvy users would have been considerably choosier. This would have had the knock-on effect of eradicating many one-shot utilities and probably the majority of games.

Perhaps. A more expensive App Store might have forced Apple to pick up the slack and do more iOS app development, being the only available source for free apps in the store. But never mind that; here are Grannell’s third, fourth and fifth points, which are more worthy of debate. How would a higher price minimum have effected Apple’s marketing machine? And most importantly, what would it have done to quality?

I doubt Apple would then have been issuing press releases with the kind of huge sales and app-download numbers we’ve seen since the App Store’s launch. (One benefit, however, is that those apps that did become very popular might have been more likely to result in a viable business, compared to products that sell plenty of copies for a dollar and still don’t provide enough income to the developer.)

There are always numbers to trumpet. In the absence of unit sales, Apple could have trumpeted the dollar amount earned, or simply embraced the kind of “quality over quantity” message that it has historically used to argue against the preponderance of Windows machines outnumbering Macs. On the quality question:

Thirdly, at the very high end I doubt a great deal would be different in terms of general quality. The very best apps and games on the App Store are phenomenal… Stepping into a world of ten-dollar minimums wouldn’t, I think, make those very best apps any better.

In fact, it’s conceivable that the average quality of apps might even have been negatively effected by a high minimum price. But Grannell says the biggest impact of Apple’s choice to allow free apps might have been to slow down the transition between native software and web apps. Here is his big insight:

A final thought is that perhaps a high App Store tier-one would have also galvanised [sic] web apps much earlier (almost immediately). Many cheap apps (and even games) we now see on the App Store would have been created online instead, using web standards.

That’s not in Apple’s interests, or the interests of anyone who’s spent years honing their skills with Objective-C and Cocoa frameworks.

My thinking, then, is that I’m mostly glad Apple didn’t force a high tier-one price-point. However, I do wonder whether it should have gone for more of a middle-ground… [at 99 cents] now, they have to deal with potentially receiving nothing at all for their work, and figuring out how to get some income from microtransactions… [I]t’ll be interesting to see how the battle plays out between free native apps and free web apps.

Backtrack: To learn more about how to price your software product, read back: How You Should Price Your Software Product: What You Need To Know.

[Image by Gamma Man on Flickr]

About the author

I've written about innovation, design, and technology for Fast Company since 2007. I was the co-founding editor of FastCoLabs.