Have you noticed that the free version of Instapaper, the app that captures online articles and stores them for offline reading on your mobile device, disappeared from the app store about a month ago? Neither had we, but today, Instapaper founder Marco Arment tweetedthat he pulled the app "as an experiment" and, rather than what you might expect, things have run smoothly since then.
Perhaps, contrary to what might be popular opinion, you don't need a free app after all. Instead, as Arment alludes, if you make a good enough product people will be willing to pay for it.
"As an experiment, I temporarily pulled the Free app from the App Store over a month ago,"tweeted Arment. "Sales of the paid app remain great. Few complaints."
He's not sure, he then said, "when, or even if" he'll put the free one back in the store. "It's not just about the money: it's about the product," he said, noting that he would "blog about it at length soon."
Is Arment an outlaw among developers, standing up against a commonly held belief that apps need to be free, or is he a part of a greater revolution?
Apple recently began cracking down on incentivized installs, wherein users are plied with in-game credits to download other apps and artificially inflate their rankings in the App Store. Arment's comments seem to say that users notice when an app is worth paying for and be damned any gaming or incentivizing. Incentivize with a quality product.
Some observers now argue that free apps are a big drag on the whole ecosystem and are costing paid app developers undue sums to subsidize their free counterparts. Renne Ritchie summarizes an argument by developer Manton Reece, saying that "a lot of the problems we've seen in the App Store, from the across the board 30% revenue cut Apple requires for paid apps, to in-app purchases, to iAds, and now subscriptions can all be traced back to Apple's decision to host free apps for free. In other words, that the cost of approving, hosting, marketing, and delivering free apps is high enough that Apple is struggling and stumbling to make enough off paid apps and content to cover it."
Earlier this year, Simon Maddox, one of Europe's leading mobile developers and creator of a discount phone calling app called 0870, announced in February that he was adopting a "no more free apps" policy.
While Arment and Maddox are rowing upstream on the iOS platform, where the proportion of free apps to paid apps has actually grown over the past six months, the opposite is happening on Android. Google's mobile platform is seeing a growth of paid apps over free ones.
Perhaps Android is an example of a laissez faire economy and the way apps will stand out on Android is through functionality and quality alone and, in the end, users will pay for them. Could this be the beginning of the end for free apps?
Arment's forthcoming blog post on the move is sure to be interesting. "What I like most about Arment and Instaper is he experiments with different monetization strategies for his app and API,"writes API evangelist Kin Lane about the move, "and shares his thoughts and reasoning with the rest of the world."