The Problem With Free.

As a rule I avoid Gawker and its associated blogs, but I do have a soft spot for Lifehacker. The blog recently published a list of its favorite iPhone apps, and there was a theme running through the article that disturbed me a little. Here, let me pull out some representative quotes.

Looking to power up your iPhone with the best free and cheap apps out there?

With a couple of $10 multi-service IM clients available, Meebo stands out especially because it’s free.

Although not free (weighing in on the more expensive side at $2.99)

The catch: It’s $2. 

The biggest difference is price: PasteFire is free and MyPhoneDesktop costs a whopping $5.

Pano’s one of the more expensive apps in the list, at $3

Now, I know that one of Lifehacker’s aims is to help people find cheaper ways of living. And I also know that this ‘race to the bottom’, in terms of app pricing, is nothing new for iOS. The lower pricing has actually helped a lot of iOS developers: it’s better to sell a half-million apps at 99¢ than it is to sell 25,000 at $4.99.

But I do think that articles like this one reflect a widespread shift in the way people perceive software1 and its monetary value. And I don’t like it. In fact, I would say that a world in which $3 - roughly the cost of a Big Mac - is a totally unacceptable price for a useful application is a world that has gone batshit insane.

The price trend for software over the last decade has been steadily downward. Apple’s App Stores, for the Mac and for iOS, have allowed developers to sell to users without worrying about distribution channels or payment processing. The internet, and the ad-supported model, has allowed online services to provide powerful, programming-intensive services at little or no cost.

But the rise of low-cost software seems to have given rise to the idea that this stuff is easy - that anyone with a few extra months and half an ounce of programming knowledge can bring an app to market or create the next delicious. And people don’t put a high value on things that are easy to produce.

The reality, of course, is that programming is hard, designing is hard, marketing is hard, and managing the people who do all these jobs is hard. On a superficial level, a programmer’s job is to write code and a designer’s job is to create user interfaces. But on a deeper level their job is to make decisions, and each one of those decisions is an opportunity for something to go wrong. For a tiny bit of interface lag to be introduced. For a common task to be made unintuitive. Good software is composed of countless such decisions, and each one is a place where something can break.

It’s incredibly difficult to bring a high-quality piece of software to market, and each one of the good, usable, useful apps in the App Store - and certainly every one of those on Lifehacker’s list - is a minor miracle, the culmination of a process that could have collapsed at almost any point along the way.

People deserve to be paid fairly for the work that they do. That’s especially true when that work results in an ongoing, appreciable improvement in your life. And the best pieces of software really do change people’s lives. Think about the applications or services that you use on a regular basis. What value would you attach to, say, Tumblr? Or Reddit? How about Angry Birds? Gmail? Instapaper? Evernote? 

I would hope, if you’re really honest about it, that the answer would be more than a Big Mac.

  1. In this article, by 'software’ I mean anything that requires developers to maintain, including mobile apps, desktop applications, and web applications and services.