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The “patronage” misnomer

Is the app economy so hopeless that developers must rely on charity?

Charles Perry, writing on the Metakite software blog:

This new model, in fact, is the opposite of patronage. Instead of requiring a patron to provide money up front in exchange for an item of value, this new model gives away all the value in advance and requires nothing from those who receive it. It less resembles patronage, or even commerce, than it does begging, or busking if you’re feeling generous.

The rise of “patronage”

For years now, many iOS developers have complained that the App Store makes it difficult to sell quality, premium software. Because free apps dominate the top charts, customers now expect to pay nothing for software. Many devs can no longer charge up front for their work. Instead, they’re forced to lock features behind in-app purchases, embed gross, manipulative advertising, or implement clunky subscription models—just to sustain development and earn a living.

More recently, a new pricing model has emerged: “patronage.” Under this approach, devs give away their full-featured apps, then request user donations to support the software’s ongoing development.

Patronage has proven controversial—perhaps most notably in the case of Overcast. Marco Arment’s popular podcast client recently changed pricing models, dropping its in-app purchase and instead asking users for recurring support.

Marco’s critics contend that patronage in Overcast unfairly leverages the developer’s high profile among Apple nerds (Marco helped establish Tumblr, created Instapaper, and co-hosts the popular ‘Accidental Tech Podcast’). His previous successes (so the critique goes) not only give him a platform for promoting his app; they also afford him the financial means to forgo higher profits in favor of capturing more users. Other podcast client developers don’t share these advantages; that makes it difficult to adopt the same model and compete with Arment on price.

I’m conflicted. On the one hand, Marco earned his advantages. Over the course of several years, his hard work scored him a good reputation and a sizeable audience. Shouldn’t we celebrate—rather than condemn—his achievements? On the other hand, the “Overcast incident” raises some interesting questions. Do developers who “make it” have a responsibility to help others do the same? Can pricing be “predatory” if the seller still makes a profit (Marco says “No”)? More generally, is the rise of the patronage model bad for developers?

The “patronage” misnomer

In any case, Charles Perry is right: “patronage” is poorly-named. That term invites us to compare app developers to classical composers (e.g. Mozart), who served at the behest of wealthy nobles. These aristocrats funded the musicians, effectively pre-paying for new compositions. App Store “patronage,” meanwhile, more nearly resembles street performance; developers share their work freely and hope that their audiences show some gratitude and drop them a few bucks afterwards.[1]

Such “busking” isn’t begging, per se—but it’s close. Like panhandling, it reeks of desperation—the resigned last resort of someone chewed up by the system. After all, wouldn’t most street performers rather practice their art in warmer, friendlier environs? Is the App Store economy so hopeless that developers must rely on charity?

If so, Apple must fix the App Store. Exactly how to do that? I’m not sure, but allowing paid upgrades and free trials seems like a good start. Regardless of the exact solution, let’s hope Apple acts soon—otherwise the app economy may force more and more devs to “set out the hat.”

[Edited on 11/23/15; the “critics” link now points to Michael Anderson’s take.]

  1. If anything, venture capital is the actual “patronage” model: wealthy donors paying up front for a product that hasn’t yet been created.  ↩