Apple announced changes to the App Store today; these updates will incentive developers to embrace a subscription revenue model. Silly idea: what if iOS went the same direction?
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.
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.]
If anything, venture capital is the actual “patronage” model: wealthy donors paying up front for a product that hasn’t yet been created. ↩
Apple pundits keep clamoring for Nintendo to make iOS games. The argument goes like this: Nintendo’s hardware business is circling the drain. To save itself from disaster, the Japanese gamemaker must adapt its many valuable franchises into kick-ass iPhone versions. After all, what developer wouldn’t want to leverage Apple’s thriving App Store to bolster its sagging quarterly results?
Let’s assume, for a moment, that Nintendo did release its most popular games on iOS. Imagine an iPhone version of Super Mario Brothers, or Zelda on the iPad. And let’s assume that the games prove hugely successful and send the gamemaker’s profits soaring. Why wouldn’t Nintendo be thrilled?
What if this isn’t (just) a profit deal? What if Nintendo has higher priorities than sheer earning potential? What if Nintendo has evaluated iOS as a gaming platform—and found it wanting?
For example, maybe Nintendo balks at the prospect of developing touchscreen-only control schemes. “Finger-paint” gaming works great for Angry Birds and Scrabble. But it fails miserably for intricate platformers like Mario and Metroid. It’s hard to envision Nintendo’s developers—so committed to quality gameplay—plastering a D-pad over their careful level design. Would the button-mashing battles of Super Smash Bros. work with no buttons? Until Apple (or some third-party partner) bundles a credible hardware controller with every iOS device, you’re asking Nintendo to compromise on user experience—to risk alienating their biggest fans.
Even if Nintendo were satisfied with the hardware, the iOS gaming ecosystem itself might turn them off. What if the microtransaction economy repulses them (as it should)? Nearly every top-grossing iOS game these days is “free to play”, demanding frequent in-app purchases to unlock the full game experience. What if Nintendo refuses to pervert its classic franchises in this way? What if they’d rather bow out gracefully than prey upon their users’ base, lizard-brain impulses? What if they’d rather go bankrupt than treat Mario as a glorified Skinner box?
No true geek wants Nintendo to operate in the red. Its loyal fans, grateful for decades of incredible games, are rooting for the gamemaker to stave off fiscal catastrophe. But the best companies—companies like Nintendo and like Apple—refuse to prioritize short-term profit margins over user experience. That’s bad for business, in the long run.
An exclusive iOS version of Mario would undoubtedly help Apple (it would permanently establish iOS as the definitive mobile gaming platform). But it’s a riskier bet for Nintendo, whose treasured franchises could quickly lose their cultural cachet.
My read-later service of choice, Instapaper, recently added a signature feature: multi-page stitching. When activated on articles split into separate pages, Instapaper will now fetch all the content and splice it together for you. Very handy!
The addition represents an about-face for Marco Arment, Instapaper’s developer. As he wrote last July,
Why does (or did) Marco consider multi-page stitching a “tricky line”? My guess: it undermines (or, at least, side-steps) many online publications’ business models. Ads get stripped out and go entirely unseen by the reader. Sites that make single-page articles a premium feature (e.g. Ars Technica) lose out on potential subscribers.
Whatever Marco’s reasons for toeing the “tricky line,” he crossed that line on Thursday. He unveiled a brand new version of Instapaper’s page-saving bookmarklet–one that fetches, then stitches together multi-page articles.
The change’s timing was interesting. Earlier that same day, Readability (arguably Instapaper’s main competitor) released their own long-awaited iOS app. A few hours later, Instapaper integrated stitching, one of Readability’s marquee features. It seems unlikely that the near-simultaneous releases were coincidental.
Readability has enjoyed massive attention these last few days. Apple featured it as “App of the Week.” Its stylish typography and attractive font options have earned admiration from the designer crowd. Perhaps most importantly (and unlike Instapaper), Readability is completely free. Did Marco counter the Readability hype by adding a long-hoped-for feature to Instapaper? Did Readability’s encroachment into the App Store prompt Marco to finally “cross the line”?
On yesterday’s Build and Analyze podcast, Marco addressed the situation. He shared candidly about the challenges of “competing with free.” He recounted how his history with Readability’s developers left him feeling screwed. Surprisingly, however, Marco didn’t mention his change of heart on multi-page stitching.
Instead, Marco lambasted his competitors for stealing features from his own app. “I am very concerned with appearing like a copycat myself, even though they pretty much copied my whole product,” he said. He then went on to assert that “The fonts [in Readability] are pretty much the only major thing their app does that I would want to ‘steal’.” This seems disingenuous to me, considering the recent addition of multi-page stitching to Instapaper.
Again, I’m a happy Instapaper user. And I enjoy Marco’s blog and podcast. But I’d love to hear a bit more from him about two issues:
- Why “cross the line” now? Was the addition of multi-page stitching a nod to pragmatism? Has the competition grown too fierce to leave it out—even if publishers resent the lost ad views? Even if it makes Marco feel uncomfortable?
- Did Instapaper copy multi-page stitching from its competitors? If this doesn’t count as copying, why not?
UPDATE: Marco responded on Twitter (the tweet below is part 2 of 3):
@theOutage 2: It’s a very obvious feature — one that I actually DID support about a year ago but disabled because it made me nervous.
— Marco Arment (@marcoarment) March 6, 2012
UPDATE 2: My follow up (and his reply):
@theOutage Mainly, I was nervous (and still am) about it offending publishers and causing too many of them to opt out of Instapaper parsing.
— Marco Arment (@marcoarment) March 6, 2012