In Memory of Reasonably Priced Software

This post has been sitting in my Dropbox drafts folder for a few weeks now. I was thinking about how the current software boom is one of the few bright sectors in our current economy, with the web and software automation making jobs obsolete.

Of course, Techcrunch beat me to the punch. Twice.

Within the job-killing narrative, though, it’s easy to forget that the increased efficiency affects all industries, including software. The lowered cost of creating software has redefined user expectations, and leaves behind remnants of bygone business models in its wake.

I was reminded of this when I was this post from the creators of Pocket Casts. The app store phenomenon is just the latest example of commoditized software: apps are forced to be priced at $0.99 or $1.99 to have a chance, and the bigger software makers who have the clout to release a $4.99 or $9.99 app frequently hold discounts to boost popularity and profit via volume like everyone else.

When Apple released Final Cut Pro at a much reduced price, much of the commentary was about how the app was simplified for a wider audience (although the move was not without its negative press) and its lower price, $299 instead of $999. In fact, cheap/free has all but replaced all desktop and web software, with the remaining holdouts being B2B, niche professional products, or software systems consultancy.

While there are plenty of indie developers now with today’s non-existant barriers of entry, the vast majority cannot make a living off of their software1, not without another job or some form of external funding paying the bills. In either case there’s a compromise in quality – either the devs are forced to drop full-time active development, or have other “payers” taint the product (e.g., ads).

Meanwhile, users’ attitudes for software have become increasingly expectant, sometimes regardless of whether they pay for it. A common excuse for pirating games is that the gamer isn’t willing to pay $50 for “only” 10 hours of gameplay, nevermind how those hours have been crafted. Paid utilities and services (like Pocket Casts) have users who expect a lifetime of updates, server upkeep, and personal customer support. Users have always been fickle, but they’ve never been so fickle about programs that provide so much value.

So really, these older models of software pricing and sales have been cannibalized by our own hands, where the commoditization of software engineering has triggered a race to the bottom of profitability shaped by the whims of the expectant user. It’d be offensive to claim that our industry is suffering because of this shift, but it’s a good reminder that disruption – true disrpution – has a wide, indiscriminate blast radius.

  1. A few rare exceptions prove the rule, e.g., Minecraft.

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