The App Revolution and Our Absurd Expectations

I wake up 30 minutes before the time I set on my alarm clock because the app I’m using, Sleep-as-an-Droid, tracks my sleep habits. I wake to the soft, but pleasing sound of “Non Je Ne Regrette Rien” (the wake-up song from Inception, if you’ve seen it) and I feel pretty much awake because for the past 30 minutes I hadn’t really been asleep anyway. It’s cool. I check the weather through a widget. Rain. Tomorrow? More rain. Not cool.

Then I proceed to grab my phone and open up the Pulse app to read more about how the job market has, once again, faltered, drawing increasingly more skepticism that a full economic recovery is imminent. Yawn.

This is nothing new. I’ve already expressed this before: I love my smartphone. What I haven’t told you is that all of these apps are (typically) free, and how that’s dramatically changed what we expect from our apps. Banking apps. Coupon apps. GPS apps. Newspaper apps. They’re typically free, but sometimes these programs cost thousands, if not tens of thousands of dollars to develop.

Free is the new ‘cool’. We like free.

But apps haven’t always been free. Since the app revolution began, arguably beginning with Apple’s iOS platform, our perceptions of apps and what those apps should do for us have changed quite dramatically. There was once a period in time where we would be okay with spending $20, $50, sometimes more on an application that served some sort of purpose for us. Typically, those programs were feature-packed and had some sort of learning curve. They were more about utility or scale rather than usability, and they were created with a mouse and keyboard in mind, not a touchscreen.

With the app revolution, that has all changed. These days, we tend to look for apps that are simple, intuitive, and, most of all, cheap or — better yet — free. Typically, they offer an easy to use touchscreen interface. They look good. They don’t have tons of options and have minimal learning curves. Apps still provide utility or fun, of course. That’s their whole purpose. But now, we’re fine with just using applications that are relatively bare bones.

The problem is, with the recent success of mobile apps, our mentality towards apps in general has changed dramatically. A recent report shows that on Apple’s app store, “freemium” apps have actually surpassed paid apps in revenue. Whereas paid apps were once king, creating free apps and then monetizing through some other form have become the preferred route for many developers. Simply put, it’s getting more and more difficult for developers to convince consumers that their app is worth anything.

Now, I find it increasingly difficult to justify spending more than a $1 on an app unless it’s really, really, really worth it. The most I’ve spent on an individual application over the last few months? $5 on Instapaper. Was it worth it? Maybe. I still cringe every time I think about that one time I hit the ‘purchase’ button.

It’s become more and more difficult to justify spending money on apps, which presents an interesting challenge for developers: how does one create a product that differentiates itself from all of the other cheap or free products on the market? How does one make money?

But like paid music, paid apps aren’t necessarily dying, they’re just sort of growing up. We expect a lot for free, but we expect even more for anything beyond that. ‘Free’ is the constraint for developers, but it’s become a small constraint for any developer that can figure out how to get customers past that initial fear of buying.