Last week the writer for the Stay Foolish column in Macworld wrote a foolish article. As the subhead read, essentially “There’s no free lunch, even in the App Store.” Yes there is. It just depends upon what you mean by free.
Google’s apps are free but oddly enough they come with a cost. Your privacy, and potentially, your security are at risk because Google mines your personal data, uses it for ad sales, and sells it to other advertisers. Last week Apple made a few Mac and iOS apps free, and somehow that’s become a bad thing and could hurt everybody. No. It. Won’t.
Already Free. Mostly.
Did you know Apple had a price tag on the iWork suite of apps and the remains of iLife? Me, neither. That’s because Pages, Numbers, Keynote, GarageBand, and iMovie are free whenever you buy a Mac. If you were not a Mac user, and bought a used Mac from someone, you may have had to pay the nominal price tag Apple charges for the iWork and iLife apps. It doesn’t matter because Apple made them free for all Mac, iPhone, and iPad users.
How is free bad?
Making these apps (which were already provided no charge to people who bought new Macs, iPhone, and iPads) free across the board is largely a positive move. But that decision does have some consequences that could be a downside for end users, developers, and even Apple.
No it doesn’t. There is no downside here. Free is free. No one loses. Plus, for the vast majority of Mac users, those apps were already free so Apple isn’t losing much revenue or sleep over the deal to rid the apps of a price tag.
These apps are the table stakes that Apple needs to compete against Google and Microsoft, and the Android smartphone and Windows PC makers who do not have the expense of developing an operating system or their accompanying applications. The argument here is understood but misleading. Apple provides a suite of apps for every Mac user (whereas, last week, it was a suite of apps for other Mac customers; there’s a difference, but it’s not much) that forms the basis of a modern, mass-marketed operating system.
In the iWork space, the competition is Google– with free apps– and Microsoft with Office. Apple now provides a bit more competition for Office by eliminating the price tag on Pages, Numbers, and Keynote, but it’s a none issue. Office is well differentiated from iWork and Google’s anemic browser-like apps. iMovie and GarageBand are great applications but because they were already free with every new Mac, their impact on the audio recording and video editing developer market was nominal. Those app markets are already mature.
Is Apple hurt because it makes some applications free? No. Is Google hurt because all its applications are free? No. Is Microsoft hurt because Office has a hefty price tag? Apparently not.
Apple has a fine line to walk with its own applications. The professional level Final Cut Pro X and Logic Pro X come with a price tag, and more capability and functionality than found in iMovie and GarageBand. That’s OK. There are plenty of competitors for both, including Adobe’s fine suite of apps. But there’s also a requirement for Apple to provide a suite of built-in applications to help make the platform both viable and well differentiated from competitors. FaceTime, GarageBand, iMovie, Pages, Numbers, Keynote and others do that, not to mention Mail, Safari, Calendar, Contacts, Notes, Reminders, Maps, et al. Those apps are free, but they are also requirements for Apple to remain competitive and differentiated.
Giving these apps away could de-incentivize updates that incorporate new features. After all, if they’re not directly bringing in revenue, how much sense does it make to dedicate valuable resources to developing free apps that that aren’t either basic table stakes for the company’s operating systems—Mail, Safari, Messages—or apps that provide a gateway to bringing in more revenue, like iTunes.
That I understand. But that’s the fine line that Apple must walk.
Those free apps need to improve over time, but a slow development rate also means competitors have a window of opportunity to provide better paid alternatives; apps with features Apple has ignored or hasn’t thought of yet. It may be something of a cottage industry for each, above and below Apple’s own apps, but it’s there and that’s much how it’s always been.
But the risks are real, even though we may not see some of them truly materialize until down the road. Because, as the saying goes, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
It’s just that sometimes there is a free lunch and risks are not as real as we might think they could be.