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The Cost of Free Software

Steven, of Panic fame, has taken a stick and scratched out an article titled "Free" into shifting sands of the Web, and I'd like to respond before it washes away. His post (article? I'm still not sure what to really call these things) talks about the "hidden cost" of Apple's free iApps. After all, "The one question we got asked more than any other at the expo this year was 'If I already have iTunes, why would I buy Audion?'"

While people may whine about Watson, and people may "feel bad" for Panic (I don't think, by the way, this group includes Steven or Cabel), I think Steven may be missing a point; a point he makes quite well above: why would anyone buy X when Y is free?

Linux is free. Why aren't we all using that? Because we see the value in using what we're using, whatever it is. "Why would I pay for X when Y is free?" is a question central to my rights, your rights, as a consumer when free options are available. Steven had 30 seconds to convince someone to buy Audion, but they asked. Consumers are willing to spend money to buy a better app. iTunes, so far as I can tell, uses no proprietary OS API to gain an unfair advantage over competitors (as a Microsoft bundled app is wont to do). You could create your own iTunes if you wanted.

But what is iTunes? It's an MP3 player, plain and simple. There are lots of things it can't do. Cabel mentions a few that Audion offers: recording, broadcasting and editing, and the high degree of interface customizability. If I had a faster upstream, you know what? I'd buy Audion for the streaming. If I routinely listened to Internet streams, I'd buy it for the recording. The point is: if you want me to pay for something, make it worth my cash.

Another issue: iApps create markets that didn't exist previously. Can you name a single digital camera importer/organizer for the Mac before iPhoto? I can, but only because I had to review a few, and they were professional-level tools costing a few hundred dollars. Likewise, iMovie has created a market. People have sold accessories, like new themes, and made money from them.

Premiere costs, what, $600? Final Cut Pro costs $1000. iMovie is pretty damn basic, but it serves to get people hooked on digital moviemaking. Where is the app that filled the hole between iMovie (free) and Final Cut Pro or Premiere? Any sale of a $100 digital video "assistant" app (or whatever it might be) would owe almost all of its sales to the existence of iMovie. Without iMovie, digital moviemaking remains a very small market. Look at Formac, makers of hardware, and the Dazzle people: goodness knows how many "analog to Firewire" devices they've sold because iMovie exists (and yes, I realize that in the latter two cases, the products aren't competing at all with the iApp, and are merely supplementing it).

Steven says "witness the apparent disappearance of a great many shareware applications that once filled the niche now occupied by the iApps." What apps? Before iTunes, I used MacAST (even wrote some plugins for it) and I was happy to have paid. But the MacAST people haven't upped their game (actually, various members took their ball and went home). Audion hasn't filled - or created - a need for me. What apps managed digital photos? What apps helped me build digital movies, and what apps helped me burn DVDs? What apps allowed me to chat (AOL IM, Fire, Adium) and where have they gone? Nowhere.

iCal is a simple, simple application built upon industry standards. Someone could bild "iCal Pro" and I'd use it (though Apple is pulling a bit of a "Microsoft" by not handing out an iSync SDK). And what else? Mail? Plenty of alternatives exist, from Eudora to PowerMail to Entourage. None of these are really shareware applications, but when has email ever been a realm of shareware apps? What else? Safari? Omn won't stop: Safari created the need for a fast browser with "pro" features. Will Chimera or Omn fit the bill in the end? We'll see.

Apple is not doing anything "bad." They're selling Macs, they're selling the Mac OS X, and they're creating markets for developers. The Address Book may be ubiquitous, but a CRM that interfaces with the Address Book (through official APIs) would sell well and win awards!

Steven is not pouting. He's not whining. As he says, "we'll do whatever we need to as a company to stay alive." Some of that should be innovation. Apple may be good at it, but all you have to do is be better. Steven concludes his post with a quote from Andy Ihnatko: "how can we be sure that we're getting the best software possible?" My answer? Pay for it.

One Response to "The Cost of Free Software"

  1. Steven, hours after my post on the topic, has blogged thusly: More importantly, after marathon discussions at work, I think we are close to cracking...


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