Sometimes I wish things were more expensive

Here’s a scenario that played out for me this week, and has probably played out for you before too. I’ve been tinkering around with the idea of recording on-track video from car races, and I was looking for a mobile app which could record video along with telemetry from an OBD2 engine management system while driving the car. From this you can make nifty videos overlaying dials from the car on the live feed.

Anyway, I was delighted to find that such an app exists! So off I went and downloaded it (it’s called aLapRecorder HD). It’s a rather specific niche market, so unsurprisingly there’s pretty much just the one app to do this.

I installed it, got it going and then found a few bugs in it that were going to cause a bit of a problem with what I had in mind. So off I went to the developer forums… only to find that the forum is full of spam and appears not to be in use. Off I went to the reviews page (sometimes you can get some useful extra info from there) only to discover that the most recent reviews were all one-star ones complaining that the app didn’t work well on current hardware and that the dev didn’t pay any attention to the forum or email, and appeared to have given up on the project. And, sure enough, the last update was from November last year, so it looks like he has dropped it.

Why would the developer give up on something that was so close to great? The app looks superb and just has a few bugs. It’s so nearly perfect!

Well, let me tell you why. The “pro” version (which removes a two-recording limit) has sold “1,000 – 5,000” copies, for $6.50 each. The developer has made somewhere between $6k and $30k. This app obviously contains many months of solid development work – I’m going to estimate six months, but it easily could be longer. The US Department of labour says that computer programmers in the US earn $60k per year on average. This app’s first review was in April last year, so if this talented programmer has sold the absolute highest number of copies that he could have done, he has been paid the average developer wage for the last year. And if he’s sold the least, he’s been paid what he could have got working in McDonalds. So, screw it. Instead of buggering around answering emails from angry users and fixing bugs for various new devices, the developer has no doubt just gone and got a job with some software company and is busy programming his heart out doing something different.

The consumers of this are car racers, and this is an expensive hobby. I just got an email suggesting that I buy the cheapest bolted neck restraint available for $600, which also involves replacing all four of our team’s helmets, at about $150 each. Race entry fees are easily $500-$1000 even for the cheap races. It would make no difference to a race team if this app was $30, $50 or perhaps even $100. And then the developer would have been able to keep working on it.

We’re used to wanting to pay the lowest price for everything, of course, but we have to remember that software is not like physical goods. It needs care and feeding to stay up-to-date with hardware and technology, and it is something that can evolve over time to improve, well after you have purchased it. It makes perfect sense to just want the lowest price when you go and buy a waffle iron. If the company who sold you it goes out of business, who cares? You still have a waffle iron. But if the company who sold you a piece of software goes out of business, it’s not going to get updated to work on the phone you’ll buy next year.

Of course, it’s the developer’s choice as to how he prices his application and in my view this developer made a poor choice. But the culture of users right now is constantly forcing prices down, and giant companies are busily producing mobile apps that make no money because they want a foot in the door of this market and, hey, they already make money from other stuff. For the poor indie developer who isn’t making money from other stuff, he’s left with a userbase that isn’t willing to pay for anything and an app that doesn’t make him a living wage.

So the next time you look at the price of an app, don’t think “$5.99?! Jesus Christ, what am I, made of money?”. You should instead think “$5.99? Hmm, perhaps this will still exist in three years”.

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