Butterflies are free, so why aren't iPhone apps?

Time magazine ponders why you have to pay for iPhone apps.

Time's Anita Hamilton wonders why you can't have your iPhone application cake and eat it, too (tip o' the antlers to John Gruber via email).

It's probably been a while since you bought new software.

Is a month and a half a long time?

That's because so many tech firms -- buoyed by ads placed in Web-based applications like the Google Docs word processor and the thousands of apps on Facebook -- can now afford to give their programs away for free. But don't expect the same deal when you're shopping for add-ons to bling out your iPhone.

Right. Well, except for the free ones.

Oh, and the kids aren't saying "bling" anymore. Also out are "rad", "extreme" and doing the Lindy.

On July 11, Apple will launch its hotly anticipated iPhone App Store -- and it'll be anything but a bargain.

Yeah! That paying for things you use and get value out of is for suckers! Next time you're in the grocery store, just stuff a ham down your pants! It's a great way to beat the system and the summer heat!

Sure, customers will get to gorge on hundreds of new games and utilities for their iPhones. But they'll have to pay for many of the goodies they find there.

Indeed! What happened to the Communist paradise of each working to provide for free what he or she is able to make and receiving the like in turn from his or her comrades as was promised us by the great thinkers of the 19th century?

And who put International Socialist Review in the Macalope's Time?

So why can't all iPhone apps be free?

Totally! And what's all this crap the Macalope's been hearing about fair market value?!

Well, quite simply, because people are still willing to pay for them.

Send them to the camps for reeducation!

Apple currently generates most of its revenue from up-front sales -- whether it's for MacBooks, iTunes or iPhones. And the pay approach for mobile games, ringtones and videos has long been used by other tech purveyors like Verizon and Research In Motion, and even third-party app stores like Handango. "It is a historical business model," notes Kevin Burden of ABI Research.

That's probably because Apple is mostly a company that sells products and not services. Hamilton also missed the point that there are several other business models at play here. Google gives applications away to end users and makes its money by ad sales and by selling its back-end solutions to companies. Other vendors give away applications by showing you ads in the software.

Buyers are willing to pony up, though, because of the cachet of the Apple brand.

Um, no. Buyers have been willing to pony up because Apple's products are worth something.

If Apple ever does decide to let all iPhone apps be free, it would be a radical departure from its typical way of doing business. To switch to an ad-supported model, it would have to partner with a company that already has a huge inventory of interactive ads. Google would be the most obvious choice, but the search giant is already poised to be Apple's top rival in the mobile arena once its Android handsets go on sale this fall. Such an alliance might be a little too close for comfort.

Why would Google care? All Google wants to do is put the ad in front of you. That's why they made Android in the first place. That's why they're giving it away. If Apple decided to go with ads, Google would be thrilled to get them on the iPhone. After all, the number of current iPhone users is counted in the millions while the number of current Android users is counted in the, well, zeros.

It still makes little sense for Apple because its customers generally prefer a user experience that isn't crapped up by forcing you to chase an animated bunny (the bunny of real savings at the Larchmont Outlet Mall!) across the screen before you can use an application.

The Macalope keeps hearing from so-called analysts how the future will be ruled by ad-based software services that everyone will love because they'll be "free!" (with ads!). Personally, he thinks you can keep your Buy n Large future. He's happy to pay for a better user experience.

UPDATE: Mr. Gruber, who gets invited to more and better parties than the Macalope does (that's the problem with being elusive), says :

There will be free-but-with-ads apps from the App Store, but the ads will be sold by the developers of the apps.

UPDATE 2: Dan Moren gets more philosophical on the issue.

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About the author

    Born of the earth, forged in fire, the Macalope was branded "nonstandard" and "proprietary" by the IT world and considered a freak of nature. Part man, part Mac, and part antelope, the Macalope set forth on a quest to save his beloved platform. Long-eclipsed by his more prodigious cousin, the jackalope (they breed like rabbits, you know), the Macalope's time has come. Apple news and rumormonger extraordinaire, the Macalope provides a uniquely polymorphic approach. Disclosure.

     

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