COACM: The Application is Dead. Long Live the App!
COW Library : Apple iPad : David Biedny : COACM: The Application is Dead. Long Live the App!
In all of the many pages, words and bits devoted to the coverage of all things tablet-oriented, one key aspect rarely discussed is the tremendous impact "apps" are having on the perception of the value and cost of software in the eyes of users, and how this will ultimately affect the software industry as a whole, particularly in regards to pricing structures and tiers for software.
Prior to the arrival of the smartphone, the idea that a useful program could somehow cost under a few dollars would have been considered radical, or at best, something you could only experience thumbing through ancient copies of bad DOS games at fleamarkets and garage sales, wiping years of accumulated dust off of real, actual floppy disks, and wondering just how bad the thing would be when you finally got it home and waited minutes for it to actually come up on your screen.
For a long time, we were all conditioned to the idea that you'd be out at least $100 for any kind of useful software, and professional tools could cost upwards of hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. There were exceptions to this rule -- hot games have usually hovered around $50, give or take a few bucks, while high-end 3D modeling, animation and rendering suites have often sold for $1500-$2500, and continue to be priced in that general range. And anyone who uses any configuration of the ubiquitous Adobe Suites knows the drill: $1500 down payment, with another $400 (minimum) every 18 months in order to "stay current".
The problem is obvious: how many graphic artists, photographers and designers can afford this dance over the long term? Design work generally pays less than ever, photography no longer enjoys the exclusive, exalted status of the Ansel Adams and Annie Leibovitz eras, and many artists are finding it quite difficult to survive in the current economy; money is tighter than ever for the vast majority of creatives. Ironically, the prevailing wisdom in the software industry is that low prices build low expectations into people -- we should believe that professional tools cost serious money, and if they don't, they're not, well, serious. If it isn't expensive, it can't possibly be good, which reminds me of the old New York Jewish fable about the taste of medicine -- if it isn't deathly bitter and/or disgusting, it can't possibly be strong enough to cure anything really keeping you down.
In the last couple of years, the juggernaut known as apps appeared, largely due to the initial success of the Apple App store, and the arrival of the Android Marketplace -- and while the big publishers are dipping their toes into these turbulent waters, users are diving in with both hands, enjoying some of the best bargains anyone has ever seen in technology in general.
To understand this issue in a graphic way, let's examine a popular painting program, ArtRage. There are three different versions for the desktop, at $20, $30 and $60 price points, which is already extremely reasonable (the competition, Corel's Painter, weighs in at $400, and while it does offer a bit more functionality than ArtRage, it's also saddled with an aging interface and some other legacy baggage).
Here's the zinger: the iPad version of ArtRage costs $6.99, and while it lacks some features (such as Stencils, a very friendly version of masks), it has all the important painting tools, layers, blending modes, and specific tool options. No, it doesn't offer the finesse of using a Wacom tablet for pressure sensitivity, but it's $6.99. That's less than the cost of a movie ticket, and it's dramatically cheaper than any painting tool on the desktop. Put it in the hands of a good artist, and you'd never know that an iPad-generated image wasn't done on a laptop or desktop machine.
Look at the artwork in this column, created by artist Khalid Iszy Iszard, and tell me you know how it was done, and what kind of machine it was created on; I dare you. In the end, whether you build a house using a single man with a hammer, or a mile-high pile of technology, the final product is all that really matters.
"Anika Watches a Monster Movie" by Khalid "Iszy" Iszard
But the price isn't the only whammy -- the idea that one can, directly from within a mobile device, buy a useful chunk of code as an impulse purchase, is a relatively new phenomenon, but is directly tied to the success of the iTunes store as a music retailer, the first top really deliver the reality of a useful chunk of digital data -- in the guise of a song -- for a single dollar, and the first to do it without being connected to a physical pipe.
On one level, we take this for granted, but stop and compare it to how companies have sold software up until a couple of years ago, and it quickly becomes clear that we're transitioning into a new model of commerce, and accompanying changes in how consumers view software -- it's now a commodity, and everyone expects prices to head down, down, down. And guess what? That's exactly what's happening, and it shows no signs of anything but a continued negative curve. Developers might complain about this reality, but on the other side of the fence, app piracy is relatively uncommon -- why bother stealing that which can be bought for a few bucks? It's a lot easier to dial in the store and download, and because of the low prices, folks are a lot more likely to indulge in impulse purchases, creating a snowball effect of a healthy, vibrant app market -- distinctly unlike the software aisle inside of any brick and mortar store.
Last year, Apple decided to take the pieces that make up iWork -- Pages, Keynote and Numbers -- and offer them individually, on the App Store, for $20 each. We're not talking about crippled versions -- Keynote is an extensive, full-featured presentation program, with some visual features that definitely make it a slicker solution than PowerPoint, for far less than any comparable software has been sold, ever.
At $49, Motion is one of the best bargains in the animation industry, especially considering that it contains a healthy particle system, industrial-strength motion graphics abilities, and now even sports a really potent keyer; I have to believe that this software makes the After Effects team a little nervous, as Adobe has nothing in that price range that can even vaguely compete (and this author actually remembers After Image, the low-cost version of After Effects briefly offered, before the Adobe acquisition of the product). And then there's $30 Lion, which has to be the single most amazing bargain in the commercial software field -- can you imagine Microsoft selling any copy of Windows for $30? Windows installed seats might be 10X that of the Mac, but does that mean Windows is worth 10X the price of OSX?
To be sure, I'm not trying to claim that a $5 app is a replacement for a $500 professional program for doing critical work, but the trend is towards increasing powerful apps in the tablet and mobile spaces, and decreasing prices -- take the realm of software synthesizers for the iPad, including instruments such as Korg's Electribe beat box, a software emulation of their popular hardware Electribe (with a street price around $500), priced at $20, the middle-end of the iPad software line. Most of the interesting synthesizer apps come in around $7, and these aren't toys, they're useful tools that can be used to make music that other people would buy.
In recent months, Adobe finally put out a decent image editor in the mobile space, and while I really like Photoshop Touch, it's already coming into a crowded market, where a $2.99 wonder called ArtStudio does a lot of what anyone would want to do with a bitmapped image, works around some of the limitations of Photoshop Touch, and heck, it's three dollars, and that's in 2012, when greenbacks aren't worth anywhere near what they were a decade ago.
This is huge news, truly -- everyone is undergoing a recalibration of value expectation, and it looks like some companies -- including Apple -- are leading the charge, while lots of others seem caught in the same headlights that blinded the record labels when the big, bad Internet came charging in and changed the face of music retailing forever. It will be fascinating -- and somewhat frightening, I suspect -- to see who adapts to this brave new world, and to watch as some of the less-limber dinosaurs fall by the wayside. I can't wait to see what new life springs up in their place.