iPhone application developer Craig Hockenberry writes an open letter to Steve Jobs here, featured in Fortune magazine here, pointing out very reasonably that the 10,000 iPhone applications are experiencing a race to the bottom in terms of price. Charles Teague has put together some great graphs describing the state of the AppStore here.
What Craig H sees is this:
and here is how:
Raising your price to help cover ... costs makes it hard to get to the top of the charts. (You’re competing against a lot of other titles in the lower price tier.) You also have to come to terms with the fact that you’re only going to be featured for a short time, so you have to make the bulk of your revenue during this period.
This is why we’re going for simple and cheap instead of complex and expensive. Not our preferred choice, but the one that’s fiscally responsible.
The root cause of the low price is a classic market for lemons. Here is Craig H again:
I’ve been thinking about what’s causing this rush to the 99¢ price point. From what I can tell, it’s because people are buying our products sight unseen. I see customers complaining about how “expensive” a $4.99 app is and that it should cost less. (Do they do the same thing when they walk into Starbucks?) The only justification I can find for these attitudes is that you only have a screenshot to evaluate the quality of a product. A buck is easy to waste on an app that looks great in iTunes but works poorly once you install it.
Our products are a joy to use: as you well know, customers are willing to pay a premium for a quality products. This quality comes at a cost—which we’re willing to incur. The issue is then getting people to see that our $2.99 product really is worth three times the price of a 99¢ piece of crapware.
This is, of course, the dilemma of the Internet. Publication is easy, even when Apple maintains the right to take your app off their store. This does not mean everyone benefits from the audience that "being published" used to bring with it. It just means that the roadblock to finding an audience is shifted further down the road - getting attention for your product. And asymmetric information is a major barrier in your way. How do you distinguish your shiny needle from the haystack in which it sits?
So where, he asks, are complex, high quality applications for the iPhone going to come from?
I can think of two ways forward for mobile apps in the absence of people being prepared to pay actual money.
One is that open source community-built applications will come along. But that's less likely on a brand new platform than it is on existing platforms where a broad agreement can be reached on what an application needs to do.
A second is that the successful applications (beyond Koi Pond) will be entry-points to some valuable service hosted elsewhere, for which someone can charge a subscription price. I'd bet on this second one. But applications for their own sake on mobile devices, it seems, will not be going far.