inessential by Brent Simmons

On the App Store and Free Markets

Some of the response Paul’s and Daniel’s recent writing about the App Store has gone something like this: It’s a free market — deal with it.

Here’s the thing, though: it’s not a free market.

It’s owned and operated by Apple, and there is no alternative. (No alternative without jail-breaking, that is, which only a very small minority of iPhone users will ever do. Or even hear about.)

I’m not saying that Apple owning the market itself is a bad thing. I like having a single App Store: I like that it makes it totally easy for iPhone users to get software, which means it’s more likely they’ll get my software. (My software is free, by the way.)

I’ll be unequivocal: I love the App Store.

But let’s set aside Apple’s ownership — it’s still not a free market. It’s a market that has a certain shape (with hot-lists but no demo versions), and that shape rewards very cheap apps over higher-quality, more expensive apps. It’s a guided market.

There are plenty of exceptions, yes — and it is, as always, up to developers to market their applications.

iPhone apps can compete on price, coolness of screen shots and name and icon, but they can’t compete on quality. They can compete on quality only second-hand — that is, you can hear from other people (via user ratings or other means) but you can’t try an app yourself before buying.

It’s self-evident, I would hope, that a free market in software allows you to try before you buy.

This is how it works pretty much everywhere. This is the overwhelming consensus that software developers, vendors, and users have reached.

Will Apple add the ability to deliver demo versions? I have no idea — but I hope so, because I as an iPhone user would rather shop in a free software market than be guided toward cheaper but (often) less-good apps.

My guess is that Apple would want the same thing, and that this is on their roadmap. I’d also guess that it’s a difficult thing to do.

(For one thing, think about supporting demo versions — it will get difficult when users who have never bought software for their computers before don’t understand the difference between demo and free, and they complain to Apple when an app stops working and starts asking for money.)

Nevertheless, I have no inside knowledge that would lead me to be optimistic — but I am optimistic anyway.