Who pays the toolmakers?

image from App: The Human Story

Similar challenges

The challenges discussed were quite similar: 1) low revenue despite high user adoption, 2) entitled users demanding free work, and 3) belief that platforms could improve the situation via better policies.

“I had amazing success in the App Store. I’ve had hundreds of thousands of customers. And even with that, it was impossible to sustain the business.”

While app developers and open source developers live in different worlds and serve different audiences, there were so many parallels between the challenges described, that I wondered whether there’s a broader story that isn’t being discussed. Namely, the tense relationship between developers who make tools, and the platforms that distribute their work.

Platform responsibility

Another recurring topic between open source and app developers is the extent to which platforms are responsible for creating the undesirable incentives and business models we see today. As one developer put it:

“You could make the excuse that it’s a free market and it’s just becoming what it will, but it’s not actually a free market. It’s Apple’s App Store, and there seems to be a loss there.”

According to the app developers interviewed, the most lucrative form of App Store monetization today are in-app purchases, which is partly due to not having the price tiers that app developers need (like free trials). This means that, in one developer’s words, “scammy game makers” thrive off of it and are able to succeed, while “developers who actually respect humanity” can’t. Ben Thompson’s aforementioned analysis supports this thesis, noting that productivity apps, for example, make money just fine elsewhere…via trials, paid updates, and built-in subscriptions, none of which the App Store supports.

Cultural differences

Finally, it’s worth briefly touching on the ways in which app developers and open source developers are different, culturally speaking.

Developers as toolmakers

Despite these differences, I’d consider both groups to be under the umbrella of toolmakers: people who make software that enables others to do more. I hadn’t previously thought of apps this way, because apps tend to reach consumers, whereas open source tools are made for developers. But consider a productivity, drawing, or a messaging app, and they don’t seem much different than a software library or framework after all.

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Nadia Eghbal

Nadia Eghbal

Not using this to write anymore. Writing is over here: https://nadiaeghbal.com/