Is App-Era Pricing Making Software Better, or Worse?

Last week I mentioned Mark Bernstein's essay on the surprisingly complex sequence of decisions, trade-offs, and design choices that went into creating even the most routine-seeming aspects of the electronic environment that surrounds us.


Now reader David Glende, a software veteran in California, describes the way that Internet-era everything-is-a-commodity pricing pressures are affecting the software world. Emphasis added:
I'm a software engineer by education (CSC) and have been in the software world for 30 years now, 98% of the time working for companies that develop and sell software products (as opposed to consulting or IT)...I've been a CTO for the last 12 years.

On the specifics of the author's example of "writing software today", the example he uses is really no different than software design 30 years ago, meaning that the simplest of capabilities has many details that must be addressed in order to make it function correctly in all situations as well as to provide the "quality" expected by its users.  His specific example of UI design is stuff commonly dealt with since the advent of GUIs [Graphical User Interfaces, like Windows or MacOS]....

The portion of the article (and part of Mark's bigger point) that is interesting to me and is definitely a change in the larger software market is that of the "App" (small, specialized applications generally targeted at the mobile computing market; typically either free or at extreme low cost (i.e. $0.99)).  One of Mark's points is that there is so much cost to deliver even the smallest of features (even those which are minor/secondary) that it can make it extremely difficult to build a profitable business.

So is this a good or bad thing?  Someone could argue that this is "bad" and that Apple and gang have ruined things for the software market, even perhaps arguing that there will now be a whole set of software that will never be built and delivered because it can't be done profitably.  

However, the flipside can also be argued in several ways.  There is of course the obvious advantage of now having a centralized delivery system connected with a huge potential set of buyers, enabling a company of any size (1 and above) to sell in large volume immediately with virtually no capital outlay. The accompanying downside of this is the challenge of having your offerings be discovered among the endless set of apps available. But beyond this basic level of the marketplace dynamics is the pressure it puts onto software organizations to build the right products.

Ultimately, software products survive and thrive based on the real value that they provide their users.  That "value" is wrapped up in many things, both obvious and subtle. Products with no real value come and go very quickly, or never really make it ever.  Products which start well, but then go off track (either through bad vision or bad execution/engineering) fail as well, and the marketplace is very quick to choose, very unforgiving, and long on memory.

I think that this is actually a good thing for the software business for these reasons:  (1) product managers and software designers must be much more thoughtful in what they build and how they build it, being keenly focused on end user value, and (2) software engineers must be much more careful on the design and implementation of the system.  In a sense, it drives software back to being "crafted" rather than just built.  Ultimately it's a win/win: (1) the software community (individuals as well as teams) is forced to be much better at what it does; and (2) the value of software is pushed higher and higher, providing great impact on peoples lives.

I can think of examples that both support and work against this "overall things are better" thesis. What's striking about the goods and bads of these new pressures on the software world is how they resemble what is happening to publishing, academia, journalism, and discourse in general. For now, offered as one more data point for the record.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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