Should App Developers Worry About Data Usage Charges?

If every restaurant wasn't all-you-could eat, would dining out decline and food innovation suffer? Of course not -- most limit do your serving size. So why are some software developers worried that AT&T charging for data means mobile phone owners will suddenly stop buying as many apps and kill their creative efforts?

First, if consumers limiting their appetite for 3G data, will they download fewer apps? Not really. First, there's the physical downloading -- which can still be done over WiFi, for free. Second, there's the data used by the apps when in action. If an app is worthwhile, then people will still want it and just feel it's worth paying for the associated data.

Data limits will effectively weed out the junk. Any application that's subpar will suffer, as people won't feel like it's worth spending their monthly megabytes on it. But that's okay! These aren't going to be the incredible, novel apps that we want to make sure thrive anyway. The amazing new apps will be fine.

The new data charging scheme will also force even more innovation among app developers. Now, they'll care about an additional dimension: optimizing data usage. Since using less data is better for everyone -- because it means the network runs more smoothly -- this is a very desirable outcome. Applications that are designed with fantastic functionality, but also minimize bandwidth needed, will be the winners going forward.

There's some worry that new innovations like videophone (rumored to be part of today's big iPhone 4.0 announcement) might suffer, because they necessarily use a lot of data. True, but that's probably okay. Such flourishes are more form than function -- you can still use the regular voice phone to communicate with friends and relatives using a fraction of the data. And if you really want to talk via video phone, you can still do so without hitting your monthly data limit: just use WiFi. Again, this is ultimately a desirable behavior modification. Data networks shouldn't be bogged down by millions of people streaming video over 3G (or 4G), when it could instead be done through a broadband connection.

Developers shouldn't lament the loss of unlimited data plans. It may force them to work a little harder, but ultimately the mobile phone industry will be better off. Now their apps will work better, because networks won't be as strained.