I had no intention of writing about Google’s recent acquisition of Sparrow. I wasn’t even a user1, but the conversation (and by conversation, I mostly mean internet bitching and bickering) did get me thinking about the way I plan to go about my own app selection and evaluation moving forward.
I often buy apps based on their potential. I like what I see, I see how it can be useful to me and I invest in it (both with my wallet and my time) with the hope that others follow suit. If enough of us step up and the app does well enough, the hope is that the developers will continue to make it better. My “investment” philosophy has some flaws.
The rapid shutdown of the development2 of Sparrow and an in-depth look at their success and profit from David Barnard of App Cubby has me rethinking things, especially when it comes to inexpensive software (for the sake of this conversation, let’s say $5 and under). If what appears to be highly successful software isn’t making ends meet for developers, the reality is that development of them will slow down significantly or cease altogether.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t support smaller developers; I think they do some of the most innovative work in space. I’m not even saying my buying habits are going to change all that much. Let’s face it, I’m still an app junky. But I do need to alter my expectations and what I look for in a 1.0 version3. I need to realize, if not assume, that development on something that I come to depend on can go away for good at a moment’s notice. Thankfully Sparrow seems to be doing right on this front, clearly stating that they plan to continue servicing the apps for the time being, but they just as easily could have closed up shop and moved on.
When it comes to the first version of an application that you use, you also have to expect that it will never improve and that development could cease the moment you hit the buy button. I think it’s fair to expect that it will function for a reasonable amount of time after your purchase (let’s say a year), but you can’t expect innovation. You can hope for it, but that’s about all. You have to like what you see enough to be happy, even if it never gets any better.
App Cubby’s Launch Center Pro is a great example of this. I see tons of ways to build on this app. I also know that if it never sees a single update, I’m still going to be thrilled with my purchase. I know from my recent conversation with David on the Mikes on Mics podcast that App Cubby has a ton of ways they’d like to improve Launch Center Pro. But I can also read between the lines of his post and see that there will be some financial challenges when it comes to giving this app the attention it needs to evolve.
I understand the frustration I’ve seen from many Sparrow users this week, but all of us in the app-buying community have proven time and time again that we want cheap over good. And cheap isn’t easy to innovate. Cheap has a shelf life and it’s an aggressive one at that. There are exceptions to the rule like Instapaper, but more often than not, the only choice we leave most app developers is way to find other ways to make a living. In our pursuit of a more affordable app, we accept advertising, we let our personal data be sold, or, as is the case with Sparrow, we let a company we love get acquired and an app we love get shuttered. So make sure you like what you see. It’s all we’re entitled to and if things keep going the way they are, it’s likely all we’ll ever get.
We can be indignant or we can learn from the experience and do what it takes to support the next great application, because the only way to avoid acquisitions like Sparrow is to find a way (and a business model) that is more tempting than whatever offer comes their way. Unfortunately, for the cheap amongst us, this means paying for new versions, helping to promote the app or, heaven forbid, paying more for an app that you plan to use every day than you’ll spend on today’s lunch.
And until then, make sure you’re happy with exactly what you see before hitting the buy button.