The day Marco didn’t actually destroy the universe

Twitter’s a terrible place for lengthy reasoned arguments, so instead of trying to convince people there that Marco Arment’s app pricing strategies aren’t destroying the universe, I’ll lay it all out right here.1

As you know, Marco Arment, creator of the Overcast podcast app for iOS, recently changed his pricing strategy for the app. The change was going from free with an in-app purchase for full functionality to free with full functionality for all and with optional patronage levels payable from within the app. Basically, the app went from “free with money-making options of one type” to “free with money-making options of another type”.

Based on the reactions from a lot of people, you could be forgiven for thinking Marco had published a YouTube video of himself strangling kittens.

It didn’t matter how well he laid out his case for his new business model, people wanted to be angry.

Actually, what people really wanted was one place to dump all their anger at their own failure to make money in the App Store, so instead of looking at all the real, more nuanced reasons, they jumped at the opportunity to make this their voodoo doll. They’re still stabbing it with pins as hard as they can, blaming him now for the fact that the guys behind competing podcast app Castro just followed suit with an identical business model.

The thing is, unless the guys from Supertop are huge jerky liars, they didn’t feel forced to do this, and they don’t blame Marco for breaking App Store pricing models. Even if they did, it would be an incredible fiction, because people have been complaining about App Store pricing since back when Marco still charged $10 for Instapaper. Clearly whatever problems the App Store has with providing developers a likely chance of making an income,2 they have long predated any crazy pricing schemes by Marco.

Developers undercutting each other by going free with ads or in-app purchases has been a topic of contention for years. Marco not only didn’t invent that, he talked extensively a few years ago about an example of this in the case of Pocket, an Instapaper competitor.

It’s too soon to see what effect Marco’s pricing has on podcast apps, and apps in general. It seems facetious to claim that Supertop are victims of predatory pricing unless you’re willing to concede that Marco may also be. The whole reason he adapted to the current model is because he wants people to have all his app features, and not enough people were taking advantage of the in-app purchase upgrade. If that’s not the App Store voting with its fingers based on an expectation of free apps, I don’t know what is.

It must also be noted that it’s entirely possible that rather than being victims of predatory pricing practices, Supertop couldn’t help but notice that Marco openly stated that his patronage model started doing really well for him immediately. The entire history of the App Store has been people copying other developers’ pricing strategies, hence the race to the bottom in the first place. What evidence beyond “we hate Marco” is anyone producing that says this case is any different? The answer is, zero. None.

The patronage model is actually pretty smart. Instead of a one-time IAP, which foregoing results in getting less of a product, patronage compels a longer and repeat relationship, both by its name and by cleverly associating the different patronage levels with different lengths of time (three months, six months, twelve months). For all we know, this might actually make some developers more money if customers feel good about renewing their patronage based on this model.

My bet is that by next year, no one will remember why they thought Marco was a predatory sneak, destroying life for everyone else and preying on an unsuspecting community. On the contrary, developers who have established goodwill with enough App Store customers may find this model works better for them than Marco’s old model, which a sum total of zero people ever complained about. There’s just as much evidence for this at the moment as there is to think that Marco just shot everyone in the feet.

  1. Besides, the people I was arguing with about this didn’t want to actually have a conversation, and I was on my iPhone. You have to be a pretty special human being to merit me thumb-typing a Twitter argument with you for an hour. 
  2. Assuming that’s even true, which it probably is. Just not as much as some people like to complain, in my opinion.