I came back recently from my short holidays in UK, and while walking my way through the boarding queue, I noticed that I was, literally, bombarded by ads. The otherwise lovely Liverpool Airport was overrun with adverts. They were stuck to the walls, in the ground, outside the windows in huge billboards, in the Coke vending machine, and even in my boarding pass. I am developing an aversion for advertising lately, and I think I’m becoming increasingly aware of it.
That led me to start thinking on how the software monetisation model has rapidly evolved in so little time. Before the iPhone, before I even started to write software for commercial purposes, in the dark ages of Windows (that’s the 90’s if you happen to be too young to remember it), software was usually tied to the Microsoft-curated license model. You would need to spend a (usually high) amount of money on a regular basis to be allowed to use a product. Distribution was really hard for indie developers and small companies. I never liked that model, because I thought it was unfair to the consumer, so I was really into Open Software and Linux/Unix at the time. Luckily, despite efforts from companies like Adobe and Microsoft itself, this model is now mostly extinct.
Then the iPhone appeared, bringing the boom of the App Store and (to a lesser extent) the Mac Store, and the way we earned money from developing software changed completely. You would develop a software product, Apple would distribute it through its stores, allowing you to reach (potentially) millions of users, and you will receive a single payment per copy sold, minus the Apple’s distribution fee. That was a more just system for me, cheaper for the user, and In App Purchases made it easy for developers to use a non so abusive freemium model. They were the days of Doodle Jump, WhatsApp and Pixelmator.
Then little by little this model started to change to what is apparently the current standard model, “free”, ad-curated Apps and services. Suddenly, my friends would start complaining about having to spend $0,99 in WhatsApp to enjoy one year of free mobile messaging, just before ordering a rum&Coke for $9. Suddenly nobody wanted to spend a single buck in an App, to the extent of literally ignoring them when looking for new Apps to download.
Why did this model spread so fast? In my opinion, it was due to two main reasons: first, the emergence of social networks and software services like Google, offering “free” services to the users, while using them as product for advertising companies, and second, the boom of low-cost android devices promising users cheap devices with great Apps, software and services “for free”. I my humble opinion, these two factors led developers to engage in a race-to-the-bottom to fulfil the expectations of this new wave of users, finally contributing to create a special mindset in which the user thinks he deserves to have everything for free, and is not willing to spend a dollar for the hours of effort that a software product development implies.
So what’s the way for a company to monetise an App when the user doesn’t want to spend money on it? Advertising, and thus most Apps today are firmly attached to this free-with-ads model. I firmly believe that this is wrong not only for the users, whose privacy gets usually compromised for profit, but for us, developers, because we have degraded and devaluated our main asset: the software.
So, leaving my loathing of advertising aside, these are some reasons why I think we should get away from the free-with-ads monetisation model:
- Adverts really ruin an App’s design. I’m yet to see an App that integrates ads in a way that improves or even respects the design.
- Adverts interrupt the UI/UX flow of the App. Even if you set your ad to appear only when a user dies or completes a level in a game, it’s irritating and interrupts the user experience.
- Software’s value suffers. We are developers. We spend a lot of time learning new languages, improving and updating our knowledge, programming, designing, engineering, testing… we should value our own work, and make the user be aware of it. Don’t race to the bottom.
- The user becomes a product. That may not worry you as a developer, but it should worry you as a user. The repeated violation of user’s rights by social networks, and companies like Google has been documented so many times I’m not even bothering to expand on it here.
- It puts your software in the hands of marketing companies. An App should (ideally) be designed to solve a problem or add something new to the user’s life, not to harvest as many users as possible to sell them as products for an advertising company. We may not be aware, but the current software distribution and monetisation model directly influences what kind of Apps we develop, and how we design and build them.
- It’s hard to go back. Once the users are used to pay nothing for software, it’s going to get hard to convince them that a piece of software is worth what you ask for it.
These are just some of the reasons why I decided to develop a free, ad-free news reader App, because I got so upset with Feedly sneaking “curated content” in my feeds. As I don’t intend to make a living out of it, I decided to release it for free.
I really hope that with time, people will start developing an awareness about how they interact with advertising and marketing campaigns, and companies will start exercising their responsibility as duty bearer for users’ rights. I would like to stand up for companies (small and big) like WhatsApp, Apple and such that have not yet pledged to the advertising companies’ pressure.