“If an app is free then you are the product” goes the mantra, one that is repeated in various forms across much of the tech world.
What it means is that if you’re not paying for a service then you are not the prime customer of its developers. Instead, the people responsible for its production are likely making money through carrying adverts or selling details about their userbase to marketers.
But is this model preferable to consumers, or is it better to pay out for a service, such as an app, and avoid any ad-supported products?
Free apps are hugely popular, far outstripping paid apps in terms of numbers. Research by market analysis firm Gartner published last September suggests that of the estimated 46 billion app downloads that would take place during 2012, 89% of them would be of free apps.
This is understandable, as it’s easy to imagine many consumers seeing a simple choice between paying for something and getting it for free. It’s also possible that someone who has just committed themselves to an expensive contract may not want to spend more money buying apps.
However, free apps aren’t without their drawbacks, with many ad-supported models splashing displays with intrusive adverts. While some such apps feature well-designed interfaces which ensure that adverts are present without intruding on the user experience, there are others which ignore this completely.
On the other hand, paid apps should be free of adverts, with purchases and subscriptions from users providing the source of income for developers. This can make for a much better user experience as the app is free of promotional interruptions.
It’s also worth remembering that even the most expensive apps are priced relatively cheaply compared to software for platforms such as gaming consoles. Even new, premium games from big name developers are often priced at £4.99, with many apps available for considerably less.
Paid apps can also offer a greater degree of security for developers, making a more long-term business plan feasible that could well see more development and upgrades being offered to the user.
However, figures by research firm Pinch Media suggest that a free app will see more use than its paid counterparts.
The findings pointed to free apps being opened an average of 6.6 times more often than those that have been paid for, suggesting that from a developer’s perspective it could be better to steer clear of the premium route.
However, there is now a third category of app which has emerged and works in a different way to those that have so far been described, a category which has seen some of the biggest success in the smartphone world over the past couple of years.
This category of apps doesn’t charge the user for downloading and doesn’t feature adverts. Instead, apps are produced with the intention of creating a huge userbase so developers can either mine data from it and sell this on, or simply allow a larger firm to buy up the app and monetise the userbase itself.
Instagram is one such app, offering a free service which quickly became popular. The app’s enormous userbase then made it attractive to large tech companies and it was eventually bought by Facebook for a headline-grabbing sum.
So which of these models do our readers prefer? We put the question out on our blog and Facebook page and the response was very much in favour of free apps, with paid models receiving little support at all.
Overall, we don’t have a conclusive answer as to whether paid apps or free ones are better. As smartphone users, we have a mixture ourselves and don’t mind paying for apps that offer a decent product. However, while the opening mantra of this article may remain true in many cases, there are some brilliant free apps available which can be useful, entertaining and fun.
As smartphone use becomes more and more prevalent it is possible that paying for apps could become more acceptable to users, but figures quoted earlier show that the great majority of them are free. And the results of our own surveys indicate that smartphone users would be happy for things to stay that way.