So you just bought a smartphone or tablet, or received one as a gift. Congratulations! Now go buy some apps. No, not free apps. You, or a special someone, just spent, what, $200-plus on your new gadget? Plunk down $10 for some apps.
Mobile app development is one of the last businesses in America where one or two guys with a good idea can make it big, and where consumers can get a top-quality, original product for little money. Big-box stores have crushed the mom-and-pops. Most culture seems to be created by giant conglomerates. Kickstarter is out there, but it tilts the playing field in the other direction; it isn’t a store, it’s a gambling emporium.
Most transactions in our world are so dispersed along an endless supply chain that it’s impossible to figure out whom you’re actually paying for what. When you buy a toy at Walmart, how much of your $20 goes to the checkout girl? How much to the truck driver who delivered it, how much to the person who assembled it, how much to the person who invented it? There’s no way to know.
Digital media distribution has some of the same problems. I recently bought Brave on Amazon for $20. I assume about 30 percent of that went to Amazon, but of the other 70 percent, how much did anyone involved in creating the movie see? How much went to some incomprehensible financial derivative rewarding large Disney shareholders? Once again, no way to know.
I think one of the reasons media piracy is so rampant is that these media products have become so disassociated from any particular creator. Obviously, it takes a team of hundreds, if not thousands, to make a Brave. But that makes too many consumers feel that pirating Brave is a victimless crime, as the “creator” has become this inchoate blob listed on a stock exchange.
REWARDING THE LITTLE GUYS
Peer into the mobile app stores, on the other hand, and you see a lot of excellent stuff made by small businesses. Take the “top paid” list at Google Play. Along with the big names, you see apps from little studios like Mojang, LevelUp, and ZeptoLab. My wife loves World of Goo, by two-man game house 2D Boy. When you buy from one of those, you know your money is going to the creators. Even better: If they make money, they’ll probably make more apps.
I’m currently working my way through the Windows Phone 8 game Dragon’s Blade, and I paid 99 cents for the “DX” version so Nate, the creator, knows he has one more interested player. When you buy a bag of gold in the iPad game Silversword, 70 percent of the money goes to pay the rent of a guy named Mario. He lives in Germany. He writes code. He’s working hard to bring you an expansion pack right now. Why wouldn’t you want to participate in a transaction like that?
There’s even a perpetual collection of small-developer games going around, called the Humble Bundle. I don’t like the Humble Bundle for stupid reasons, mostly because I associate it with people who live in Brooklyn, have artisanal facial hair, and listen to electronic dance music. I should probably get over that.
If there’s a paid version and a free version of something, get the paid version. Remember: if you aren’t paying for a product, you are the product. Free versions are worse for you and worse for the creators. You agree to sell your personal data to advertisers. The creator gets some attenuated dribble of cash from the bottom of a complicated pyramid of interests. But when you buy the paid version, the creator gets direct cash and knows you’re interested.
This logic also holds when you’re buying an app from a company like Disney or EA that doesn’t give you the warm fuzzies. By purchasing a paid app, you’re endorsing a clear, simple economics where you know how and what you’re paying. Free apps encourage companies to find invisible ways to “monetize” their users, from selling personal information to demanding perpetual, periodic in-app purchases. You’re still paying, you’re just rarely told how up front.
MOBILE PIRACY IS WORSE THAN DESKTOP PIRACY
If you pirate Android apps, on the other hand, you are scum. Yes, there are some outlier justifications: If you’re a subsistence farmer in India living on $2 a day and “Where’s My Water?” is not only an ironic statement of first-world problems, but the slim joy in your sun-blasted day, go for it. But I suspect you’re First World middle class, and you spent more than $1 today on something relatively worthless, like a bag of chips (or crisps, if you live outside the United States).
Mobile apps are so stunningly affordable right now, and the money usually goes so directly to programmers that you are taking food out of their children’s mouths for spite. Really, you can’t economize $2 in this week’s budget to reward someone for their labor? We’re not talking $600 Adobe software suites here. The only reasons to pirate a $2 app are if you’re below the United Nation’s global poverty line, or if you’re a complete jerk.
I understand that some people are hesitant to buy apps because they’re worried about quality. That is why we have reviews. PC Magazine has reviews, Amazon has reviews, the app stores have reviews, 148Apps has reviews, platform fan sites have reviews. Really. Do a five-minute Google search and you’ll find out how good an app is.
So go. Take that fresh iPhone 5, that new Kindle Fire, or that shiny HTC 8X and pick up a game or an app. It’ll be the best buy you’ve made so far this year, and one you can feel really good about.