It was while writing SlashGear's Nintendo 3DS review that it really struck me, the disparity between "traditional" software - whether that's for your desktop or a game for your console - and the new "app" ecosystem is Apple's biggest accomplishment. Where once computer software was a $40+ boxed product - and where 3DS games, and those for other consoles, are still $40+ boxed cartridges - it's now a $0.99 download, instant gratification at a cost that won't wrinkle your conscience. Tech is cheap, apps are throwaway, and Apple is to blame.
It's hard to get attention when there are thousands of apps out there; harder still if you want to price your apps at any more than a few dollars. We judge in the first few seconds, based on price and a couple of star reviews. There's no motivation to surprise and delight the user later on, as they explore the software, because there's every chance they'll never get that far. If you're not upfront about every last thing that makes you special, then the user will take their dollar and hit next.
Arguably a similar commoditisation has happened in hardware. Our devices are simply portals to our apps. With that, the hardware itself has become devalued: smartphones, PCs and tablets all contracting to a median point. Oh yes, there are plenty of Android phones out there, and there's iPhone too, but there's little in the way of real hardware differentiation. It's a box that runs our apps, and we want to pay accordingly.
There was a time when the wild card was Apple's own products, when they were the premium option with pricing considerably higher than anything in the PC sphere. It's still, to some extent, correct - you'll pay more for a MacBook Pro than you will food a similarly-specified PC notebook from Dell or HP, though in many cases those Windows rivals simply won't offer elements of the Apple proposition, like an all-metal chassis and Thunderbolt - but the gap is decreasing. It's more obvious in Apple's iOS range, with iPods and iPhones the obvious picks when the competition is basically priced the same.
For the iPad 2, Apple is even leading the field, with Android alternatives struggling to achieve the same eye-catching price points just as they chase the functionality. It's having an interesting affect at the company's top-end, too. Just last week I heard of one would-be Mac Pro buyer, met with blank faces at an Apple reseller when asking about the high-end desktop. Not that they didn't know enough about it; they simply didn't know it existed in the first place. Surely you must mean an iMac, they said, or are you confusing things with an LED Cinema Display plugged into your MacBook Pro?
Now, that's likely just one dumb vendor with an eye on Apple's glitzier, more consumer-friendly line, but it's a sign of the shift all the same. Keeping Apple as our example, the company used to be best known for its high-end, quality notebooks and computers; now that reputation has shifted to iOS. In the industry more generally, where once the focus was on notebooks and PCs, the speed-battle between Intel and AMD, now we're only really curious about smartphones and slates. So you've got a 0.2GHz-faster chip in your laptop, and can load Excel 2-percent quicker? Cool story, bro.
With that, the attention has dropped into a lower price bracket: cheaper mobile devices, cheaper instant apps. Apple has redefined the value of software (just as it did with music and movies) to build a structure around their hardware and, more importantly, their ecosystem as a whole. Developers face releasing their hard-crafted wares - and make no mistake, it's still expensive, in time and money, to build a good application - into a market near-saturated with titles, where attention spans are minuscule and prices match.
When an app was $40 you stuck with it, learnt its foibles, saw past a poor first-impression gleaned from the 30 seconds after hitting the icon. When an app is one of a few hundred thousand, priced at a buck or even free, it's a whole lot easier to bin anything that doesn't instantaneously appeal. And yet, when it comes to upgrade time and you're looking at the shelves of devices, you're far more likely to pick the platform which runs all those $0.99 apps that quickly added up to a significant software investment.
Ask any retailer and they'll tell you, it's easy to drop prices but it's incredibly difficult to put them back up again. At least, if you want to remain in business for long, or unless you offer some commodity - gas, food perhaps - that consumers can't do without. Decide that your wares, whether content, software or something else, are worth more than the status quo, and prepare yourself for a significant battle.
We're watching the publishers doing that now, trying desperately to wrench away pricing control from retailers like Amazon and set their own figures as to what they - and many of their authors - believe the content is worth. In return, they're being decried as "old media" and told to get with the times: content is cheap, the fickle customer is king, and the app store gatekeepers call the shots.
Cheap apps are certainly good for consumers on the face of things: more software for less money. Problem is, when you teach people that apps are worth $0.99 then they start to believe that. App piracy may not be all that widespread, when the cost of entry is so low, but in the process developers are making mere pennies on their hard work. Meanwhile there's little incentive, with the current state of consumer attention span, to invest in anything that offers any great depth. Why think of the long-tail when your uses will already be overlooking your app by then, or when you can sell them another quick hit via a $0.99 in-app purchase.
So, on the one hand cheap new toys and all the low-guilt software you could hope for to run on them. On the other, zero-attention-span apps and little incentive for developers and content providers to do more than glean a few launch day headlines before moving on to the Next Big Thing. I'm as guilty as the rest in downloading and discarding, downloading and discarding, but I do miss the days when we'd invest more than a couple of taps in figuring out how software worked, how it could help us, and how the blend of that and our devices could better work in our lives.