Essays on Technology and Culture

Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death

Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death was the final official release by The Dead Kennedys, [1] collecting various loose tracks, B-sides, and live cuts. A fitting title for what is, arguably a cash-grab compilation album, albeit an essential one. The Dead Kennedys were always critical of mindless consumerism. “Give me convenience or give me death” is also a line of thought that also seems to pervade our relationship with technology and how we consume it.

Case in point: the price of apps. It’s no secret the app store model has caused the price of software to drop overall. If a developer wants to make money on mobile platforms, they can write for iOS where users are more likely to pay for apps—but that’s no no guarantee they’ll make anything when there’s so many free apps. Vesper may be a beautiful, well-designed app with high profile names behind it, but Evernote does more for free, and it’s hard to compete with that. [2] Either way, it’s hard to make money selling mobile apps unless you get critical mass—and with nearly a million apps in the store, and more added daily, it’s hard to get noticed. [3]

So developers are doubly screwed. An audience that leans towards free options, and a store where it’s almost impossible to get discovered means that most of the people getting rich are the ones selling how-to guides on making whatever type of app is trending on Apple’s App Store at the moment. We saw the same thing happen during the blogging boom where people thought they could get rich by posting banal crap and covering it with Google Ads. [4] We can’t have it both ways, and the market now is leaning towards convenience for app “buyers” rather than developers. No skin off Apple’s back—or any other hardware manufacturer—a huge app store is just another feature they can use to sell the hardware.

All of this makes the backlash over freemium apps and in-app purchases very interesting. There’s no shortage of ethical issues around games implementing freemium models, but freemium works on the App Store model—if you’re lucky enough to get noticed. John Moltz’s “very mild defense” of freemium apps and games makes the point better than I could. Moltz singles out Jetpack Joyride is his piece, which made me smile as I dropped $1.99 on the “Double Coins” upgrade, though Jetpack Joyride was easily a game I’d have been satisfied to pay $4.99 for with no in-app purchases. These apps are worth something, and if we’re paying what we think they’re worth, how is that bad? It’s certainly convenient.

But, it isn’t just software where convenience trumps value. How much did you pay for your smartphone? In the US, at least, many people get subsidized phones at a deep discount, or even for free, up front. We “know” we’re paying off the price of the phone—and then some—over the two years of the contract, but few of us are able to drop $649 all at once on an unlocked iPhone 5. Even the sort of cheap Android phone that you can find for free (with contract) in a cereal box costs $139.99 at Best Buy. It’s more convenient for us, and for the carriers, to have the impression of these devices as cheap so that we can buy expensive plans and sign nearly iron-clad contracts. The alternative? Pay more, and be inconvenienced.

I have no solutions to offer. Things are in upheaval, and it’s hard to judge how big the waves really are from our vantage point. All I know is that it was not always like this, and it will not always be like this. That, and if you’re a developer, it probably couldn’t hurt to keep your day job until you make an app that does well. If you’re coming from the consumer side, just keep in mind that these awesome apps and great games are made by real people who need to feed their families. They’re worth something, even if they have a big “FREE” next to them in the store.

  1. I side with Jello Biafra, and refuse to acknowledge the cash-grab live albums and Jello-free tours as The Dead Kennedys.  ↩

  2. Then again, Vesper isn’t targeting the same market as Evernote, but as they’re both fundamentally note taking apps, and so the comparison stands to a point.  ↩

  3. After you read that, please read Marco Arment’s commentary as well.  ↩

  4. Full disclosure: I once ran Google Ads on Sanspoint, but that was a long time ago, and I didn’t expect to get rich from it. I did expect to make more than the pennies I did make… which I don’t think I ever actually saw.  ↩