Confessions of an App Buyer

When it comes to apps, I’m clearly a tire kicker. After deleting a few from the US App Store (now that I live in Canada), I have 943 .ipa files in my “Mobile Applications” folder. Most of them were free. Some (especially a few music apps) were rather expensive. I have 104 apps installed on my iPad, 116 on my iPhone. There’s some overlap but actually not that much.

Apps I Use the Most

iPhone

On the iPhone, several of the apps I use the most are stock apps.

Stock Apps

  • Mail
  • Alarm
  • Safari
  • Messages
  • Calendar
  • Settings
  • Find My Friends (Not officially a stock app, but close enough)
  • Camera
  • App Store
  • Phone
  • Music
  • Photos
  • Reminders

Quick Services

I use a number of apps for quick services, like looking up information or posting an update:

  1. Drafts
  2. Facebook
  3. Twitter
  4. Foursquare
  5. Weather
  6. STM Mobile
  7. Google Maps
  8. SoundHound
  9. ING Direct
  10. LinkedIn
  11. YouTube
  12. Virgin Mobile Members’ Lounge
  13. Timer
  14. Wikipanion
  15. Facebook Messenger
  16. Pushmail
  17. 1Password
  18. Jawbone UP
  19. fitbit

I don’t really use other apps on a regular basis.

iPad

On the iPad, the situation is rather different.

Stock Apps

These are the stock apps I use regularly on the iPad:

  1. Mail
  2. Safari
  3. Messages
  4. Settings
  5. Calendar
  6. App Store

Regular Apps

I use all of the following apps on a regular basis:

  1. :) Sudoku +
  2. Downcast
  3. Solebon Pro
  4. Rdio
  5. Drafts
  6. Facebook
  7. Twitter
  8. Dropbox
  9. Wikipanion
  10. iBiker
  11. 1Password
  12. YouTube
  13. Google Maps
  14. Day One

Apps for Teaching and Research

When I teach and/or am active in research, I use these apps on a regular basis:

  1. Keynote
  2. GoodReader
  3. iThoughts HD
  4. Notability
  5. OmniOutliner

App Value

If I get to think about value and cost, there are some clear differences. Some of the apps I use regularly are part of a paid service (Virgin Mobile…), have to do with a hardware device (Jawbone UP and fitbit), or come with a freemium service (Rdio and Dropbox). Other apps have to do with ad-based services (YouTube, Facebook, Twitter…).

And then, there are the one-time purchases:

  1. Keynote
  2. iThoughts HD
  3. GoodReader
  4. Notability
  5. Solebon Pro
  6. :) Sudoku +
  7. Downcast
  8. Drafts
  9. iBiker
  10. OmniOutliner
  11. 1Password
  12. Wikipanion
  13. Day One
  14. STM Mobile
  15. Timer

The first ten are particularly interesting, I find. They’re pretty much in decreasing order of value, but not in decreasing order of price. OmniOutliner is the most expensive but, if I’m honest with myself, I don’t draw that much value from it. Maybe the situation will change when OmniOutliner 4 for Mac comes out, but I doubt it. I’d rather use an iPad version of FoldingText.

Teaching and Research Workflow

In some ways, Apple’s Keynote is part of the justification for me to have an iPad. I don’t have a laptop, anymore, and I use “slides” in the classroom. Not really as part of the “presentation”, more as a way to structure the class meeting. It’s really ideal, but it ends up working quite well in my workflow. I’ve been thinking about, looking for, and using several other solutions over the years. For instance, I used to create printable and screen-friendly PDF files using OmniOutliner and LaTeX. And I’ve used the classroom desktop to edit some slides during class time. For instance, I might ask students to create exam questions and I’d add them to the slides during class time. But presentation software (including PDFs) never really covers my whole teaching workflow.

In this sense, iThoughts HD is a neat addition to my workflow, and some students have commented on it. I don’t really use it for “traditional” mindmapping. In my case, it’s more of a tool for brainstorming with students. For instance, I can ask the class for some themes connected to the material with which they’ve been working. I might rearrange some of these, or group them. Used to do this on slides, but the mapping format helps a bit. Plus, it’s easy to export those items to a list that I then add to our course site.

GoodReader is also part of my teaching (and research) workflow. For some of my courses, most of the texts we use are available as PDFs. Using GoodReader, I annotate these texts in my own “special” way, which makes it easy afterwards to create outlines or other material for the class meetings. In fact, this process is so useful that I’ve been scanning several texts to make sure I could use GoodReader with it. As I also use GoodReader for research-related texts, I might also start transforming Web content to PDFs. (GoodReader used to be even more useful to me as, before the Dropbox for iOS came about, I was using it as a “deposit box” for PDFs.)

Notability is also part of my research and teaching workflow. I’ve used it in the field as an alternative to my LiveScribe “smartpen”, as I can take notes paired with audio recordings, which is a particularly useful thing to do during an open-ended interview or a meeting. I’ve used it in class in the same way, when I’ve had guests. I kind of wish I could use it to create “ProfCasts” during class time.

Speaking of wishlists, I would probably “pay good money” for the optimal tool in my teaching and research workflow. Not an “everything but the kitchen sink one-stop shop for all of my needs”. That’s usually painful-to-use bloatware. But something which fits my workflow like the ideal mattress or slipper. Part of what I’m thinking about is the way Horace Dediu uses the Perspective app, which was partly developed with his workflow in mind. My own workflow is almost the complete opposite of Horace’s. Basically, though I do use “presentation software”, I try not to “present” material that I previously created. In fact, my dream scenario has a bit more to do with the Donahue app than with Perspective. It could even have something to do with web>clicker, though I’ve been on the record about my distaste for these proprietary solutions.

Games and Podcasts

Though it may sound trivial, I do draw quite a bit of value from the two casual games and the podcatcher on my list. In fact, a very common behaviour for me on my iPad is to switch between the two casual games as I listen to podcasts. Downcast is my current podcatcher, but the value I derive from it has to do with the podcasts themselves. Like weather apps and many productivity apps, no app is the ideal solution for me. I could imagine a Netflix-like subscription service which would add a lot of value to my podcast listening. Solebon Pro and :) Sudoku + are my favourite casual games by far. I’ve been using Solebon Solitaire apps since my PalmOS days. In some ways, I feel bad that I haven’t paid more for those apps but I probably wouldn’t have paid more. However, I’d gladly support a crowdfunding campaign from either of these developers.

Other Neat Apps

The Drafts app is an interesting case. I only discovered it fairly recently, but it’s the kind of app which makes me rethink my workflow. I already get quite a bit of value from it, but I know I could do more with it. For instance, by creating an “action” to append content to a plain text file in Dropbox, I’ve made it into the ideal tool for me to send tasks to my “GTD inbox”. This is an app for which I could imagine “extras”, including paid ones. Could be tricky, but there might be something there.

Unlike fitbit and Jawbone UP, the iBiker app is a standalone third-party app. Despite the name, it’s not just about biking. I’ve chosen it as the app I use to track my workouts, especially walking and exercise biking. It connects with my ANT+ sensors (a heartrate strap and a footpod) via a Wahoo Fitness dongle. It’s similar to many other apps, but I chose it over others because it’s available on the iPad. Partly because of battery use, I prefer using my iPad for these things. This is an app which connects with a freemium service but, unlike Dropbox and Rdio, most of its value comes from the app itself (at least in my case). I do use it to sync with fitbit, but there could (and perhaps should) be better ways to do this.

OmniOutliner for Mac used to be a very important app, for me. I derived quite a bit of value from that desktop app and my teaching workflow was even tied to it, for a while. I’ve since switched much of my Mac OS outlining to Hog Bay Software’s FoldingText which, like the Drafts app for iOS, is unfolding as a really neat solution. I’ve tried a number of outliners on iOS and, for a while, I was quite happy with Hog Bay Software’s TaskPaper. However, because Jesse Grosjean is now focusing on FoldingText, I’ve mostly abandoned TaskPaper. I feel like we’re in a transition period before we can get a FoldingText(-friendly) app on iOS. In the meantime, I’ve been using OmniOutliner for iOS a bit more. The fact that I’m beta-testing OmniOutliner 4 on Mac OS is also part of it. But, unfortunately, I can’t say OmniOutliner is that useful to me right now.

App Costs

App developers are fond of talking about the App Store. Marco Arment (whose posts about the App Store prompted this post), has devoted a significant portion of his (dearly missed) Build and Analyze podcast to questions surrounding the App Store. Before releasing Vesper, John Gruber linked to items preemptively defending his app’s price. And I’ve read from enough versions of the “app buyers are cheap” attitude that pressure has been building up.

So, in this sense, this post is a follow-up to the following posts on app prices and business models:

The last one is about the Mac App Store, and I have a lot more to say about Mac software, in general, and the MAS specifically. But that will have to wait for another post. App bundles will probably be a significant part.

“App Discovery” Is Expensive

During the past five years, I’ve spent quite a bit of money on software (both on iOS and on Mac). Probably not nearly as much as I’ve spent on hardware, but still a significant amount. And, quite likely, more than I had spent in the previous twenty years. Altogether, the software from which I derive the most value has probably cost me a small fraction of the what I’ve spent overall. Which means that most of the money I’ve spent on software is for things from which I derive little to no value. In other words, my benefit/cost ratio in apps is fairly low. It’s as if I had paid several times more money than I actually did, for these few apps that I really find useful in my workflow. Developers of those valuable apps didn’t get that money from me. But other developers (and, in the case of App Store apps, Apple) did get some of my money for things that I don’t use. You could say that this money was spent in “app discovery”. If you add the inordinate amount of time spent trying these apps, the lost value is actually pretty high. In fact, because of the time and effort in finding and trying apps, it makes little difference whether those apps are paid or not.

You might blame me for my app buying behaviour, for making bad purchasing decisions. In the end, though, I almost feel like I’m getting the raw end of a lousy deal. Of course I entered that deal with some insight into the situation. I could simply stick to a few well-known apps, the way people did when Microsoft was so dominant. And I do derive some value from the “app discovery” process, as I get to think about possibilities. Yet I find a problem with the way the whole system works, in terms of finding the software I might find useful. App stores themselves are supposed to be solutions to the “app discovery” problem and it’s clear to me that they’re far from ideal. Software available at no initial cost (including shareware, demoware, and FLOSS) may not be the solution either, given the effort needed to try them. Some podcasts do provide some help, especially Mac Power Users and Systematic (both on 5by5), but they’re also “part of the problem” as they get me to buy some of the software I end up not using much.

Speaking of Systematic, host Brett Terpstra is an interesting figure, in this whole thing. He’s an app developer with at least one paid app Marked ($4) in the Mac App Store. But he’s mostly a developer of “solutions”. His projects are quite diverse and many of the things he’s created are free to use. In fact, he’s created a number of “one-off” solutions which aren’t part of that project list but remain useful (for instance, he created a script for me to convert lists from one text format to another). Pretty much a “scratch your own itch” kind of person, he’s someone who can “develop his way out” of a number of situations. More than with many other developers, I wish I had even a tiny fraction of his skills. Yet Brett’s “Top Three” lists have contributed to making me spend more time (and money) on “app discovery” than I probably should reasonably spend.

A fairly obvious analogy can be made between app developers (like Brett) and auto mechanics. Way back when, most car drivers were also mechanics and most computer users were coders. I don’t drive but I do use computers a fair bit.

I Am Not a Coder

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