Skip to main content

Go buy some apps

So you just got a smartphone or tablet for Christmas. Great! Now buy some apps. No, not free apps. You, or a special someone, just splashed out a load of money on your new gadget. So plunk down a tenner for some apps.

Mobile app development is one of the last businesses in which one or two guys with a great idea can make it big, and where consumers can get a great, original product for little money. Nowadays, most culture seems to be created by giant conglomerates. Yeah, there's Kickstarter out there, but Kickstarter 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 who you're actually paying for what. When you buy a toy at Tesco, how much of your £20 goes to the checkout girl? How much to the person who assembled the toy, how much to the toy's inventor, how much to the truck driver who delivered it? There's no way to know.

Digital media distribution has some of the same problems. When you buy a film online – I just bought Brave over Christmas – how much did anyone actually involved in, say, animating that movie receive? How much went to some incomprehensible financial derivative rewarding large Disney shareholders? Once again, there’s 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 great stuff made by small businesses. Take the "top paid" list at Google Play. Along with the big names, you see great 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 one of those, you know your money is going to the creators. Even better, if they make money, they'll probably make more great apps.

I'm working my way through the Windows Phone 8 game Dragon's Blade right now, and I paid 79 pence 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 per cent of the money goes directly 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. This is the kind of transaction you can feel good about.

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. On the other hand, when you buy the paid version, ka-ching! 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 economic model where you know how and what you're paying. Free apps encourage companies to find invisible ways to "monetise" their users, from selling personal information to demanding perpetual, periodic in-app purchases. You're still paying, you're just rarely told how you’re paying up front.

Mobile 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 the equivalent of a pound per day and "Where's My Water" is not only an ironic statement of first-world problems, but the slim joy in your sun-scorched day, go for it. But I suspect you're first-world middle class, and you spent a quid today on something relatively worthless like a bag of crisps.

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 economise a pound or two in this week's budget to reward someone for their labour? We're not talking £650 Adobe software suites here, which raise broad questions of affordability. The only reason to pirate a £1.49 app is if you're below the UN's global poverty line – or if you're a total git.

I understand that some people are hesitant to buy apps because they're worried about quality. That is why we have reviews. ITProPortal has reviews, Amazon has reviews, the app stores have 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 new Kindle Fire, that fresh iPhone 5, or that shiny HTC 8X and pick up a game or an app. It'll be the best buy you made all Christmas, and one you can feel really good about.