A while back I mentioned that the iPhone App Store was a place where we could see people paying for interface alone, regardless of functionality.
This is a useful segue into Daniel Jalkut’s commentary on the nature of independent software development, and, specifically, whether small-software should be free-as-in-beer software. Jalkut makes the point, as an independent developer, that you should support the software you like, regardless of how slight it is. The example he refers to is Pukka, a nice little tool for posting to delicious from OSX. Pukka is nice because it’s always available and it’s very Mac-like in its behaviour. It’s pretty cheap at $12.95.
Jalkut takes exception to Leo Laporte’s commentary in a MacBreak Weekly podcast, where he suggests (as he tells us how much he loves Pukka) that it should be free.
Why did he suggest this? The answer, simply, is that Pukka is an interface to someone else’s functionality rather than a tool in its own right.
To wit: Pukka interfaces to delicious through the delicious API. Most of the hard work of social bookmarking has already been implemented by the delicious time. All Pukka does is talk to the API – it’s a menubar item, an interface, and a window that sends data to the API. Not a product on its own. Of course, if you know anything about development, you’ll know that building things that talk to APIs – on the desktop, on the web, wherever – isn’t always as easy as it sounds. $14.95 seems reasonably to pay for an app that does this well, especially if you use delicious as much as (eg) I do.
Jalkut’s own MarsEdit (which I’m using a licensed copy of to write this) is similar. It’s a $29.95 weblog editor, that interfaces with most popular blogs, and lets me write posts on my Mac desktop. It’s not that I couldn’t write blogposts before; I can always log into WordPress to do that. No, the reason I bought this is because of the convenience and quality. I rather like posting from this fluid, offline interface, rather than having to type into a box in Safari, for various reasons – the quality and speed of preview, the simplicity of media integration, and the multi-blog (and API) support – I use MarsEdit to post to both WordPress and LiveJournal. If I couldn’t spare $30, I could always just blog from the existing admin screens, but I felt the product was so good I should be it.
Sometimes, it’s hard to express to people the value of a product that does something you could already do. A product that does something new, or which is an essential tool, is much easier to justify. Many Mac owners I know didn’t hesitate to pay the €39 for TextMate, because text editing is so fundamental to our work. But $30 on a blogposting client? That one requires more thought, and isn’t such a no-brainer.
I’m not sure what the solution is. It’s a shame that it’s harder to express the value of “service” applications; I think the iPhone might have it better off here, simply because the device itself is so unlike traditional clients that it makes sense to redesign interfaces to services for it. In the meantime, it’s worth remembering that a quality interface to an existing product might still be worth something, however small, and it’s for that reason that developers like Jalkut should be rewarded for their work.