I have been watching the turmoil in the mobile development world with a great deal of angst.  I don’t have any applications that are at risk, so I could ignore the situation.  The truth is that this is a really big deal, and no one should be ignoring it.  In simple terms, I believe this to be the most significant change to affect software developers since the emergence of the mobile development marketplace.

Traditionally, software has been sold by publishing companies, much like books are.  Publishing software required resources, capital, and a distribution system.  The were certainly notably exceptions: Jim Knopf (PC-File, 1982), Andrew Fluegelman (PC-Talk, 1982), and Bob Wallace (PC-Write, 1983) all became millionaires from their shareware work; Phil Katz (PKZip, 1989) turned PKWare into a multi-million dollar company.  Most independent developers didn’t become as rich or well-know; in fact, many only sold their software as a second job, since it couldn’t replace their main income.  Why?  Resources, capital, and distribution.

Resources come in two main forms: equipment and salary/time.  Equipment?  Both writing and creating software takes surprising little equipment: a good computer and word processor can be had for under $1500, much less if needs demand; likewise for a software development system.  Time?  While few authors or software developers are able to commit full time to their creative works, many are able to make time (without quitting their job) and continue their creative endeavors.  So, resources are not the biggest issue preventing independent authors and developers from selling their work.

Capital is needed to print books or to package software: production facilities, disks, packaging, artwork all cost money; and all of that has to come before revenue, let alone profits.  However, a savvy author can produce a limit run of books and forego the artwork until they have earned enough to make more; a developer can print more manuals and buy more disks as their business grows.  Certainly, having solid funding makes this easier; but not having such capital can’t prevent the determined entrepreneur from finding a way.

Which brings us to issue three: distribution.  Distribution is about the product reaching the customer; this is part marketing and part delivery.  Distribution includes putting the product somewhere potential customers can see it; it is also about handling the payment and delivering the product.  Herein lies the revolution!  Before Mobile app stores and marketplaces, developers had to vie for attention in a jungle: whether that be magazine advertisements or web sites, it was hard to find where the customers were likely to be looking.  When the developer and a potential customer did connect, there was often the issue of reputation: independent developers (and their software) often had no reputation, and their potential customers were always at risk of “thinking better of the situation” and buying a better established (or better marketed) product.  There was always the fear that the consumer might be the victim of a fraud: just look at all of the faux anti-malware vendors whose web pop-ups convince people to pay for a product that does nothing (or worse).

The app stores and marketplaces (I’m going to call them “mobile bazaars”) solve a great deal of these issues: they bring the developers and customers together, provide a level of vetting of the product, and act as a trusted financial intermediary.  So began the renaissance of mobile applications.

Trouble in paradise!

The bazaars worked; they worked really, really well; so well, in fact, that they got the attention of others who wanted “in” on the action.  Enter Lodsys and Macrosolve.  These companies may seems loathsome, but that doesn’t mean they won’t succeed.  Lodsys and Macrosolve are parasites on the mobile ecosystem; and unfortunately, all successful ecosystems have them (Bruce Schneier has some writing some fascinating stuff on this vis-a-via security).  Sadly, the parasites won’t be going away; not as long as they can make money.

And that is the answer.  In order to defend the mobile ecosystem from parasites, we have to change the economics.