No such thing as a free App

Photo by Cristiano Betta, via flickr 

Moises Fuertes/Contributing Writer 

The app-creation market has exploded since the successful launch of the original iPhone. Today, over 50 billion apps have been downloaded from Apple’s App Store alone.

Apps can either be purchased or downloaded for free, depending on what the app creator wishes to use as their revenue model.

To many, being able to download free apps on Google Play or Apple’s App Store makes the smartphone craze that much more appealing. However, not everything is rays and sunshine for the users.

App Store and Google Play Photo by Moises Fuertes

Screenshot of App Store and Google Play
Photo by Moises Fuertes

App-users, beware, there is no such thing as a “free” app.

The apps that use a “free” model must find a way to make revenue. There are a few economic models that apps use, such as having the user pay a fee for the software, in-app purchases, ads, or a combination of all three.

App developers create “free” apps, oftentimes stripping them of core functions for which they then staple an in-app purchase price tag on; this model has outdone all other models in terms of economic revenue.

Pie chart by TechCrunch

In the US alone, in-app purchases account for a staggering 76 percent of iPhone app revenue; these numbers are at 90 percent in the Asian market.

Free software is always nice, but not when it does everything in its power to charge the user for the most basic commands.  It’s often cheaper to just buy the editing apps or games that come complete upon purchase than it is to download the “free” apps.

Take, for instance, the way video game development has skewed off in the mobile market to what I call a pure “cash-cow” model.

“Final Fantasy All the Bravest” is a video game app developed by Square-Enix. While this game isn’t a free app, costing $3.99 to purchase, it still has a horrible in-app purchase model that gives the players the option of either waiting three minutes per character to continue playing after a knock-out or pay $2 to bring them all back. It also gives the option of unlocking characters for $1 apiece, but it doesn’t allow the user to select a specific one, instead giving a random character after paying.

Similarly, “free” photo and video editing apps are released in a locked stage. Apps like Aviary provide some photo editing tools for free, but charge for batches of image effects, ranging from six to 12 effects apiece. The app also charges for a range of other effects, frames, and sticker batches, all of which cost $1 each. Purchasing all of these components escalates the price of this “free” app past $30, certainly establishing it as an app with a cost.

There are many other video game apps and image editing apps that follow this model of pervasive in-app purchases. While the settings on iPhones and iPads allow us to block out in-app purchases, the fact that these companies get away with advertising something as free when it is in fact not is troubling.

Surely, I can’t be the only one who thinks this is appalling.

Perhaps more cases like the five-year-old British boy who spent $2,500 on “Zombie V. Ninja,”Danny Kitchen, are needed to push corporations and our government to pay attention to the ridiculously misleading “cash-cow” that has become in-app purchases.


1. “Apples App store reaches 50 billion downloads,” via Market Watch 

2. “In-App Purchase Revenue Hits Record High: Accounts For 76% Of U.S. iPhone App Revenue, 90% In Asian Markets,” via TechCrunch

3.“ ‘Free’ Apps Not So Free When A Five-Year-Old Can Spend $2.5K In 10 Minutes On An iPad,” via Consumerist

About the Author

Moises Fuertes
: a Digital Media Studies student at FIU. His productions include audio commercials, video coverage/reviews and still-image projects. He specializes in the video game industry and social media.

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