Vesper as the Canary in a Coal Mine

A few years ago John Gruber, Brent Simmons, and Dave Wiskus joined forces to create a notes app called Vesper. If I was setting up a developer shop, these three guys would be on my dream team. They made a great app with a lot of taste and it never really took off. John wrote a post explaining why Vesper is shutting down.

What went wrong was very simple. We never made enough money.

If the dream team couldn’t make it work, who can? John goes on to speculate about other ways they could have rolled the app out in order to make it more profitable including developing for the Mac first, where productivity apps still sell for more than the price of a cup of coffee. In the case of Vesper, the lack of a Mac app certainly kept me from fully adopting it. The resurrection of Apple Notes didn’t help either.

I think John’s post should be required reading for anyone thinking about getting into the productivity app business. For years now I’ve been talking to app developer friends and they are nearly universally wondering how long they will be able to survive in a business where consumers expect to pay less than $5 for an app and expect that app to be maintained for years at a time with no further revenue to the developer.

This problem is holding back productivity software on the iPhone and–even more dramatically–on iPad. The iPad Pro hardware is, performance-wise, competitive with a laptop. The difference, however, is that people are simply not willing to pay the same for iPad productivity software as they are willing to pay for Mac productivity software. Developers understand this and, as a result, are not putting the time and effort in on iPad and iPhone. I realize I’m stating the obvious but if developers could earn more from quality iOS development, we’d have a lot more quality iOS productivity software. 

Towards the end of his post John gets to the subject of subscription pricing.

Ultimately, what we should have done once we had versions of the app for both Mac and iOS is switch to a subscription model. Make the apps free downloads on all platforms, and charge somewhere around $15/year for sync accounts. That’s where the industry is going.

Subscription pricing feels like a third rail to me. Every time I write anything remotely positive about it, I get tweets and emails telling me how terrible an idea it is. Nonetheless, I’m not sure how we continue to get quality productivity software without it.