The Elephant in the Room ➝

When I first wrote about Overcast’s new pricing model I hadn’t fully thought out all of the ramifications it could have for the developer community. That is until Samantha Bielefeld published her piece yesterday discussing the topic. It really struck a chord with me and I found this part particularly poignant:

The issue isn’t that Marco is successful, there are many app developers who would love to be in the same position. He has earned his time in the spotlight, and it’s only natural for him to take advantage of it. Though to state that anyone can simply do the same thing and be successful, is just plain wrong. He has accelerated the race to the bottom for the podcast app category, and he comes bearing a huge following of people who will give him money for nothing in return except for the possibility of further development of Overcast.

Marco Arment should be concerned that decisions like making Overcast free could erode the trust and respect he’s built up within the community. I don’t fault him for making the decision, it serves his interests and will get his software into the hands of many more users. But the way he discusses the decision — saying that anyone can do it — leads me to believe that he might not be fully aware of the advantages he’s acquired from his other successes. It’s much easier for a guy like Marco to give his software away for free in hopes that users donate money to support it — his safety net (whether he’s ever had to use it or not) is much larger than that of the small development companies that rely on their income from app sales to pay their employees’ salaries.

Make no mistake, I take nothing away from Marco’s accomplishments. He’s earned everything he has and worked hard to get it. But it’s not a level playing field and claiming that anyone can do what he’s doing comes off as a tad pompous. Certainly, other developers can work tirelessly for a decade or more to amass the success that he has, but most won’t and to flippantly say that “anyone can do it” trivializes the process entirely.

Another problem I have with Overcast going free is that it sets the opposite example than Q Branch and Tapbots did when they independently decided to charge premium prices for their software — something that was overwhelmingly applauded by my circle of internet friends. Rather than follow in Q Branch and Tapbot’s lead, Marco has decided to, as Samantha Bielefeld put it, “accelerate the race to the bottom” — hardly something I’d consider applauding given the possible ramifications to the development community.

But even if this decision never ultimately effects the entire developer community it might have the same impact on podcast client applications that Google Reader had on the RSS reader market during its heyday — effectively killing nearly all competitors and stifling innovation in the long term. I don’t expect Marco Arment to rest on his laurels, but he’s just one person and therefore isn’t capable of finding every possible innovative idea for podcast clients. But by sucking all the air out of the room, the other developers who could have found the next great feature might disappear from the marketplace entirely — which is very bad for users in the long run.

I love Marco’s work and will continue to support it as much as I can, but I’m starting to get the feeling that he’s operating less in the spirit of indie developers and more in line with larger companies like Google and Microsoft. He’s leveraging his other success to throw his weight around in a market he wants to own. Again, I don’t fault him for doing so, that’s what’s best for him. But if you look at it from the perspective of other developers, it’s pretty grim. Will there be a place for smaller indie developers — who are currently just able to get by doing what they love — if more of the “rockstar” indie developers choose to make decisions like Marco does?