appenomics

Although I never wanted a smart phone, I can’t help but be at least a little fascinated by the pocket universe of ‘apps,’ which combine the appeal of toys – they’re bright, shiny and new in a way conventionally packaged programs could only be to geeks – and the lure of being cheap. Apps are like a great, salty snack food. You can’t use just one.

Still, I’ve been careful when it comes to loading up my iPhone – for one thing, I hate clutter on my gadgets and gizmos. For another, it’s kinda fun to find the exact right thing for your phone/pad/laptop. It’s the pleasure of curatorship, of making the unobvious, quietly dazzling choice, the kind of thing that makes the person next to you at the coffee shop go “What’s that?” It’s cheap thrills for hard times.

With my latest careful pick, I’m wondering how the dollars and cents work.

The wonderful (I can’t write his name without ‘The wonderful’ before it) Roger Ebert produced three magisterial volumes of The Great Movies, which can teach you most of what you need to know about both movies and about how to think and write deeply and clearly on any subject.

Bought new, the three volumes would run you about $45-$50. On Amazon today, you could shop well and get the price down considerably, to maybe $20 for all three.

Or you could just read ’em free through Ebert’s web site. That’s right; the content of the books (which were originally newspaper pieces) can be had for nothing, served in the reasonably convenient form of web pages.

Which brings us to the Roger Ebert ‘Great Movies’ app for my iPhone, priced at a mere 99 cents. All 300 movies, laid out alphabetically in an attractive interface, at your fingertips in your phone, pad or Touch. Forget app addiction – all by itself, this is enough for a movie/writing fan. Each review is a few screens long, just right for those moments in the day when you’re not already consuming media of some sort.

So here’s my question: is this an economic ‘win’ or ‘lose,’ for Ebert on one side of the equation, for readers on the other? The answer is elusive. My first thought was that it’s a win for Ebert, because he gets a price higher than free. But on the other hand, 99 cents isn’t much higher than free, and it’s a lot less than, say, $25-$50. True, Ebert wouldn’t benefit at all if you buy your copies used, but at least it preserves the idea that Ebert produces things worth significant money.

With the app, Ebert sets a much lower price for the value of his work. You can skip the books, get an arguably easier to manage (and easy to browse!) edition of The Great Movies I-III, support the author a little bit and save yourself several dollars. That would seem like a good deal for people on the consuming end and a bad deal for the author.

On the other hand, I already own the books and bought the app anyway. If that’s the norm, then Ebert hasn’t done anything more than offer an ‘auxiliary product,’ like a tee shirt or coffee mug, only more useful. He gets a little extra money and I get another use of something I already own. I’m a mild loser in this version, because I’ve paid extra for an only slightly different use – it’s not much different than burning a second copy of a cd to play in your car (if you’re old like me).

But I don’t really care, which takes me back to Steve Jobs’ lasting contribution to society: the 99 cent price tag. So it would be better for me if the books I buy include an app? Pfft – for 99 cents, I’ll buy my own, on those rare occasions that a book makes a good app.

(Random walk: that’s the coolest thing about The Great Movies app. As good as the books are, the app is an even better container for Ebert’s reviews. I hope we’ll see more people explore this way of writing.)

The 99 cent payment (or $1.99 or even $2.99, if I’m flush) is too small to worry about. The ‘principle of the thing’ just isn’t important enough for most people to quarrel over, (and it’s a hard quarrel to have anyway, there being no history of ‘free’ or ‘included’ in the app world) which means a little bit of money is leaking from a lot of people, all the time. We have known this at least since the original (music only) iTunes store opened, but what is interesting now is the way the idea of a little money spent can be applied to many intellectual products and can scale up from 99 cents to a few dollars.

For instance, Apple busted up its ‘iWork’ suite, which costs $79, boxed. You can purchase each of the three major components for $19.99 apiece through the app store, so there is a savings to start, plus you have the convenience of buying only the part you want. It used to be that not getting the physical copy of the program and the manual was a liability – now, not having to manage what you own, letting Apple do the scut work of keeping track of versions and such, is a bonus. My suspicion is I’ll spend more over the course of a year this way, but feel it less – Apple is merely harvesting my pocket change, which seems like a fair price for a brave new world.

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