Who’s on Top for the Race to the Bottom?

I’ve been watching some of the events around Wolfram Alpha lately with some interest. I had a copy of Wolfram Mathematica in grad. school1 and have always felt somewhat in awe of the sense of raw power one gets from using their software. It’s so open and endless; it is really more like a framework or even an operating system than most one-trick pony applications we know and use. So, this morning I see that Wolfram has priced their iPhone app for Alpha at $50. Stephen Wolfram thinks pretty highly of himself and his company also thinks quite highly of their software, right?

I agree with John Gruber that this a good idea and good for the app store, in general. And based on my experience with Wolfram, they’re just the company to do this and won’t be bothered if they never break the top of the app charts. Given the relatively high price2 of their desktop applications, it actually seems quite cheap. It’s not as though Mathematica ever broke any sales records compared to other desktop software. Most folks have never even heard of it, I suspect. Alpha is a nice interface for a handy service, but I never got the impression this is meant to be a Wikipedia competitor for the average user; it’s a professional application for people who want distilled, unbiased data at their fingertips.

I think part of the issue with the sticker shock at $50 is that that is probably the average that most folks spend on desktop applications. That’s even high if you don’t ever buy anything from Microsoft, Adobe, or Apple, frankly. But when it comes to mobile platforms3 — and the iTunes App Store, in particular — that seems to be way above the average. But here’s the catch: Wolfram doesn’t intend for this to an application for the average user. It is meant to be an app for professionals who need access to data.

As I work for a company which also produces professional software for a fairly limited audience (infrastructure engineering), I can attest that high prices are the norm for professional software which is solely intended for professional settings. In the structural group at Bentley, I think the lowest priced application we sell is about $1,8004. Just ask any amateur photograph who bought what they thought was a fancy camera only to learn that Photoshop cost even more than their camera! There are generally alternatives for folks who just want to tool around. Professional software isn’t for them and it is going to priced accordingly.

There are plenty of precedences for professional software on mobile platforms costing much more than $5 or even $50. My wife’s pharmaceutical database — Lexi-Comp Complete — is about $300, for example. I imagine that’s more than most iPhone users spend on all of their apps and their phone, combined! But that’s the point. The phone here is a platform to have this sort of data handy, not the end in of itself, which just has the capability for fancy widgets. And this is the real power of such a device as a platform; much like when a computer was just seen as a fancy typewriter instead of what all it can actually be.

If the iPhone is to be taken seriously as a mobile platform, then we need to get away from some notion that all applications should be cheap widgets.

  1. Hell, I had the t-shirt. []
  2. A new copy of Mathematica 7 is about $2,500. Though it is only fair to note that Alpha is not just some mobile version of Mathematica; it is a completely different application. []
  3. Oh, the irony. This is the same platform where folks routinely pay 50% more for a 30-second, low quality version of a song they already own just for the privilege of using it as a ring tone. []
  4. And it goes way up from there. This past weekend, at BarCamp, I must have been the only person in the room who didn’t so much as blink when someone mentioned a software price which included as much as five zeros. []

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