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. []

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *