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Are mobile apps devaluing software?

When iTunes came along and brought the $.99 music download with it, people (namely musicians and record execs) complained that such low prices, while arguably necessary to keep people buying music, were detrimental to the music industry. Paying less than a dollar per song, they argued, took away the value of music (remember when CDs cost $20 and you had to save up to buy one?).

Now it looks like people have another reason to vilify iTunes. The recent massive popularity of its cheap, portable, and, ultimately, disposable mobile apps begs the question: Are apps devaluing software?

Recently, I’d heard good things about PopCap Games’ “Plants vs. Zombies,” a light-hearted strategy game that has you defending your house from brain-eating zombies with sunflowers, pea-shooters and mushrooms. Since I don’t have an iPhone, I figured I’d give the desktop version a shot. The game (available for $2.99 on the iPhone or $9.99 on the iPad), costs $19.95 as a download from PopCap’s website. I was shocked. I thought, “You expect me to pay $20 for the desktop version of a cell phone game?”

I don’t know why I was so surprised; $20 used to be, and still is, a pretty good price for full-fledged desktop software. “World of Warcraft” expansions sell for $40 a piece and make boatloads of money (in addition to the $15 monthly fee). But the popular and addictive game is a long-term investment for which one could reasonably justify the price.

“Plants vs. Zombies,” on the other hand, is a casual game that I’m only looking to play when I’m bored. I probably won’t even finish it. Do I really have to pay $20 to do that? Sure, PopCap offers a free online-only version of the game, but it lacks the features of the full game. And any Mac owner will tell you that online games rarely run as smoothly on an iMac or MacBook as they do on a Windows-based PC.

It’s the same problem with antivirus software and other utilities. There’s no way I’m ever paying money for antivirus software — yet, shouldn’t I be willing to do so, considering how essential it is to my computer’s safety? And utilities like FTP or file archiving software? Never in a million years would I pay for that.

That seems to be the prevailing mentality in the world of mobile software, where you’re unlikely to ever run across an app that costs more than $10. One of the major selling points of Android-based phones is that a lot of the apps in the Android Market are completely free. Everything about the app experience is all about accessibility and choice; anyone can make an app, as long as they have some basic programming skills, so it’s no longer about the major players with big names and bigger budgets.

I have only ever paid for two apps for my cell phone, and I see no reason to hand over cash for a game when someone will come along and make a free version.

Judging by the popularity of the iPhone and its massive App Store, I can’t be the only person who feels this way. When the top-selling free Android Market apps have moved more than 250,000 units, it becomes pretty obvious that I can’t be the only one for whom ease-of-access and portability have undermined the value of software and nurtured a sense of penny-pinching entitlement.

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