How making its iWork and iLife apps free could hurt Apple and its users

There’s no free lunch, even in the App Store.

iwork pages mac iphone ipad
Credit: Apple

“Free” seems like a good thing, right? After all, who doesn’t like not paying for things? This week’s announcement that Apple’s productivity and creative software—namely Pages, Numbers, Keynote, GarageBand, and iMovie—is now free to all users was mainly greeted with a positive reaction from pundits and consumers alike.

I’ll agree that making these apps (which were already provided no charge to people who bought new Macs, iPhone, and iPads) free across the board is largely a positive move. But that decision does have some consequences that could be a downside for end users, developers, and even Apple.

Not-so-fierce competition

The effect is probably most pronounced for small and indie developers. Since Apple can afford to fund the development of these apps and then just give them away, it’s a tough proposition for small businesses to invest the time and money into building competing apps. Those developers generally have to charge for their apps, and consumers may wonder why they should pay when they can get Apple’s offerings for free.

That said, in the case of these particular apps, that ship pretty much sailed long ago. Most Mac and iOS users only ended up paying for an app like Pages or GarageBand when it was time to upgrade the version. Apple’s essentially been the 800-pound gorilla in these markets since it first started giving away these apps with new devices.

That’s not to say there’s no competition for these apps. On one side you’ve got open-source software (Audacity remains a popular audio editor, for example), while on the other you’ve got similar offerings from other giant companies, like Google Docs, Google Sheets, and Microsoft’s Office 365. So while consumer choice isn’t eliminated, it does certainly make it harder for a new player to enter the market. This might seem like a minor issue, when you have these wealth of choices…except for the niche users.

You get what you pay for

Here’s the thing: free can be a not-so-great price to pay. Sure, it feels satisfying, but when it comes to getting that one feature you want, or fixing that annoying bug, the gap between user and customer can feel broad. It’s easier to argue or advocate for a missing or broken feature when you’ve shelled out hard-earned cash for it.

That can be tough if a piece of software largely, but not completely, meets your needs. For example, take GarageBand. It’s a remarkably competent audio editor, and I use it for all the podcasts I produce. But a few years ago, Apple removed the app’s podcast-specific editing features, and there are other features that would aid in podcast editing that the company never added in the first place—and there’s a good chance that it never will.

That makes it tough if you’re looking for that one specific feature that really sells an app for you. Because if Apple isn’t likely to add the feature, and third-party developers can’t compete enough to make money, what are your options left? (Aside from building your own software, which, let’s be honest, is beyond most of our capabilities.)

And frankly, that’s a problem not just for users, but for Apple too.

All about the ecosystem

Part of me thinks that Apple would love to incorporate all those niche features in apps that it can provide to all of its users free of charge, but there are always limitations and priorities when it comes to running a business.

That’s one reason moving those apps to free worries me. iWork, GarageBand, and iMovie are no longer even bringing in a small amount of revenue—instead they’re purely ecosystem plays that help attract people to buy Apple’s hardware. That’s nothing new for Apple: the iTunes Store long operated in a similar fashion, and Apple made its yearly macOS updates free as well.

But when it comes to productivity apps, the calculus is a little different. Giving these apps away could de-incentivize updates that incorporate new features. After all, if they’re not directly bringing in revenue, how much sense does it make to dedicate valuable resources to developing free apps that that aren’t either basic table stakes for the company’s operating systems—Mail, Safari, Messages—or apps that provide a gateway to bringing in more revenue, like iTunes.

The upside

Despite all these concerns, I think that, on balance, making these apps free is a good move. That’s because the benefit to end users is mostly positive. Users, for example, won’t be confused about why they suddenly need to pay for updates to these apps they own, when they don’t have to pay for other app updates. (And I’m sure, from Apple’s perspective, it’s preferable to those users simply not updating at all.)

But the risks are real, even though we may not see some of them truly materialize until down the road. Because, as the saying goes, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

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