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Laggards don’t buy apps: devil’s advocate edition

Silky-voiced star of podcasts and all-round nice developer person Brent Simmons just published a pair of articles on dropping support for older OS releases. His argument is reasonable, and is based on a number of axioms including this one:

  • People who don’t upgrade their OS are also the kind of people who don’t buy apps.

Sounds sensible. But here’s another take that also sounds sensible, in my opinion.

  • People who don’t upgrade their OS are also the kind of people who don’t like having to computer instead of getting their stuff done.

Let’s explore a world in which that axiom is true. I’m not saying it is true, nor that Brent’s is false: nor am I saying that his is true and that mine is false. I’m saying that there’s an open question, and we can investigate multiple options (or maybe even try to find some data).

Developers are at the extreme end of a range of behaviours, which can be measured in a single dimension that’s glibly called “extent to which individual is willing to mess about with a computer and consider the time spent valuable”. The “only upgraders buy apps” axiom can be seen as an extension of the idea that all changes to a computer fit onto the high end of that dimension: if you’re willing to buy an app, then you’re willing to computer. If you’re willing to computer, then you’re willing to upgrade. Therefore anyone who wants to sell an app is by definition selling to upgraders, so you can reduce costs by targeting the latest upgrade.

Before exploring the other option, allow me to wander off into an anecdote. For a few years between about 2004 and 2011 I was active in my (then) local Mac User Group, which included chairing it for a year. There were plenty of people there who were nearer the middle of the “willingness to mess with a computer” spectrum, who considered messing with upgrades and configuration a waste of time and often a way to introduce unwanted risk of data loss, but nonetheless were keen to learn about new ways to use their computers more efficiently. To stop computering, and start working.

Many of these people were, it is true, on older computers. The most extreme example was a member who to this day uses a Powerbook G3 Pismo and a Newton MessagePad 2100. He could do everything he needed with those two computers. But that didn’t stop him from wanting to do it with less computer, from wanting to optimise his workflow, to find the latest tips and tricks available and decide whether they got him where he was going more efficiently.

As I said, that example was extreme. There were plenty of other people who only bought new computers every five years or more, but were still on the latest versions of apps like Photoshop, Quark Xpress, or iWork where they could be, and whenever new ones got released the meeting topic would be to dig into the new version (some brave soul would have it on day one) to see whether they could do things better, or with less effort.

These people were paying big money for big software. Not because it was the newest, or because they had to be on “latest and [as we like to claim] greatest”, but because it was better suited to their needs. It gave them a better experience. So, bearing in mind that this is a straw-man for exploration purposes, let me introduce the hypothesis that defends the straw-man axiom presented above:

  • A delightful user experience means not making people mess about with computer stuff just to use their computers.
  • There are plenty of people out there who would rather get something that lets them work more effectively than waste time on upgrades.
  • To those people, spending money on software that gets them where they are going is a better investment than any amount of time and anxiety spent on messing with settings including operating system upgrades.
  • These people represent the middle of the spectrum: not the extreme low end where you never change anything once you’ve bought the computer; nor the extreme high end where fiddling with settings and applying upgrades is considered entertainment.
  • Therefore, the low price of “latest and greatest” software reflects at least in part the externalisation of the (time-based) costs and risks associated with upgrading to mid-range tinkerers.
  • Because of this, while the incremental number of users associated with supporting earlier OS versions may not be great, the incremental value per user may be much higher than gaining users with low-price apps on the current operating systems.

As I say, interesting food for thought, but not necessarily any more (or less) true than the view presented in Brent’s posts. Please have your pinch of salt ready, and don’t bet your business on the thoughts of this idle blogger.