From paid to free: iPhone app trend? Neccessity?

By Steve Outing

As a cyclist and runner — and iPhone 3G owner — I’ve been eagerly trying out several new fitness trackers that utilize the iPhone’s built-in GPS to track the trails and routes I ride and run. Like a “real” GPS unit, they record speed, pace, distance, elevation gain and loss, and at the end of the workout send the data to a website where you can later look at a map of your route. It’s pretty cool stuff, for a phone.

The first app I tried (and one of the first introduced) was RunKeeper, for which I paid $9.99 to download from the iPhone App Store. I’ve also tried out several free competitors that do pretty much the same thing: Fitnio, Trailguru, and Path Tracker. Peruse the Health and Fitness category of the App Store, and now you’ll find even more fitness-tracking applications, some free and some that cost anywhere from 99 cents up to several dollars. It’s getting really competitive in this little segment of the iPhone apps market.

So I was interested to receive an e-mail yesterday from RunKeeper’s developer, announcing that the app is about to become free. The reason is obvious: The company wants to become a dominant player in the mobile GPS tracker space and build up a large user community. The best way to do that with so many competitors is to give away the application.

Developer Jason Jacobs of Fitness Keeper Inc. says the company will shift to a business model based on selling advertising and possibly premium paid features (to be determined). For now, “We are … foregoing short-term revenues with the hope that our community will get to massive scale.”

I wonder if this will become a trend in the mobile-phone application community? Sure, you can charge if you’ve got an application that’s unique or has very few competitors. But for segments where the phone app market gets flooded with competitors, developers may be forced into the free model.

Well, it’s certainly a nice thing for consumers. We’ll see if companies like Jacobs’ can figure out how to make money from free and survive.

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!