Pomodoro in the Mac App Store: Ugo Landini’s freemium experiment

Like the iPhone App Store before it, the Mac App Store provoked some changes in its respective app ecosystem, especially around pricing. Many higher end apps, including Apple’s own suite, were reduced in price. Among free software, some developers began charging, although others kept their apps free, adding the Mac App Store as merely another distribution channel. Ugo Landini did both.

Landini is the “software craftsmen” of an open source menu bar utility based around the Pomodoro time management technique (also its namesake). Shortly after the Mac App Store launched, he released an updated version of Pomodoro for $4.99. But instead of removing the source from his website, he updated that as well, and it’s still available under a BSD license. The only catch: from the official website, only the source is available, and it must be self-compiled. Pomodoro remains free and open source, but for those interested in simplicity, automatic updates, and supporting the developer, there’s the Mac App Store version. Landini is one of many developers and other creative types experimenting with making money from something available free. I spoke to him over email about why he’s doing this, how the “experiment” is going, and how he got started.

“I am an early adopter of Pomodoro Technique, I was responsible for Java courseware in Sun Microsystems Italy and at the time Francesco Cirillo [creator of the Pomodoro Technique] was one of our best teachers,” says Landini, “He permeated us with Pomodoro and XP [Extreme Programming] values well before it went mainstream.” Landini began exploring Objective-C with his first OS X Mac in 2002, “just to learn something new and different from Java.”

“In recent years,” he says, “I became an Apple addict and developed the Pomodoro Mac version just for fun.” As a long participant in the open source world — Landini abandoned Windows for Linux/Unix when he joined Sun Microsystems in 1999 (and recently, Mac OS X, which he acknowledges is “not completely open, but is still a BSD”), and more recently was the CTO of an open source Italian integrator, where he contributed “to several mainstream open source projects” — his “own little pet project could be only open.” He says, “I consider myself a Unix guy, and sharing is definitely part of the Unix culture.”

Landini initially got interested in Apple’s app stores after releasing two free apps for the iPhone, and even after two years and a lack of maintenance, people continue to download them, sometimes hundreds a day. “Those apps went through all the SDK versions, different versions of the iPhone, the new iPad and I didn’t change a line of code,” he says. “So I have always been curious of how much money could be made with the store.”

Landini sees his dual pricing and distribution not so much as an intentional strategy, but as an experiment. An experiment which, by his estimation, has been quite a success. Landini describes the results:

Pomodoro was perfect for experimenting, because a lot of people adopted it all around the world, development was completely off, there were historical bugs to be fixed, some people forked the code but none really got the lead. So when Apple announced the Mac store, I decided that fixing some bugs on Pomodoro would be the easiest way to give the new store a try. I didn’t expect much more than 5 or 10 sales per day, but Pomodoro got immediately [in] the “New and noteworthy” section so in the first weeks sales went really well and that got the impulse to continue to improve it.

Landini recognizes the potential of the Mac App Store for other developers as well. “I think that the App Store fits really well these kind of small one developer projects,” he says, “The little amount of money you get every month makes you happy to continue and keeps the project alive, much much better than the Paypal donation button.” To acknowledge those who had previously donated, he manually assembled a list and sent promo codes to each. “I also had a lot of old Pomodoro users writing me and actually thanking me [for] giving them the chance to pay for the app!” he says. “That means that donation is a big barrier for lazy people (I am one of them, I should know), and that from the perspective of an open source application the App Store could be seen as a better Paypal donation button.”

As for including only the uncompiled source outside of the App Store, Landini explains, “Apple requires that the App Store has the best price: they can ban you from the Store if you don’t comply. So I can’t offer a binary for free if I want to continue to stay on the Store.”

Anyway, different users have different needs, and Landini sees an easy version, albeit one that costs, as serving a different audience:

I think there will always be people willing to spend a few bucks to avoid the burden of downloading the source, building and solving some quirks (there always are), they are two different targets. I am a developer, but I am one of those people that doesn’t want to lose time: if I need an app and it doesn’t cost too much, my first option is buy.

Obviously the key point is low price: I don’t think Adobe CS or Final Cut source could be available online without affecting the sales.

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