Under The Microscope

Software As Entertainment

One idea that has been alluded to in the Delicious Generation discussion, is software as entertainment. In this model, a piece of software is purchased largely for its entertainment value, not its functionality (that’s a bonus). The important thing to realize is that when software is made to entertain, the normal rules of software development change dramatically. Perhaps more accurately, the normal rules simply don’t apply.

Making Them Notice It (Marketing)
TicketsTo start, marketing becomes vastly more important, as people won’t be actively seeking out the software. When a user is looking for an application to solve a problem, they search for it. Forums across the web are filled with posts asking things like “How do I record audio from RealPlayer on my Mac?” and answers saying “Use Audio Hijack Pro“. Answers pop up when a user searches for information on solving a problem. People are unlikely to search for “I’ve got 45 minutes to kill, what software should I buy?” however, and thus active marketing plays a bigger role.

Making Them Enjoy It (Hooks)
Once people are brought in via marketing, they need to stay interested. A boring piece of software will obviously fail to entertain. More than just avoiding being normal or dull, however, an application designed to entertain needs to actively engage the user. This can be done with pretty graphics and images, or with fun features. Have a look at Photo Booth, which can be used to take a simple picture with your iSight. That can definitely be useful, but the effects Photo Booth includes (especially funhouse mirror effects such as Dent, Bulge, and Twirl1) certainly aren’t. These effects are enjoyable though, and in the sage if tautological words of Ralph Wiggum, “Fun toys are fun”.

Making Them See It (Focusing)
With all other things being equal, users will choose to buy software with more features over less. Despite this, entertainment software works best when made small, and highly focused on a single common task. This is actually the most important criteria, as it gives a variety of benefits. A highly-focused application keeps marketing message simple and the learning curve extremely short. Small applications can also be produced faster and more frequently, on a “hits” based model. The risk is lessened in case a particular application fails to win popularity in the market.

Making Them Pay For It (Pricing)
Once a user is interested in a piece of software, the next step is buying. Prices for this type of software must be quite low to attract impulse buyers, somewhere at or below $10. Things like the newsrags in the checkout aisle at the supermarket are impulse items2 – people buy them without any planning. They’re inexpensive enough that the price isn’t a deterrent. Entertainment software can be an impulse purchase as well, if the price is right. Anything over $20 would serve to prevent impulse purchases, as customers start to think more carefully about what value the software provides for their money.

Overall, Software As Entertainment is an intriguing idea. It makes sense for smaller developers with no budgets, as it can bring in a quick burst of income. The ultimate size of this market remains to be seen, however, and it remains an open question whether such a model is sustainable over the longer term. For now, we have no plans to create any software designed solely (or largely) to entertain, but I’ll be interested to see what new applications come out that follow this model.

1. The ladies in the audience may also recognize “Dent, Bulge, and Twirl” as a self-defense move to ward off would-be rapists. (This was a joke about the Grab-Twist-Pull move that I learned in Health class, as noted by commenter).
2. An interesting, but wholly unrelated note: Even as grocery stores are saving money by employing fewer cashiers thanks to self-checkout lanes, they’re losing money due to a drop in the sale of impulse items. See this article to learn more.

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