Published on June 2nd, 2015


The Real Cost of Free Apps

By Megan S. Sutton, M.S., RSLP, CCC-SLP (C)

This post originally appeared in The Tactus Therapy Blog. Reprinted with permission. This post has not been edited for style or grammar.

Of the 100 apps dominating the iPad Top Grossing list most days, nearly all are “free.” How can they be generating the most income when nobody has to pay to download them?

It’s complicated. In fact, there are so many types of “free” apps that the App Store no longer calls them free. If there is no initial purchase required, the App Store now just shows a button that says “Get.”

(screenshot from the Apple store)

These “free” apps earn the most money.
The download button now says “Get” to reflect the lack of upfront cost.

All apps require work to create, so why would some developers not charge for their work? There are many reasons why an app might be free. Let’s take a look at 8 different types of “free” apps and what they really cost:

1 ) Totally Free

There are some apps that are completely free and may never ask you for money. These apps might be funded by a research grant or corporate sponsors, or be an educational or passion project. Be aware that the app may never be updated or may disappear from the App Store entirely. Alternatively, it may be updated to include ads or in-app purchases.

Real Cost: For developers without ongoing funding sources, creating free apps is an unsustainable business model. Expect few updates to fix bugs or add functionality, and do not be surprised if the app disappears or adds monetization.

Examples of Free Speech Therapy Apps: The iSwallow app for dysphagia from UC Davis has recently disappeared from the App Store, needing updates since the initial release in 2010, but will be coming back at some point according to developers. DrawMD SLP is part of a line of apps supported by corporate sponsors. Decibel 10th used to be free, but now has many ads, including interstitials, that make it difficult to use in therapy without paying to remove ads.

2 ) Free Trial

Often called Lite versions, these free apps give you a sample of what you will get in the full version to know if you’ll find it useful. However, they do not include much content and are intended to be used for evaluation only.

Real Cost: Limited functionality means you may need to purchase the full version to get value from the app.

Example of a Free Speech Therapy App: Conversation Therapy Lite provides a free sample of Conversation Therapy, offering 30 sample questions from the 3,000 in the full version of the app.

3 ) Ad-Supported

These “free” apps offer full functionality, with advertisements that appear on banners across the screen, or ads that pop-up to fill the screen between activities (interstitial ads). Often these apps offer a paid upgrade to remove ads, and they receive money every time an ad is seen or clicked.

The ad-free version or upgrade should always be used if a speech therapy client will be using the app, since the ads are often flashy to attract attention, and take clients out of the app when touched.

Real Cost: You’ll deal with the annoyance of closing ads between screens or accidentally clicking on them, which may be worth paying a fee to remove ads to avoid. You may also be using more data or battery life than you realize.

Example of a Free Speech Therapy App: Soundable is a free game for people who want to learn or enjoy the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). It is supported by ads that can be removed with an in-app purchase.

4 ) Accesses an Ad-Supported Service

Many established online businesses have apps that make it easier to use their service or site on a mobile device. You see the ads that support these sites when you use the free app, just as you would when you use the website.

Real Cost: Exposes you to the same integrated advertising as the non-app version of the service.

Examples of Free Speech Therapy Apps: Facebook and YouTube are free apps that can be used in speech therapy.

5 ) Supports a Brand

Many commercial services have apps that allow you to purchase directly or show you what’s in the store. Or, some app companies will offer a free app to entice users to buy others.

Real Cost: Companies are offering free products to reinforce their brand and encourage you to spend money.

Examples of Free Speech Therapy Apps: Lingraphica’s free SmallTalk Aphasia app exposes you to the brand in support of their dedicated AAC devices. Toca Boca offers Toca Kitchen Monsters for free; if you like it, you might consider buying the 23 others apps for $2.99 each.

6 ) In-App Purchases

“Freemium” apps are free to download, but have in-app purchases (IAPs) once you start using them. There are 2 types of IAP: consumable and non-consumable. Consumable IAPs are things like lives, coins, food, or points that are used up during play. More common in speech therapy apps are non-consumable IAPs like new vocabulary sets, unlocking the rest of the app, or adding new games or levels to the app.

If your school district purchases apps using the education volume discount program, in-app purchases do not qualify. This is why you will sometimes see a full version offered as a separate title to the free one, often called Pro, Standard, or Full.

Real Cost: Many games attempt to get users hooked on playing, then offer consumable IAPs to speed up play, advance to new levels, or buy advantages. Those with limited self-control could end up spending hundreds of dollars. Apps with non-consumable IAPs are limited in usefulness without spending and the total cost is unknown.

Examples of Free Speech Therapy Apps: Speech FlipBook has a non-consumable in-app purchase that unlocks the full version of the app. Articulation Station allows you to purchase only the sounds you need in the free version.

7 ) Subscription

Some apps that appear to be free require a login as soon as you open them. These logins are tied to an account that requires a subscription. Some subscriptions can be purchased as IAPs, but many are purchased through the company’s website. Paid subscriptions may be weekly, monthly, or annual, and most will auto-renew if not purposefully turned off. Netflix is a popular app operating under this model. These apps nearly always require Internet access to use.

Real Cost: Subscribing means that the developer has access to your personal information and can track your use. In healthcare, it is especially important to protect client privacy, so be careful when entering any data about patients. These auto-renewing costs can add up: a $20/month subscription will cost $240 a year.

There is also an emotional component to cancelling a speech therapy app subscription, much like an unused gym membership – it may seem like giving up on recovery, leading people to continue paying longer than needed.

Example of a Free Speech Therapy App: QCard, a reminder app for people with brain injury, used to have an upfront cost to own, but now charges a $2.99/mo subscription after the first 30 days.

8 ) Free for a While or Only for Some

Some paid apps offer “free for a day” promotions, encouraging downloaders to leave positive App Store reviews and recommend the app to others. Some subscription-based apps provide free use for certain types of people, such as SLPs, with the hope that they will recommend it to their clients.

Real Cost: Like doctors who are given incentives by pharmaceutical companies, SLPs given free access to apps must be constantly aware of bias toward recommending clients purchase the product they’ve been given for free.

To help overcome bias, it’s good practice to recommend at least 3 options to clients when advising purchases or making professional referrals.

Example of a Free Speech Therapy App: The Dynavox Compass app is free for ASHA-certified SLPs, but costs $20 a month, or $180 for full purchase, for non-S-LPs.

Paid Apps

The alternative to a free app is one with an upfront price. While it may seem more expensive, the real cost is clear. Once you purchase the app, it’s yours forever, and you can install it on any device you own.

Be an informed consumer and recognize what you’ll really “GET” for free when you press that download button.

About the Author:

Megan Sutton
Megan S. Sutton, M.S., RSLP, CCC-SLP (C)
App Designer & Director

Megan is a speech-language pathologist certified by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) and Speech-Language & Audiology Canada (SAC), and licensed in the province of British Columbia. Megan earned a Master of Science degree in Speech-Language Pathology from Boston University after earning a B.A. in Linguistics from Rutgers University. She has worked passionately with adults with acquired communication and swallowing disorders for over 10 years in inpatient and outpatient settings, specializing in the assessment and treatment of aphasia.

Megan is a clinical faculty member of the University of British Columbia (UBC) and serves as a consultant to the iTAWC intensive aphasia treatment program and the Sea to Sky Aphasia Camp. Megan presents on the topic of using apps in adult rehab to S-LPs at local and national conferences, hospital units, aphasia groups, and stroke associations. She is a member of ANCDS and AphasiaAccess. Megan is a founder of Tactus Therapy Solutions.

Back to Top ↑