July 1, 2015

Why I Buy “All Those Apps”

Ever since my fascination with technology became known by my colleagues, I’m often asked for my opinion regarding all sorts of quibbles and buying decisions. Most of the time, I’ll do it willingly, as I enjoy talking about this stuff anyway.

There’s one type of conversation, though, that usually leaves me a bit… frustrated.

Oh, that’s very cool. But I wouldn’t pay for it.”

Who pays for apps these days?”

I don’t work hard just to spend my money on this stuff. Besides, there must be a free version that does the same thing.”

See, it’s not like I walk around, stomping my feet and mumbling grumpily; I couldn’t care less what apps individual people choose to buy.

In the abstract, though, I do.

The opinions above are a symptom of a broader underlying issue: we still look at these ever-shrinking machines — our phones and computers — as harmless toys. And logically, if you think of something as wielding little influence in your life, it can neither benefit nor harm you too much.

And I care because those who under-appreciate the benefits of technology often fail to notice or take seriously the potential hazards of the march forward. We know intellectually that technology affects every single aspect of our lives, but this fact doesn’t hit home on a visceral level.1

Let’s zoom out a little.


What is the purpose of money?

Why do we go to work? Why do we need money? Why do we want money? Why do we want more money? Why do we save, invest, why do we start businesses?

The purpose of money is time.

Nope,” you might say: For the poor, the purpose of money is survival.” To which I would counter: Survival is the continuation and extension of life, and life is made up of amounts of time. When you die, you have no more time.

Almost everything we buy or do with our money is a way to give ourselves more time.2


What is the purpose of time?

The purpose of time is self-actualization.

The term was originally introduced by the organismic theorist Kurt Goldstein for the motive to realize one’s full potential. Expressing one’s creativity, quest for spiritual enlightenment, pursuit of knowledge, and the desire to give to society are examples of self-actualization. In Goldstein’s view, it is the organism’s master motive, the only real motive: the tendency to actualize itself as fully as possible is the basic drive… the drive of self-actualization.”

Self-actualization can mean a variety of different combinations of the following (and more):

  • Living as much as you can among your loved ones
  • Becoming the president
  • Writing a book
  • Helping those in need
  • Inventing a revolutionary product
  • Buying a Picasso
  • Becoming a Picasso

In many instances, self-actualization will result in financial prosperity, but again, only as a by-product: A successful entrepreneur who enjoys innovation and business is bound to be well-off.

Time vs. Money

Time is more important than money. But why?

Because time is irrecoverable: unlike your bank balance, your time balance is always going down, no matter how you are spending it. And once it’s spent, it’s gone forever.

Because time cannot be generated: And money can. There is no mix of two or more ingredients out there that will yield you time. You can’t go to the store today and ask for two hours of life. You can ask a bank or a friend to lend you money, but they can’t give you time. You can’t make” more time in the literal sense, no matter what you do.

Because time is limited: and money isn’t.

Whatever self-actualization means to you, you need time. You might need money, but you must have time.

Today, the End, and the In-Between

In the Druze religion, it is believed that both the time of a person’s birth and the time of their death are predetermined. That’s quite an incentive to spend time wisely, if you ask me. But you don’t have to be Druze or even religious to understand that the time of your death is predetermined, in a way.

Am I forcing religion on you? God forbid! I’m only suggesting that you are going to die. Maybe you’ll live a whole century, and maybe tomorrow a car will have smashed into yours and killed you. We don’t know. But however far or near the day of your death is, you have exactly the amount of time between now and then — that unknown point in time — to live.

And so if the purpose of time is self-actualization,3 one should want to spend as much of it as possible on this purpose.

Time Now for More Time Later

The good news is that — within the remaining quota — time can be traded profitably. A profitable trade is when you invest a certain amount of time that yields you more than that amount in the long-term. Optimization, delegation, automation. This is the essence of productivity. (It’s also possible to make unprofitable time trades, like the time yours truly spends fiddling with this website’s design.)

Take a look at this ingenious chart from xkcd, titled Is it Worth the Time?:

is it worth the time?

To the left of the chart is the time you can save on a certain task, and above it is how often you perform that task. So, if it’s possible to save one minute from a task you do 5 times a day, you can (and should) spend six days of your life to attempt that.

You can also convert one or both measures in this chart from time units to currency and estimate whether a product or service is worth the price. It’s most obvious for freelancers, where theoretically almost every hour can be a work hour.

Money for Time

And the Jobs to be Done with Productivity Apps

Where financially possible, people also trade money for time. We hire assistants, maids, secretaries, gardeners, and babysitters. These are very common and legitimate money-for-time trades. We also buy products to save us time: microwaves, espresso machines, clothes dryers…

So why don’t we hire” apps for the same purpose? Among the people I know, there aren’t many whose time (and money) couldn’t be better utilized with a simple automation trick or a dirt-cheap app.

One obvious reason is the maturity of the industry. Applications are much younger than the products and services I’ve mentioned above.4 Even amongst younger people today, there’s still some sort of psychological block associated with paying for intangibles. If you can’t grab it, it’s not real, and if it’s not real, then you certainly shouldn’t pay for it.

Ultimately, most people are skeptical towards buying apps for utility because they perceive that the jobs to be done with apps are still limited to the entertainment and leisure categories.

This is economically irrational, of course. If we remove the prejudice and examine these icons on the screen as money-time propositions, much is to be gained:

  • I introduced Hazel to a friend of mine, a successful voice actor, just a few months ago. He says it has saved him hours on uploading, editing, and sending recordings to his clients. And Hazel costs $29, mind you, which is considered expensive for an app. In the long-term though,not buying it would have been a costly decision on his part.5
  • Fantastical saves me a lot of time arranging my calendar and maintaining a sense of control over what needs to be done.
  • Overcast, with its Smart-Speed feature, has saved me over seven hours of listening time. Why have 1 hour of Horace Dediu when I can have 1.3 hours of Horace Dediu?6
  • TextExpander makes sending a quote to potential clients a matter of seconds, not minutes; even from a smartphone.
  • Scanbot/CamScanner let you use the iPhone camera as a scanner.

Notice that most of the above have very clear (and much more expensive) tangible parallels: personal assistant, secretary, photocopy/fax machine.

Not only do they save time in the obvious sense, they also spare stress and frustration that could’ve been regarded as unavoidable. The impending yearly car test, why do you need to remember when that is? The house insurance you need to renew, the phone call you promised to make for a friend, your mobile plan expiring soon, the meeting you just agreed to. You think you don’t spend time thinking about these little, mundane bits, but they are there, accumulating brain-cruft at the back of your head, not letting you achieve a mind like water.”

I hope it’s clear I’m not blindly advocating paid apps over free ones. Here too, there are unprofitable trades (and please don’t remind me how many text editors I’ve paid for.) I certainly don’t expect anyone to pay for something if they can get it elsewhere for free. But the idea that applications can’t be worth your money just because they’re imperceptible, again: plain irrational.

If You Just Want to Win the Argument

So next time somebody says nobody should ever pay for apps, send them this article.

Or, just ask them this insightful question from David Sparks7:

Imagine you’re on your deathbed and you’re told you can live another hour and that it’ll costs you four dollars. What are you gonna say?

I haven’t tried this one yet, but I’m sure not many people would answer with a no.”

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  1. Think privacy. ↩︎
  2. One rather sad exception to this rule are the group for whom money has become the purpose, even if they’ve got plenty. It’s not their sheer greediness that bothers me, it’s the irrationality. At a certain point, the amount of time spent trying to save or make more money does not yield you enough time in the long term to justify the effort. At this point, one should be spending more money buying time than time trying to make money. ↩︎
  3. Which might be a fancy term in this essay for self-fulfillment, which might be just a fancy term in for things you care about.” ↩︎
  4. The microwave oven was first sold right after World War II. ↩︎
  5. That’s another distinction people fail to make: expensive vs. costly. ↩︎
  6. Every minute spent listening to The Critical Path is self-actualization time to me. ↩︎
  7. Around the 1h:12m mark of his debut on The Talk Show” ↩︎
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