App.net has gone freemium. The social-networking platform designed to be leveraged by third-party developers has a focus towards paying customers that might make adding a free tier seem like a bad fit. But the limits on free use make sense, much like Dropbox’s free and paid divisions. Free users must be invited by existing paid account holders.
App.net may at first be mistaken for a microblogging service like Twitter, with ambitions to become a full-blown social network like Facebook. But the business is built the other way around. It promises never to switch to an ad-supported model, allows developers to charge any amount or use any business model for their software (and doesn’t collect a fee beyond a $100-per-year developer subscription), and says it will restrict only malicious activities or those that threaten the network’s stability.
I first wrote about App.net on 28 August 2012 in “New App.net Social Network Aspires Beyond Chat and Ads,” explaining that while it looks like Twitter to begin with, App.net’s ambitions were to provide all the plumbing for developers who want to build on top of a platform without creating all the messy bits underneath. Think of App.net as a city that installs gas, electric, sewer, water, and Internet feeds, and lets developers build as many houses, hotels, and office towers as they want, on an essentially infinite amount of land. App.net makes money from providing utilities, not establishing any rules beyond a loose building code.
App.net launched in mid-2012 through a crowdfunding project (both to raise funds and see if anyone cared) that set the annual regular user fee at $50. In October 2012, it dropped its rate to $36 per year and added a $5 month-at-a-time subscription to let people test the waters (see “App.net Reduces Fees, Software Options Grow,” 3 October 2012). It later quietly gave paying subscribers three invitations to give a month’s free service to friends.
A few weeks ago, App.net rolled out its “File API,” which allots 10 GB of storage to every paid user, and enables developers to use that as a pool of cloud data available everywhere. Tapbots updated its Netbot iOS app, which is now free, to use App.net storage for uploading photos to share over the microblogging component of the network.
The free level has a number of limits. Free users may follow only up to 40 other people and store up to 500 MB of data (with file sizes up to 10 MB each). Paid users have been given invitations in their accounts to extend to others; anyone previously invited to a one-month trial has had their account converted to the free tier, too.
This isn’t an untested model. App.net cites Dropbox and github as notable examples, and there are many smaller ones as well. Dropbox has a valuation of billions of dollars, but has retained its free/paid split as a tool to entice people into relying on hosted and synced cloud storage. Dropbox’s free level includes a decent 2 GB of storage (which can be expanded through referrals and uploading photos), but when you approach that threshold, it’s a small step to start paying a monthly fee for more storage: you’ve already realized Dropbox’s utility.
The invitation approach is designed to continue the stately scaling of App.net’s user base. The company simply doesn’t want a million users overnight as that doesn’t benefit it, its users, or third-party developers. Rather, the goal is slow but steady growth, which the company now wants to goose a bit by making it easier for people to understand whether there is any “there” there — it lets those curious participate, listen, and discuss, and pay only if they find that their interests exceed following 40 other people.
As I wrote at the top, App.net isn’t just a microblogging service. That is its most obvious feature and helps explain what the service does. You can summarize that side as, “It’s like Twitter but without the Twitter business model that has squeezed developers out of the market.”
More interesting is what’s to come. Expect more and varied applications that rely on the many pieces of App.net’s infrastructure (with more pieces obviously to come that aren’t yet announced) in more exotic ways. For instance, App.net added multi-party private messaging months ago, which has hardly been exploited. A photo-sharing service could launch on top of App.net (which will ostensibly eventually let us buy more storage if that’s the case). And existing programs could add App.net as an alternative to Twitter, Dropbox, and other integration for storage, comment authentication, and other functions.
I hate to predict the future, but I believe we’ve seen just the tip of the iceberg so far as to what developers will do with App.net’s services. Adding free users lets us see what more of that iceberg looks like.