Exploring Reddit’s third-party app environment 7 months after the APIcalypse

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Written By Sedoso Feb

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Last year, Reddit sparked massive controversy when it dramatically changed the prices and rules associated with accessing its API. The changes were so drastic and polarizing that they led to an epic protest from Reddit users and moderators that saw thousands of subreddits going private and engaging in other forms of inconvenience for weeks. Things got ugly, but Reddit still ushered in the changes, resulting in mounds of third-party Reddit apps announcing their permanent closure.

It’s been about seven months since the changes, so I wanted to see what Reddit’s third-party app ecosystem looks like now. Are surviving third-party Reddit apps that started charging users making money? Are developers confident they’ll be able to keep their apps open for the long term?

And some apps are still available despite not charging a subscription fee. How is that possible?

To get a deeper understanding of how Reddit’s app atmosphere is looking, I got updates from past and present third-party Reddit app developers.

Popular third-party Reddit apps that still exist

Narwhal 2 for Reddit

Narwhal used to be free, but it now costs $3.99 per month. People who use the new version of the app are met with a message by app developer Rick Harrison admitting that the change is disappointing.

“Unfortunately, due to Reddit now charging for access to their API, Narwhal has been forced to add a subscription in order to use the app. We hate this just as much as you do,” the app tells users.

In a chat with Ars Technica, Harrison admitted that the change was hard, considering that Narwhal was free for eight years. Most people have been “receptive” to the fee since they know it’s the result of Reddit rule changes. But Narwhal’s active user base still declined about 50 to 60 percent, Harrison estimated.

Narwhal made a small amount of profit before, thanks to a small ad at the bottom of the app. Narwhal 2 “barely” makes a small profit, too. However, most of the money from Narwhal 2’s subscription fees goes to either Apple or Reddit.

Narwhal 2’s current pricing should be sufficient to keep it open in the coming years, so long as Reddit doesn’t significantly raise prices, “which, of course, is something that could happen,” Harrison said. He also reiterated his interest in keeping Narwhal 2 alive, even if he is the only person using it.

Interestingly, Narwhal remained open ahead of Narwhal 2’s release without users having to pay anything. I asked Harrison in June how that was possible, but he said he couldn’t explain due to a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) with Reddit. I asked again for this story, and Harrison said he couldn’t provide full details but noted, “Reddit was willing to work with me so that I could transition the app to subscriptions in a reasonable timeframe, especially considering it’s not my full-time job.”

Infinity for Reddit

Infinity for Reddit used to be free but is now subscription-based. Users can choose how much they pay monthly, from $2.99 to $9.99. All tiers offer the same service, and subscribers can decide to pay more if they want to help financially support the app further.

An app targeting power users, Infinity for Reddit+, was already available before Reddit’s rule changes. That app charged a one-time fee but now also requires a subscription.

The features on Infinity for Reddit and Infinity for Reddit+ are identical, developer Alex Ning told me, noting that he currently doesn’t have any plans to discontinue Infinity for Reddit+. Keeping both apps open means people who bought Infinity for Reddit+ before July 1 are able to easily continue using it (after paying a subscription fee), Ning explained.

According to the dev, users haven’t seemed happy with Infinity becoming subscription-based, considering that there are “way more one-star reviews than before.”

“Most of them are like, ‘Infinity is a scam, and it’s not a free app at all while published as a free app,'” Ning said. (Infinity for Reddit is still listed as a free install on Google’s Play Store, but users are required to buy a subscription in the app.)

Ning said he was unable to share usage or financial numbers for his apps due to an NDA with Reddit.

MultiTab for Reddit

After Reddit changed its API rules, MultiTab maintained its free tier but limited it to one hour of usage at a time, with some features, like feed filters and batch downloads, becoming unavailable.

MultiTab’s subscription prices also increased from $1.99/month and $3.99/year to $2.99/month and $6.99/year to “compensate for the decline in sales due to advertising restrictions and to continue development within limited user levels,” the app’s developer, who asked to remain anonymous for privacy reasons, told me.

MultiTab doesn’t pay Reddit API access fees because it works under the free tier. MultiTab’s developer was able to optimize the API usage rate and grow its user base more than expected after July 1, the developer said.

“We were able to gain as many paid subscribers as previous free users,” the developer said.

People who were already paying for a MultiTab subscription seem to have accepted the price increase. But those who used MultiTab for free reacted differently. “Approximately half of the users moved to a paid subscription, but the remaining users appear to have stopped using the app,” the developer told me. “In particular, some users publicly expressed strong opposition to the paid service itself. Notifying them of Reddit’s policy change was of no use.”

MultiTab’s developer said that “in order to alleviate the backlash from existing users,” people can get a free hour of usage by uninstalling and reinstalling the app (essentially ‘scamming’ the free trial system). A “significant number” of users access MultiTab this way, but the dev doesn’t mind because “users who use it lightly tend to develop into passionate users anyway.”

Where will the people who left MultiTab go? Perhaps directly to Reddit’s website or one of the social media company’s apps. MultiTab’s creator thinks Reddit’s API changes may have been related to the company’s desire to attract users to native platforms.

MultiTab’s dev is unsure if the app can survive long-term and doesn’t think Reddit is truly “ready to support” third-party developers. The developer won’t believe Reddit is truly committed to third-party apps until it opens its developer platform. Currently, developers can use paid APIs by individually contacting Reddit and signing a contract. The dev is concerned that requiring developers to sign NDAs could lead to an “unfair relationship.”

Reddit announced its developer platform in August 2022 as an upcoming “suite of developer tools and resources that will enable and empower developers.” It’s supposed to remove the need for devs to work in “siloed resources” with “limited resources and ad-hoc support.” Currently, the platform is in a closed beta.

In June, MultiTab’s developer expressed a hope to maintain, rather than increase, existing sales numbers. Overall, though, MultiTab is more profitable than it was before Reddit’s policy change, primarily because of users coming from closed apps, like Apollo.

Even though MultiTab is profitable enough to sustain its development, the app’s developer doesn’t think Reddit’s free API access tier is adequate for developers to see sufficient profits. MultiTab has been an exception thus far, the dev said, since there are other versions of the app, like MultiTab for Tumblr, meaning lower development and maintenance costs.

The developer added:

In order to develop proper third-party apps, a larger investment must be made using paid Reddit APIs. However, in order to encourage the participation of such developers, Reddit’s paid API policy must be established in a more reliable and transparent manner. At a minimum, there should be an open development platform and API pricing policy.

Nara for Reddit

Nara now costs $3.99/month. When announcing the change, the developer going as Miloco on Reddit explained that it wasn’t possible to charge a one-time fee “due to the usage-based fee model Reddit uses to monetize their API.”

“The more you use the app, the larger the fee I am required to pay. A one-time fee would eventually run out, so a monthly subscription is the only solution,” Miloco said in September.

At the time, Miloco expressed hope that the fee could cover Reddit’s fees and leave the developer “with a little left to live off.”

Nara’s dev didn’t respond to my request for comment.

Now for Reddit

Now for Reddit is also run by Miloco. In September, the developer announced version 6.0 as a beta subscription update. The app is on version 6.0.3 as of this writing. Now used to be free but moved to a subscription model of $3.99/month.

When announcing the app, Miloco wrote on Reddit that since subscribers will get unlimited API calls, there’s a chance that Miloco’s Reddit bill may exceed the app’s subscription revenue.

“I expect ‘power’ users (those of you who use the app for hours a day) may run up an API bill which is greater than $3.99/month. However, I also expect some users may use the app less, and overall subscription revenue should be enough to cover Reddit’s API bill,” Miloco said.

Relay for Reddit

Formerly free, Relay is now available under six pricing tiers, ranging from Bronze (1,350 API calls/month, or about 30 minutes/day, according to Relay’s dev, known as DBrady on Reddit) to three unlimited tiers (Platinum, Diamond, and Ruby).

DBrady provided a breakdown of how the subscription fees are distributed by using the three cheapest tiers as examples:

  • Bronze ($1/month): Relay gets $0.52 / Reddit gets $0.33 / Google gets $0.15
  • Silver ($2/month): Relay gets $0.97 / Reddit gets $0.73 / Google gets $0.30
  • Gold ($3/month): Relay gets $1.09 / Reddit gets $1.46 / Google gets $0.45

In a September post announcing the changes, DBrady said, “If you don’t use all of your API calls over the month, then Reddit’s portion decreases and Relay’s amount increases.”

DBrady added that for users on unlimited plans, “there is a point at which the cost to Relay is not covered by the purchase price.” The dev said the break-even point is about 580 calls/day on the Platinum plan, for example.

DBrady didn’t respond to a request for comment explaining why there is a subscription tier that could cost the developer money. But it’s possible that, like other developers in this story, DBrady is hoping payments from users who don’t use all their API calls will balance things out.

Relay’s move to subscriptions has included enabling users to understand their individual API usage. Users can now see a circle graphic (you can see an example here) and other information explaining their API usage habits with the app, including their average number of daily API calls.

Similar to Narwhal, Relay remained open after Reddit’s July 1 changes for some time without charging a subscription. The developer hasn’t specified how this was possible, but based on Narwhal developer Harrison’s experience, it’s plausible that Reddit worked out a deal with Relay’s developer to could keep the app open while the subscription model was being worked on.

Apps not heavily impacted by Reddit’s API rules

Reddit’s API policy changes meant that most popular third-party apps required drastic business model changes to survive. However, there are apps that remain available for free or minimal cost. I spoke to developers of a few such apps to get insight into the workarounds that keep their apps floating without requiring them to pay Reddit.

Alerts for Reddit

Alerts for Reddit is available for free. How? Differing from many apps in this article, Alerts doesn’t browse Reddit’s content, instead only alerting users about notifications delivered to their Reddit accounts.

Alerts is able to operate under the API policy’s free tier, which allows for 1,000 API calls per 10 minutes per app. Even 100 users would surpass that limit on a heavily trafficked app, such as Apollo, but not on Alerts.

Amanda O’Neal, Alerts’ developer, explained via email:

I’m doing all my API calls on my server, where I am able to optimize. For example, if one user wants me to check the subreddit r/BuildAPCSales for new posts, that’s the same number of Reddit API calls as if a million users wanted me to check that subreddit for new posts—I still only have to check the subreddit once every few minutes.

O’Neal also leverages Reddit’s MultiReddit feature, which groups subreddits in order to check multiple subreddits simultaneously.

“Using optimizations like these, I can send all the notifications I need to send without reaching the free API limit, and I could scale up my user base significantly without having to worry about hitting that limit,” she said.

O’Neal hasn’t worked directly with Reddit like the developers of the above apps have. The app is free to use, but you can pay (either a monthly or annual subscription or a one-time fee) for more than three notification subscriptions. Alerts is profitable, “but not by a lot,” O’Neal told me.

O’Neal thinks Alerts could stay open for the long haul, but the biggest obstacle to that is the possibility of future Reddit rule changes.

“For example, if they removed the free tier of the API and instead charged $0.24/1,000 API requests across the board, I would need to look into either charging users money for the basic features of my app or shutting my app down,” she said.

The dev also pointed to the risk of Reddit removing Old Reddit API features. “Of course, Reddit has complete control over which apps are allowed to use their API at all—they could shut me down on a whim,” she said. “Though, I haven’t heard of them doing that to apps unless they are breaking Reddit’s rules in some way.”

Sink It for Reddit

Sink It launched in late June for free. The app used to be a subset of Rekt, a paid-for app by Tony Sundharam. Sundharam told me via email that he decided to turn the subset into the separate Sink It app “when Reddit started their shenanigans with the API.”

Sink It can survive as a free app because it doesn’t use Reddit’s API. It’s a browser extension that “takes the web version of Reddit on iOS’ Safari and upgrades it by adding various features (rainbow comments, Apollo-style comments… OLED black mode, etc.) and removing nuisances,” Sundharam said.

“Because Sink It has access to the underlying structural code, we can change the behavior and design to suit our needs,” he said. “At the moment, the plan is to only progressively enhance, and not outright change, the design to avoid getting on Reddit’s bad side.”

Sundharam is not worried about Reddit shutting Sink It down because “due to the nature of the architecture I’ve employed, the only way to reliably kill Sink It is to completely stop serving the web version of Reddit.” Sundharam described the app as “ramen profitable,” even though its only monetization scheme is voluntary donations.

So why aren’t there more apps that work like this since Reddit made API access so costly?

Sundharam thinks it’s because “it’s a lot of work.”

“Unlike API-based apps, which can be written once and forgotten about, my approach requires constant work to keep things running smoothly,” he said. “End of the day, you’re always aiming at a moving target, as Reddit can change their interface/design at any time. For example, before Christmas, Reddit made some pretty big changes which necessitated a painful rewrite of a few features.”

Yesterday For Old Reddit

Yesterday for Old Reddit wasn’t hamstrung by Reddit’s API rule changes. The app works as a browser extension to modify Old Reddit’s UI client-side and doesn’t make any calls to Reddit’s API. The app launched (as Old Reddit for Safari) in January 2022 and costs $2.99.

“The only thing that changed during the API rule changes for me is a lot of Apollo users migrated to my app and wanted some of their favorite features from Apollo,” Ritinkar Pramanik, the app’s developer, told me.

Since Reddit’s API policy change, Yesterday’s average monthly downloads have increased six-fold (although its dev notes that the original baseline was “low”). Factoring in time spent working on the app, Pramanik told me he breaks even with Yesterday and believes it should be open long-term, as long as people continue using it and Reddit’s old UI remains:

The one thing that would jeopardize the app’s existence is if Reddit completely retires their old UI and forces everyone to migrate to their new UI, which would cause them to lose a lot of Old Reddit loyalists like myself. It might happen—I don’t know.

Focus for Reddit

Focus is an unofficial remake of Slide for Reddit (more on Slide below). It has a free tier, but you can also pay a $4.99/year subscription for more features. The developer, Allen Town, told me the app’s API usage falls under the free tier. “Most” won’t exceed the usage limits set by the Focus’ free tier, he said.

The app currently has “a few thousand” regular monthly visitors, Town said, but he’d be content with having just a few “loyal” users. Focus is minimally profitable, Town told me.

Town, who didn’t work with Slide’s developer for this app, noted the possibility of Reddit deciding to make its API unavailable for developers one day. Barring that, he expects to work on the app for the foreseeable future.

Exemptions

There are also a few apps still available due to Reddit granting them exemptions to API fees. Reddit considers these programs “non-commercial accessibility apps.” The practice has been criticized because some apps, like Apollo, have previously argued that they should fall under this umbrella. As of this writing, Reddit has only granted accessibility-related exemptions to Dystopia, Luna, and RedReader.

Devs of shuttered apps move on

Developers who said their apps were closing due to Reddit’s rule changes, like BaconReader and Joey for Reddit, remain shuttered. While there are efforts to patch closed apps into usage, with no dev, Reddit, or update support, the apps are no more.

A small number of closed apps have transitioned to other social media platforms, like Boost for Lemmy and Sync for Lemmy. Reddit is Fun’s developer, meanwhile, made an app for Tildes (which is in invite-only alpha testing).

Below are more updates from devs who closed their third-party Reddit apps in July:

Apollo for Reddit

Apollo busted the Reddit API price hike wide open when developer Christian Selig calculated that it would cost him $20 million per year to keep Apollo open. Apollo closed on June 30.

Since then, Selig has been working on the Pixel Pals app he launched in September 2022 and another project he’s not yet ready to discuss but said he’s hoping to document on his YouTube channel.

Pixel Pals is “a much more broad market app” than Apollo, Selig told me, “and having more time to focus on it has been greatly beneficial to the business.” Selig said Pixel Pals made just under $1 million in revenue in 2023. He expects revenue to reach $1 million in 2024. The app has about 50,000 subscribers.

“[Pixel Pals is] a more whimsical app to work on, which is a lot of fun and even challenging when you’re so used to the constraints of a social media app like Apollo,” Selig said.

Selig admitted that he misses Apollo, but he said he won’t relaunch it. “Through their actions and inactions, I don’t believe Reddit’s leadership (and thus the platform) cares about developers anymore, and that’s not a great foundation to continue to put thousands of hours of work into an app over,” he said.

Don’t hold out hope for Apollo to come to another social media platform, either. Selig said migrating Apollo to another platform would be a lot of work, and while he’d love for other social media platforms to “thrive,” he’s not yet convinced of their long-term success.

“I think I’ll choose to leave Apollo going out on top,” Selig said.

Slide for Reddit

Slide’s developer, Carlos Crane, told me in June that it would cost about $50,000– $90,000 per month to keep the app running under Reddit’s new pricing. Crane shuttered the app.

When reached for an update, Crane said:

I’ve left Slide’s repositories open, and I’ve seen some offshoots of Slide being released on the App Store. This is really what open source is all about, and it makes me happy to see my ideas living on in one way or another, even without me at the wheel.

Since the app’s closure, Crane has started a new job “heavily focused on iOS and Android development” and is working on his master’s degree. He no longer uses Reddit, saying that “the product and content are just not a good use of my time anymore.”

Slide’s inventor is interested in seeing where decentralized platforms go, pointing to interest from the likes of Threads and Meta being “a big step toward giving decentralized platforms credibility.”

For now, though, Crane doesn’t see himself working on another social media app and has started working on a “personal project” using Spotify’s API.

“Spotify’s API is free and relatively unrestricted, but as the saying goes, fool me once,” he mused.

ReddPlanet for Reddit

ReddPlanet developer Tony Lupeski previously said he thought it would be possible to keep the app open, but there would be extremely thin profit margins that could disappear pending a sudden increase in usage. He also noted the challenge of third-party apps being unable to show NSFW content.

In an update, Lupeski told me he doesn’t plan to re-open ReddPlanet or launch it for a different social media platform. Instead, he’s exploring a couple of new projects and said he completely stopped using Reddit.

Third-party apps may never be truly safe

After speaking with developers, a few trends stand out. There’s annoyance among app users over pricing changes, but users are still jumping from popular closed apps to apps that are still available, underscoring the enduring demand for third-party apps. Some devs are trying to mollify users by offering pricing tiers that don’t pay for themselves, hoping that things balance out through other paying users.

There is also trepidation around how long third-party Reddit apps will keep existing. While some are currently profitable, developers are aware that Reddit can change the rules again at any time. Reddit says its goal isn’t to kill third-party apps, but it’s apparent that third-party apps aren’t a business priority. Still, some developers are finding value in building apps that work on top of, instead of in lieu of, native Reddit platforms.

Meanwhile, there’s not a huge incentive for developers to make third-party Reddit apps. There haven’t been significant updates about Reddit’s developer platform, and devs I spoke to aren’t making enough money with their apps to quit their day jobs. Most are working out of personal interest in app development and making Reddit better to use. If Reddit were to make things more complicated or expensive for developers, even more could throw in the towel.

In December, The Information reported that Reddit’s ad revenue was expected to grow over 20 percent in 2023. However, this was still reportedly less than Reddit anticipated for the year, so you can expect the company to expand efforts that grow its ad business, especially as it strives to turn a profit and prepare for a 2024 IPO.

When reached for comment, Reddit spokesperson Tim Rathschmidt directed me to Reddit’s API FAQ page and said the company couldn’t comment further because it’s in a quiet period and doesn’t “comment on confidential business conversations and/or agreements.”

Advance Publications, which owns Ars Technica parent Condé Nast, is the largest shareholder of Reddit.

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