Today, the versatile web platform App.net introduces its new free tier. The free accounts will be available by invite only from a current member and will allow the following of 40 accounts and 500MB of file storage.

The free account tier is being rolled out by invite in order to help App.net scale the influx of users that it feels will be coming in with the removal of the price barrier. Instead of an artificial Mailbox-esque line, it has chosen the more organic invite route that other sites like Dribbble and GitHub have gone down.

The invites will be distributed to users already on paid plans and will be done on several different signals including longevity of account, usage and more. So not everyone will get the same amount, but typically between 3 and 10.

The full  list of free account limitations are currently as follows:

  • Free tier accounts can follow a maximum of 40 users
  • Free tier accounts have 500MB of available file storage
  • Free tier accounts can upload a file with a maximum size of 10MB

The free account is obviously being added by App.net in order to add a volume of users to its service, which is currently best known as a messaging system whose official face is the Alpha client. App.net is really a platform though, not just a service, and there have been dozens of apps built on it that serve both as clients and as other things like file transfer utilities, chatrooms and more.

I asked Caldwell why App.net didn’t introduce a free tier earlier. “Six months ago,” he says, “there was no there there.”

Since the introduction of the service, there have been tons of super polished apps built on it like Netbot, Felix and more.

Those apps, Caldwell explains, produce an environment that is welcoming to the user. If folks are just joining up to check it out, you want them walking into a pleasant time when it comes to the apps, the website (which has been freshly redesigned with a friendlier look) and the overall experience.

“When you think of a successful freemium service, that’s what you want,” App.net founder Dalton Caldwell tells me. “You want it to be super lightweight and super accessible for new users, and [when they] get a lot of utility and a lot of value there, they say ‘ok, yeah, I’ll pay for this, this is really cool.’”

Free accounts have the potential to do far more than just swell the ranks of the platform, though. With a large pool of free users available to it, the developer community has that much more incentive to create those kinds of polished applications which will help spread the utility of App.net. This continues the virtuous circle that Caldwell and his team created with the plan to pay developers of well-rated apps a bounty every month just for doing what they do.

Imagine, for instance, a bundle of free accounts that could be used in a Yammer-like enterprise product. Every user has messaging service access, file storage and transfer rights. Follower counts wouldn’t be a problem obviously as it would essentially be an intranet product. The barrier of entry is low. Just the purchase of the app from the developer and the ability to upgrade bundles of user accounts to pro tier if needed.

“There are huge financial opportunities,” Caldwell says, “to do utilities, to do ‘enterprise lightweight’  stuff, if you can take for granted that there’s a very liquid market of ‘trying it out free accounts’.”

This is the kind of thing that makes App.net such a trojan horse. If you think about the potential for a cross-platform API farm that has a self-sustaining model with little possibility of getting bought out, sold or closed off due to business concerns, the opportunities are ripe.

The invite system is also a reciprocal thing. Members can earn additional file storage by inviting friends. Both members will get 100MB of additional storage if both of these items are true:

  • The invited member follows at least 5 other accounts
  • The invited member authorizes a third-party app

Any accounts that were previously invited (the invite system has been running for a while) to a 30-day free trial now automatically become ‘free tier’ accounts.

Since App.net is already generating income from its subscribers, and has created a soil-rich environment for developers to grow apps, the next obvious step was to provide more users to those developers. As the user base grows, so does the potential for other kinds of apps which, in turn, attract users.

Currently. App.net has about 30,000 paying users, with around 3,000 of them using the service every day. Most of those users use third-party apps.

Image Credit: AFP/Getty Images