Unlimited Free App Updates Are Too Much to Ask For

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A long-standing policy of Apple’s has put developers in a bind: because there’s no direct way to charge users for updates to apps, they are forced to turn to methods that anger their customers.

When the App Store was created back in 2008, Apple decided that developers wouldn’t be allowed to charge for upgrades to iOS software. iPhone and iPad users would be able to buy an app once and never have to worry about paying for it again. This was one of the ways Apple set itself apart from the much more established Windows software ecosystem, in which users were regularly asked to pay significant sums for new versions of applications.

Apple App StoreEight years later, it’s become obvious that this policy was idealistic, if not Pollyannaish. It’s just not realistic to ask developers to spend the time and effort doing to work to keep their apps current with no way to be paid back for it.

The situation would be different if developers could simply stop working on an app when it does everything they want it to and then have it remain viable for years, but this isn’t possible. Every time Apple updates iOS, changes made to the operating system require modifications to third-party software. This means that apps that haven’t been updated since iOS 6 can be very unstable on a tablet or phone running iOS 7.1.

So with every update to the operating system — whether major or minor — developers have to check to be sure a tweak to the OS hasn’t broken some feature of their app(s). If it has, they are expected to figure out how to fix it and then release an update, for free.

The need to find a way to charge for upgrades has become painfully obvious, with that pain mostly being felt by the very developers who have played a critical role in making the iPad and iPhone into the very useful devices they are today.

Developers have come up ways to deal with this issue, but these all have significant drawbacks. There’s something Apple could do to solve it, though, once and for all.

Current Solutions

One of the ways software developers have come up with to cover the expense of upgrading their apps is to charge for optional new features via in-app purchases. Asking users to pay for a new feature or two can defray some of the cost of being sure the whole app continues to be stable.

The downside of this is not all the users of an app will pay for the new feature, but all users will get the benefit of the stability improvements that the in-app purchase is partially paying for.

Another strategy some developers are following is quite a bit more controversial: they will simply stop working on an app and release a new one that has all the same features, plus usually some additional ones. In short, users of the app are asked to pay for it again.

Those who bought the old version can continue to use it, but as new iOS versions are released it will become increasingly unstable. This group will also miss out on new features being added to the follow-up version.

While this method has the potential to bring is a significant amount of revenue, it inevitably causes a storm of complaints. Anyone who has spent much time in the Apple App Store has probably run across applications whose reviews are jammed with angry comments because the developer is asking customers to buy a new version.

The third strategy developers can try is to charge for subscriptions. The software is usually free, but users must pay a monthly or yearly fee to get some of all of its features. This is the route Microsoft is going with Office for iPad: Unlocking all the features requires subscribing to Office 365.

This isn’t something that will work for most developers; those who have a relatively simple app will have a very hard time convincing customers to sign up for a monthly or yearly subscription to get it.

Proposed Solution

There’s a simple way to solve this problem that should satisfy almost everyone: Apple could allow developers to charge customers for upgrades.

While this isn’t likely to be tremendously popular with users, they would certainly benefit from it in the form of more stable apps as well as a larger selection of them. Small developers would want to upgrade their applications because they would get the money needed to cover the costs. And there are companies that have avoided releasing iOS software because they recognize that keeping an app updated for an unlimited number of years without a way to recoup the day-to-day expenses isn’t good business.

Of course, developers wouldn’t be required to charge for updates, it would just become a possibility. And there would be some market pressure on developers to not charge exorbitant upgrade fees. There are very few really unique iOS apps, so if one gets a reputation for trying to wring too much money out of users, there will surely be a mass exodus to a more customer-friendly alternative.

Still, if Apple takes this step, it should consider ways to prevent unscrupulous individuals from abusing the system. There are a number of options the company could explore. Perhaps the charge for an upgrade could be no more than a small percentage of the original cost of the app, or maybe developers would only be permitted to release a single for-pay upgrade a year.

AnalysisWhile a significant departure, there are clear advantages for everyone involved: users, developers, and Apple itself. Given that, it’s high time Apple made paying for upgrades part of the iOS app economy.

If this doesn’t happen, then users will need to accept that they can’t get something for nothing — developers have to find alternative ways to cost the expenses incurred by updating their apps, and users must stop flaming developers for using them.

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