iOS 5 wants: App Store trials, upgrades, and subscriptions

While Apple's iTunes App Store for iPhone and iPad has improved in countless ways since its introduction in 2008 -- including the recent reversal of the cross-compiler ban and the publication of the app review guidelines -- several major problems persist for both develops and users, especially the lack of trial apps, paid upgrades, and subscriptions. While the mobile app ecosystem is the new frontier and arguments can be made about how closely guarded it needs to be, Apple is about to bring the App Store concept "Back to the Mac". That's an environment where developers and users are not only accustomed to, but expect features like trials and upgrades.

So while we're all still waiting on iOS 4.2, I'm going to leap ahead a little and start thinking about what I want in iOS 5. There's lots to cover, notifications, glance-able data, profiles, NFC, etc. Right now, I'm going to focus on the App Store, and whether Apple takes the opportunity to bring some of the Mac back to the iPhone and iPad.

Note: Chad, Bjango's Marc Edwards, and I discussed some of these issues on the last iPad Live! podcast so give that a listen as background.


There is still, some 2+ years later, no way to try out or demo apps on the iTunes App Store. With Mac software many developers choose to provide time-limited demo modes with the option to pay later and transform them into the fully functional versions. "Try before you buy." On the iPhone and iPad App Store, developers are not allowed to time-limit their apps, so that kind of demo is not possible. Unlike some other platforms, Apple doesn't allow for refund periods either. So, if you buy an app and hate it, you can't uninstall it within 24 hours (for example) and get your money back. That's bad for users because it makes them hesitate when shopping and its bad for developers who can end up with customers, for whatever reason, unhappily stuck with their app. (Or it forces prices down to make everything an impulse buy, lowering the market and potential for premium apps.)

The App Store does allow for in-app purchase, and after a previous policy change Apple now allows free apps to charge for in-app purchases, so that can be used as a pseudo-demo mode. For example, Twitterrific is free but if you make the in-app purchase, it removes the adds and enables multiple user accounts. PCalc offers additional functions and themes. Games allow for the purchase of additional levels. There are many examples. However, not all types of apps have features modular enough that they can be easily broken down and divided into a free app with discreet packages available for in-app purchase. It also forces developers to provide a free version, costing them sales from users for whom the free version is enough.

Free or Lite versions are another common work around but they come with their own mixed bag of hurt. Users who start with the free version and decide to buy the paid version have no way of moving their data over form the former to the latter. That's annoying when it's game levels that need to be replayed. It's a royal pain when its important personal or business data that needs to be re-entered or re-generated. Also, for developers, it means having to maintain two closely related yet separate apps. Messy.

Time-limited apps are more elegant. iTunes already handles time-limited movie and TV show rentals for Hollywood, why not for the App Store? Or why not simply provide that 24-hour refund window the way other app marketplaces do. There would be transactional and administrative overhead for Apple, of course, but there's transactional and administrative overhead now for free apps. And the benefits in terms of customer experience -- typically a focus of Apple's -- could make up for it.


When Atebits rewrote Tweetie 2 (now Twitter for iPhone) from the ground up, the only choice was to give it away as a free upgrade to all existing Twitter users (of which there were many) or submit it as a new app and charge everyone full price, existing and new user alike. That's because Apple doesn't provide a mechanism for paid upgrades -- i.e., to charge existing users less than new users. If you upgrade Mac software, developers almost always choose to reward customer loyalty by charging less than they would for a new license. On iPhone or iPad, it's literally all or nothing. That's bad for users because they're out a few extra dollars and that's bad for developers because they suffer push-back from angry users.

iTunes knows what apps we've bought. We know it knows because when we try to buy a paid app we've already bought, iTunes tells use we've already bought it and that we can download it again for free. Why can't the same system be used to determine, for example, that we've already bought Tweetie 1 and hence we can download Tweetie 2 at an upgrade price. Apple could allow developers to set that upgrade price in iTunes Connect, an extension of how they can set universal sale prices today. We've seen some strange screens pop up that seem to indicate Apple is at least experimenting with the idea, but why not pull the trigger? Again, it's more overhead for Apple but the customer experience boost would be enormous.


Before Apple announced iBooks, rumor had it they would announce not only eBooks but electronic magazines and newspapers as well. Going back to the iOS 3 (then iPhone 3.0) Sneak Preview Event, Apple mentioned subscriptions as one of the new App Store features, alongside in-app purchases. Nothing much had come of them, so magazines and newspapers seemed like a perfect fit. But then came the iOS 4 sneak preview event with no mention of either newspapers or magazines, or subscriptions.

Technologically Apple has show with iTunes TV show season passes that they can handle subscriptions. So what's the hang up? Conventional wisdom says there's a battle going on between Apple and the big media companies over who gets ownership of customer data. Media isn't just about selling content it's about collecting marketing data that can be monetized. Apple wants our names, demographics, and card numbers. Big media wants our names, demographics, and card numbers. And we just want our magazines and newspapers.

Apple should offer subscriptions and just let those businesses and developers who want to use it, use it. Customer experience. Again.

In 2008 the App Store revolutionized mobile software. iPhone and iPad users confidently and effortlessly buy and use tons of apps. For those who remember the mobile software space before the App Store, that in and of itself is remarkable. Since then Apple has steadily improved it with in-app purchases, integration with accessories, and now mobile advertising. But there are still a few hurdles that need to be overcome. We've seen hints and heard rumors that Apple is working on almost all of these things. With the Mac App Store on its way, the need is only going to get greater. Hopefully Apple will rise to the occasion come next March/April and the iOS 5 Sneak Preview Event.

Have something to say about this story? Leave a comment! Need help with something else? Ask in our forums!

Rene Ritchie

EiC of iMore, EP of Mobile Nations, Apple analyst, co-host of Debug, Iterate, Vector, Review, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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Reader comments

iOS 5 wants: App Store trials, upgrades, and subscriptions


I want better notifications in 5.0 and useful info on the lock screen, like weather maybe message previews, etc.

Make Spotlight useful by morphing it into a "Today" screen with a quick glance at calendar items, notifications, email, messages, etc. With folders included in 4.0 it has become worthless as a search only feature.

And a Push Notification UI that isn't dreadful! I had seven in a row yesterday—seven—that I had to tap through before I could do anything. Apple needs to rip off Android's alert sheet or something. Or even expand on the Spotlight interface. We can swipe left from the Home screen to get to search, so what about swiping up or down to get to an alerts page?

Before iOS 5.0, FairPlay has to be upgraded to better encrypt and protect the applications and the intellectual property. Sure, piracy can never be truly defeated, and I don't want to knock the jailbreak community either, but there should be a way to at least have the jailbreak community adhere to the AppStore community and not ruin it for the rest of us who legitimately pay for apps.
But, I agree that iOS 5.0 (or even earlier) has to have a notification history and useful information on the lock screen. If anything, the DOA Windows Phone 7 commercials are hinting that we're staring at our screens way too much, and spending an extra 30 seconds to unlock your phone to stare at little number badges on icons, then run into the app to find out what it is, it all has to change.

An improved notifications system is a must by now... It's by far the most needed feature.
3G performance has to be improved even more.

This is a post about what I want in the App Store for iOS 5. Not what I want in iOS 5 in general (which includes most of the above and more!) We'll be covering all that stuff over the next few months.

Personally, I'd like to be able to not worry about Rene spying on my children while they sleep. You aren't fooling anyone.

Lol. It's called Jailbreak boys. I've had every iPhone and jailbroken them. It's the way the phone should be. Market iPhones are only about 60% of their full potential. Free on the wild side.

That is a MUST for iOS 5.

I want a better MMS. The current one, with the lack of being able to forward a simple animation with sound is very irritating. Also I would love me some simple FM radio. It's hard to listin to Iheart or pandora on edge or a clogged 3G

Noitfications are the biggie, and I expect that will get overhauled by 5.0. Trials, meh. The trial approach has it's problems too (e.g. apps that fail to unlock properly and then you're stuck with all the trial code to maintain inside the full version). Upgrades, sure, but with current pricing it's really not that big of a deal in most cases. All the whining over Tweetie was unwarranted, and it ended up going free anyway. Subscriptions will come. They'll figure it out, eventually, but that's not an iOS issue. The problem is with the content providers.

None of the stuff on this wish list does anything for the user experience. It likely improves the amount of money a developer can make, but does nothing for the user. What do users get for coughing up more cash?
What I want is access to the file system, a chooser (or better yet a real file manager), a backup/sync service that is separate from iTunes, the ability to manage my music without iTunes, the ability to make apps default for opening certain files, and (the big one) the ability to purchase apps from places other than iTunes.

i want appstore to enable multiple queue of download/install , now everytime install, it will close down, and we need to reopen to install next one, very irritating.

These are the things I miss from the Palm days. All programs has a trial version, so you could evaluate them before buying. How many times do you see reviews about an app where "I want my mony back", and yes a file manager is needed badly as shollomon stated. Separate from iTunes.

What I'm interested in is from an IT Administrator's standpoint, and I'm posting it here because it's the App store that certain policies apply to when managing enterprise devices.
Right now I can't enable/disable categories of Apps in the App Store for enterprise use. That means I can block the YouTube app, but I can't stop the user from purchasing another streaming video app, like VLC and chewing through their data allocation (ie 3G) with that. My choice is to block apps one at a time, constantly playing cat-and-mouse with our users or just blocking out the App store in its entirety.
I want to be able to manage Apps in groups like "Streaming" or "Multimedia" while still enabling the use of other Apps that don't have as much of an impact on data usage or productivity.

Not sure i want any of the 3. Trials may push up prices. Subs..i got enough people wanting to auto deduct from me. And upgrades..if it gets to the point where the app needs rewritten, i'll pay again.
What i'd like out of the app store is more ways to sort apps, ignore apps so certain crap apps never appear for me (or ones i own), and actually install the darn app while not kicking me out of the app store app.

@Glenn: You can get your money back on Apple's AppStore as well, although, granted, the function is not only hidden on purpose, but not meant to act as a way to "try out and decide" model.
The ability to select multiple apps for purchase/download would be something I'd appreciate as part of a revamped AppStore, as someone mentioned. The way that updates to apps that we own is handled comes to mind. You can select individual apps to download and install its updates or click Update All to have them all updated in one shot. Better multitasking of the AppStore as it stands right now might be at least a band-aid solution and alleviate the time it takes to open the AppStore back up in order to look for that second or third app that I might want.

I'd like to be able to go through pages and pages of apps, find one I'd like to DL then be able to go back to the same part of the list without having to go back through page after page to get back to where I was. That is very annoying to me.

2nded , the last place you want to go is out of the appstore when you are buying stuff.... imagine if that happened in real life, you buy on item, have to leave and reenter to purchase more.
also widgets or lockscreen info .. or both.. and of course notifications...

1) Queue system with background downloading without having to minimize app
2) Ability to allow upgrades to be completed without having to input the password
3) Merge the App, iBooks, and iTunes store into one application
4) Better notifications to show the buyer which apps he/she actually owns

I agree with some of the comments, being kicked out the app store when downloading an app is an extremely irritating thing. Especially when there are a multitude of apps you want to download.
Lol at the "imagine if that. Happened in real life comment," so true. You wouldn't shop like that at a brick and mortar store like that, why should we have to in the app store.

I want a way to load apps from sources other than the apple app store. I don't expect apple to support issues caused by these apps, there can be a disclaimer screen involved, but just because apple doesn't want to be associated with a particular app doesent mean I shouldn't be able to use it.

How about being able to sort by highest rated? The current app store only sorts by most downloaded.
How many times have you found an app under "most popular" that has a one star rating? That means that the app is a concept that a lot of people want but the implementation is crap.
For example I have been looking for a good PIM app since I first got an iPhone and still can't find anything.

(Remembered one more)
5) Allow developers to publicly respond directly to the ratings and comments for their app in the App Store.

Here's what I want:
1 - Better tab management in Safari.
I want to be able to open pages in the background, so I can keep reading the current page. I want an easier way to switch between tabs (side swiping would work nicely), and an easier way to close tabs (something involving a single click).
2 - Different tones for different Push Alerts.
I want to know, without checking my phone, if the alert I just heard was either a new email coming in, a new private message from Facebook, a calendar reminder, or just a notice that it is my turn again on Words for Friends.
Perhaps the option to occasionally blink the LED light if a specific alert category is present, like a Blackberry I had did.
3 - Quicker access to Bluetooth, 3G, or Wifi Setting Changes.
Useful when jumping in and out of the car with a bluetooth enabled GPS, when you don't use bluetooth anywhere else.
4 - Better App Store Multitasking.
Like those above have said; it is annoying to be kicked out of the place you were browsing every time you download an app.
5 - (not necessarily Apple's problem):
An upgrade to Dropbox that lets me upload or download multiple images or files at a time.

Trials, upgrades, and subscriptions all benefit the developers of content, but really do nothing for the end user.
As a developer, advertise that you have a lite version and put it out there. It works just like a trial. I don't want the technical complexity of trying to figure out a system where I can try it for a few days then buy it later. As a consumer, the last thing I need is a system which makes anyone question if I have or have not bought an app. Apple is about reducing complexity and I never have a problem finding a lite version if it exists.
As for upgrades, the tweetie example is bad simply because it fails to realize that maybe I don't want to pay for an upgrade. It's way too easy to upgrade in the apple store and that can be abused by people who charge updates for their software. There would need to be ways to hide updates for paid apps and manage that so I don't get reminded ever day that there's a paid upgrade. As for you the developer, you have to make me want it. Why was tweetie re-written? Did the first one suck? Was it full of bugs? Why did it need a major rewrite in the first place? I'm for any system which makes you the developer work to make me want to buy your software. Sure you have to make money, but I work hard for my money too. I'm the consumer, you have to come get my money, Apple should not make it easier to drop a few bucks and find out I didn't really want the upgrade. There already exist plenty of updates where software actually got nerfed in an upgrade, I would hate to be on the end of that tirade if you paid for an upgrade that nerfed something. It's just dangerous.
Subscriptions - Of all things, this seems simple to me, and I'm sure Rene has it spot on that it's got something to do with data or money control. Otherwise I can't find a problem here if they do it right and do it simple.
I want to see new stuff in OS5 not related to this article, so I'll save it for the next one.

1 thing - DEVICE MANAGEMENT. I have an iPhone 2g that I use on TMo. Some of the apps are now updating to be compatible with iOS 4+ only. If I click the button in iTunes to download all free updates, I will lose the ability to sync that app with my phone forever. There should be an option to set my phone and iOS version in iTunes, so that it will NOT show updates that are not compatible.

Just implement what a jailbreak iphone can do, cut the tweaks by 2/3 or something Apple. You know the business.

My wish list for iOS 5:

  1. Cross fading music in the iPod app. It's important to me. (It just is).
  2. Swype option.
  3. 24 hour App Store refunds (I'd settle for 10 minutes, I can usually tell if an app does not meet my expectations very quickly).

The only notifications I really care about are email, calendar, SMS and the sound is more important to me than the visual alert (which I turn off and can't see anyway because I don't have eyeballs in my trouser pocket). So one more thing:

  1. Fully customisable and themeable audio schemes. You know, if the iOS developers be arsed.

It'll never happen:

  1. Full Gmail push support without needing to do it via Google's Exchange ActiveSync.

The 24hr return policy is a bad idea. Most mobile games can be completed in a couple of hours, a lot of folk will realise this and rarely pay for a game again.