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.
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