With the release of OS X 10.8.3 several weeks ago, Apple also quietly made some important changes to App Store policies, and we’re just starting to see the results now, as developers discover the updated documentation and new options buried deep within iTunes Connect. Although not all developer complaints were addressed, the changes are extremely positive for the future of Apple’s app ecosystem.
Paid Upgrades -- Most notably, Apple has at long last caved to pressure from developers and allowed them to charge for upgrades. From the very beginning of the iOS App Store, and carrying over to the Mac App Store, all app upgrades have been free. Apple advertised this heavily as being good for users, but after a year or so, the deeply negative implications of this policy became clear. The problem, as Peter Lewis of Stairways Software has pointed out, is that Apple’s assumption was that there would always be enough new customers that developers could afford to produce upgrades for free. He wrote, “The lack of paid upgrades breaks the feedback cycle/customer relationship which means developers are not working for the people currently using their program — they are only working for people not currently using their program. This means there is absolutely no financial incentive to improve the program for existing customers — quite the opposite since existing customers are the only people who actively can’t buy it!”
This is unfortunate for most developers, whose highly specific apps generate limited followings that do not continue to grow ad infinitum. Without the opportunity for upgrade revenue, developers often abandon apps that didn’t sell sufficiently well right away, since they can’t afford to devote the development time to upgrades that Apple forces them to give away for free to existing customers. Some developers have attempted to work around Apple’s limitation by releasing upgrades as new apps, but that approach orphans existing users from even minor updates, offers no upgrade notification or path, and hurts the app’s App Store visibility due to the loss of sales rankings, ratings, and reviews. Most annoying in Apple’s stance was the fact that Apple itself relies heavily on what is essentially upgrade revenue — Apple’s goal with platform lock-in is to ensure that we’ll all continue to buy new Macs and iOS devices every few years, upgrading from our old ones.
But enough complaining — that’s all behind us now! In the iTunes Connect interface for what’s being informally called App Store 2.0, Apple reportedly now gives developers the choice of whether any given update should be free or paid, and, for paid updates, the developer can choose from a pop-up menu listing all previous versions, for specifying from which earlier version the update fee applies, and how much it should be. That allows charging for 3.1 from any 2.x version or earlier, but not 3.0.x.
From the user standpoint, our understanding is that paid updates won’t be downloaded automatically, but will merely appear in the App Store’s Updates screen, marked with the discounted price, until the user chooses to pay or clicks a Hide button to remove the app from the Updates list.
Launch- and Time-Limited Trial Versions -- In another extremely welcome and user-friendly move, all paid apps can now be made available in trial versions, which will make it much easier for users to evaluate which of many paid apps best meets specific needs.
Apple has shown some serious innovation with the trial approach. Acknowledging that many iOS apps are used only a handful of times, paid apps that opt for a trial version (and we anticipate that most will) that can be used either 7 times or over 7 days — whichever is longer — before timing out. The launch count limit ensures that if you need an app only once a month for some special purpose, you don’t have to pay to see if it will work at all, and the 7-day limit ensures that you get a fair chance to play a game, for instance, multiple times per day for a week.
David Barnard of App Cubby enthused about the new trial version support. “It’s perfect for Launch Center Pro, which potential users often can’t quite envision using until they’ve tried it. Now they can.”
Another salutary effect of the addition of trial versions is that the App Stores won’t be artificially filled with multiple versions of the same app to provide a free trial variant, and developers won’t have to maintain multiple apps. And with my user hat on, I’m always irritated when I find what seems like the app I need for free, only to discover later that it’s crippled in some key way.
App Support Communities -- The final new feature that has been demanded since day one of the App Store is the opportunity to interact directly with current and future customers. As it stands now, App Store reviews can be left by any customer, and many people take the opportunity to complain about problems or generally vent. Developers can in no way respond, which frustrates those who want to set the record straight on simply incorrect posts, and is unhelpful for users, whose issues could often be resolved quickly if the developers had any way to identify or contact them.
In App Store 2.0, however, Apple has woven every product’s reviews into the powerful and easy-to-use discussion forum engine that lies under the Apple Support Communities forums, creating an area where each developer can assist users and where users can help one another. Logging in with the Apple ID that a developer uses to manage an app on iTunes Connect automatically marks posts as being from that developer.
Paul Kafasis of Rogue Amoeba was one of those who had lobbied Apple for this feature, noting, “People treat the reviews section of the Mac App Store as a path to technical support, but since we haven’t been able to respond there — nor can we tell who the customer is — we’ve been unable to help those people until now.”
As an added bonus, Web search engines will crawl the App Support Communities, making it easy for people searching the Web in general for help with a particular app to find the appropriate forum, and people looking for a particular app might end up there when researching different options. It works out well for everyone.
Still Missing -- Welcome as these changes are, other long-standing requests from the development community remain unanswered, though one developer who asked to remain anonymous told us that these remain in “active discussion” within Apple.
High on that list is support for coupons that developers could use to provide discounts. Apple isn’t enthused about the concept, despite the widespread use of coupons elsewhere on the Web, because coupons are by definition used to charge different prices to different customers, and Apple wants everyone treated the same. That argument falls down in the sense that time-limited sales, which Apple offers now, are available only to customers who learn about the sale in time — there’s already some customer differentiation.
Other features still on developer wishlists include support for iCloud data and document sharing outside of Mac App Store apps (and significant improvements to iCloud’s Core Data syncing), concerns about the length of time and often arbitrary decision-making process related to app approvals, and improved discovery tools for users. Plus, in a surprising turn of events, we are led to understand that Apple is still considering a radical plan first reported in these virtual pages three years ago: allowing franchises for the App Store that could set their own acceptance policies (see “Apple Plans App Store Shakeup with Franchises, Mac Applications,” 1 April 2010). Obviously, the second part of that article proved prescient, so we hope that the “active discussions” within Apple result in movement on all these issues.