On the paid upgrade path

Written by David Frampton @ 12:21 am, October 1, 2009

With the upcoming release of Tweetie 2, a number of people have been talking about paid upgrades on the App Store.

For those living under a Zune, Tweetie is a popular iPhone twitter application. Tweetie 2 is a major upgrade with a bunch of new features. What is interesting about this update, is that it is not free. It costs $2.99, the same price as the current version of Tweetie in the store.

There has already been a lot of discussion about whether or not it’s a good idea to charge $3 for Tweetie 2. I will simply say that I applaud Loren Brichter’s decision to charge for the upgrade, and leave it at that.

What I really wanted to write about, is the issue of making Tweetie 2 a whole new app, without a cheaper upgrade price, and how much Apple is to blame due to an inadequate paid upgrade path. I do agree it’s not ideal, but perhaps not quite to the extent that others do. So I’m going to cover the current options for paid upgrades, what I think is wrong with them, and what Apple could do to fix them.

Apple do not currently officially support any paid upgrade path. There are two main ways to provide a paid upgrade: Either do What Tweetie is doing, and provide a whole new app; or use the in app purchase system to purchase the new content.

Both have a few issues.

By providing a new app, you’re stuck with what to do with the old one. If you leave it on the store, you give some confusion to users. “Which one do I download?” Or even worse: “I just discovered I bought the first version when really I wanted the second one”.

If you pull it from the store, it can no longer be downloaded again by anyone, including everyone who already purchased it. I have seen this myself when pulling an app. I quickly got an email from someone who had accidentally lost it in a system crash and could no longer download it from the App Store.

You also have the problem of upgrading a user’s saved data. There really isn’t a smooth way of doing this. You could get them to somehow export the data from the old version, but at the least it’s a pretty nasty user experience.

If you use the in app purchasing system, the only way users can get the latest version of your app is to first buy the old version, then buy the upgrade. It’s definitely not the right way to go about doing a paid version 2. There is also some limit to what can be upgraded by this path. In most cases the version 2 app’s code would have to be sitting dormant in the version 1 app. Resource and code management for the actual upgrade itself could easily get messy.

So, those are the two options developers have for paid upgrades on the App Store. Neither very good for most situations.

So what would make it better?

Apple should allow users to continue to re-download apps that they have purchased but are no longer available for sale. This is the only way that developers can remove apps from the store, and not get an endless stream of complaints when users try to re-download what they thought they had paid for: a life long license to download that version of your app.

If that idea doesn’t sit well with Apple, then they should charge for all re-downloads. Make the user aware that they are paying for the download, not the life long license. It should be one or the other, not this mess in the middle.

Apple should allow developers to access the documents directory of apps that they themselves made (apps that have the same developer). This would allow for new versions to grab the user’s data from the old version. It would also have the side effect of allowing developers to make suites of apps that work better together.

As far as cheaper prices for those who have earlier versions, I have a differing view here to most developers. Many developers – and no doubt users too – feel that Apple should make it possible to charge less for a paid update than for the full standalone version.

I disagree. Microsoft and Adobe come to mind with their ridiculous ‘5 different prices depending on whether you have this that or the other thing’ pricing. It’s over complicated for a store where prices average a couple of bucks. I like and appreciate my users as much as the next developer, but I just don’t think that saving them a dollar on the upgrade price is worth the extra complication.

If you don’t believe that upgrade pricing would be a complication, imagine trying to use iTunes Connect to wire up what version to what version costs what. Imagine trying to decipher the sales reports. Imagine what would happen if a user bought your update for 99c then told their mate it was 99c, but the mate sees it for $2.99. How are the cheaper prices going to be advertised in iTunes? If it displays only the full price is there any point? If it displays both, what does that mean? If it displays the cheaper upgrade price, will the user know it’s cheaper, and why? Do they care?

All surmountable, but not worth it IMHO.

The current upgrade system is a little lacking, and I think there are a couple of minor things that Apple could change to majorly improve the paid upgrade experience. Hopefully some time soon we’ll see some changes in the right direction.