Why do we feel entitled to free app updates?

A new version of the popular Twitter app for iOS Tweetbot just came out and you guessed it: some people were expecting it would be a free update for those who bought the previous version. You would think that after seven years of App Store launches under our belt we would have learnt the lesson, but you never know.

My first App Store sour grape was Loren Brichter’s Tweetie 2 — funnily enough, another Twitter client that is to date one of the most influential mobile apps ever. When a version two was launched, instead of updating the app we had installed, it showed up on the store as a new app we would have to buy again. Since that moment, we realised that the only reasonable way to give money to a developer who had worked on something new would be to buy a different new app.

This puts paid apps into a weird zone where they are bound to become obsolete, where they have an expiry date. In contrast, Apple and other big publishers who base their business model in subscriptions or selling your data are happy to update after update. Mac software before the Mac App Store traditionally offered discounts on new versions to current customers, which is not possible on Apple’s software stores. How can a developer explain that a paid app purchase is not a ticket to get free versions for life without alienating current and potential customers?

Supporting development

Last week I was working with some iPhone screenshots and realised that one of my most used apps to tidy them up, Status Magic, wasn’t working. I went to the developer website expecting I would have to upgrade to a new version for El Capitan but… There was no version. It turns out this tool I rely on is no longer in development because times have changed and it’s not worth updating it if free alternatives are available. This is a massive simplification, you can read the whole story here.

Status Magic is probably the worst example to use for this, but it really touched home. It’s the kind of Mac utility that does one job only and that it’s so niche that there aren’t many alternatives around that exactly replace it. It’s the kind of app that is super useful when you needed and you end up taking it for granted.

This conundrum is not exclusive to apps. Mobile gaming is the de facto ground for pricing experimentation and ultimate buyer disappointment. Touch Arcade is unfolding this ongoing story about prominent premium games being pulled from the App Store without explanation from publishers, leading to an awkward feeling that Eli Hodapp sums up like this:

“The only expectation iOS gamers should have is that this game that I’m downloading works right now on the device I plan to play it on. Any more than that is just setting yourself up for disappointment”

As much as I want to believe apps and games will be there forever, the App Store economy cannot be supported like this. Eli’s suggestion of keeping expectations low is realistic but leaves a sour taste in the mouth. Can’t we do better than that? So there I went and asked the same question to the folks over at MacStories to see how they felt about it: until when is it reasonable to expect support of an app before it’s discontinued or we have to pay again?

🌟These are only highlights from their full answers that you can find on Issue 3 of the Club MacStories newsletter — it’s really great!

Federico Viticci warns that it’s unfair to generalise as there are developers who are notoriously generous with updates and support, however, he doesn’t set his expectations too high.

“I’d say that the iOS App Store has contributed to lowering my expectations for the past few years. Now, I just assume that an app is not going to be supported for more than a year no matter what, but that’s just me (and I’m kind of pessimistic about this)”.

MacStories’ Graham Spencer gives a similar timeline and stresses the important role communication from the developer plays in this game.

“If we’re talking about an app for under $10, my only expectations are that the developer will ensure that it continues to function for at least 6-12 months – I don’t expect big feature updates unless the developer has said that there will be.”

The more I asked people the more I realised this is a complex situation with no simple answer. Adam Oram from Noted sent his comment to participate in this post.

“Bug fix and new device support updates I feel should be free for a couple of years. As soon as the developer starts creating new features and adding wholly new capabilities I’m happy to pay again I appreciate how long these can take. I’d prefer paid upgrades to exist in order to reward loyalty and to avoid charging someone fully again who may have just bought the previous version.“

Perhaps everybody would feel more comfortable with a small subscription, as Piero Mamberti points out:

“I would say forever even though I don’t feel it would be fair for devs. I’d be happy to pay every year or two for professional apps like OmniFocus. Would it be sustainable to have a subscription model for a small sum like £0,79 ($0.99)?”

Benjamin Dean agrees there should be a way to be grateful to developers:

“There are some niche apps and games, that I have, that didn’t cost a lot, never set the world on fire, but are important to me. They continue to surprise me with their updates, supporting new OSes and devices. Only a love of what they do can justify it, and I wish they could be adequately compensated. In particular I want to thank Adffogato for Strategy, the first app I bought on iOS, and Zachary West for Prowl, updated almost straight away for the 6 plus.”

For those who follow the iOS development scene, this is obvious and we can afford to joke about it. Apple doesn’t set a great precedent giving free updates to OS X, which were previously sold for a symbolic amount, and more importantly, it’s productivity apps Pages, Numbers and Keynote, which compete head to head with paid apps from third-party developers.

As a platform owner, is Apple doing the job it should setting our expectations and educating paying customers? The result is that on both the iOS App Store and Mac App Store users are asking the wrong question. People are so confused that instead of asking is this app any good they are asking do I have to pay for this app?.