Developers need a way to properly charge for software updates

There are a few very significant differences between the mobile software market and the computer software market. Price is perhaps the most obvious; whereas paying tens or hundreds of dollars for software on a computer is pretty common, companies like Square Enix are considered crazy for charging $16 for a game on mobile platforms. Another significant difference however is that software updates are almost always free on mobile platforms, while it’s much more common to charge an upgrade fee to upgrade to major revisions of computer programs. Most consumers will probably say that mobile platforms got the better end of that deal, but I’m not so sure.

The problem about expecting a developer to provide free lifetime updates for an app is that it’s not free to develop an app. You generally put a lot of time, effort, and money into making the initial app, and then you hope it actually sells enough to properly pay you back. Hopefully, the sales will allow you to continue working on it, making it better and better and attract more and more users to it. At some point though, you have more existing users than you have new ones, and then you’re faced with a problem: Should you continue working on an app if you’re essentially doing it for free?

The answer to that question for many is no, at least to some degree. A developer working on a feature that will bring in more money is obviously inclined to spend more time on it than someone who’s just doing maintenance. Developers need an income too, and it needs to be steady enough for them to be able to do the job properly.

Some developers have therefore started using different workarounds for charging for upgrades, either by releasing major revisions as completely new apps, or by releasing new features as in-app purchases. There are unfortunately a few problems with those methods. If you release a completely new app, then in some cases (especially on iOS), it will mean starting from scratch with any data you have in it. It also means that existing users will have to pay the entire sum for the new app, whereas other software upgrades are often cheaper than first time purchases. Going with the in-app option essentially limits you to charging for new “plug-in” features, and makes it hard to release complete revamps of an app as an in-app purchase.

Ideally, both Google Play and iTunes should (in my opinion) have features to allow developers to charge for updates. Let them appear in your update stream like usual, but warn people that this is a paid update and that they’ll have to pay a fee to continue updating the app. This fee should be lower than the cost of the new app, allowing existing users to pay an upgrade fee, while new users would pay the normal price for the app.

This is how software updates have worked on computers for years, and it’s a system that makes sense. No one expects that paying for a movie ticket will give them a lifetime pass to the movie theatre, or that paying someone to paint your house means they’ll come back and freshen it up when it needs a new coat of paint. Somehow, though, people expect that paying for an app once gives them the right to have a ton of new features handed to them for free.

This isn’t just a problem for developers; it’s also a problem for users. Some of the apps that I use the most on my devices are either free or cost less than the can of Coke sitting next to me, which means that there’s a ridiculous gap in between what I’m willing to pay for the app, and what I’m actually paying for it. I’m not complaining about it being cheap, but I have to wonder what an app I already love would have been able to offer me if the developer had more money at his or her disposal. For an app I use for hours on end several days a week, I’d happily throw $10 at it to get a single feature that I actually want in it.

Instead, I’m often left with apps that release very incremental updates once in a while, for free, instead of apps that release a ton of new paid features. I’d much rather have the option to pay for something than to never get it because it’s expected to be handed out for free. I send a lot of feature requests and feedback to developers, and often get back very generic cut and paste responses that are essentially nicer ways of saying “we don’t have the resources.” If users want features and have money, and developers can add features but need money, why are both the two major app stores so ill-equipped to handle that obvious transaction?

Of course it’s not a given that users want to hand over money for new features. Certain expectations have been set in the minds of mobile device users over the last few years, and those are hard to break. Developers might not even dare demand money for a feature, in fear of seeing their app go from solid 5 star to solid 1 star ratings.

I also think that part of the problem is the lack of proper trials in the mobile software industry, which again comes back to the app stores that distribute software. Google Play is better at this than iOS, allowing you to “return” and get a refund for a software purchase within 15 minutes. I’d be more happy with an hour, but even 15 minutes allows you to get a certain overview of an app and decide if you want to keep it. I’ve tried a lot of $10+ software on Android because of this feature, and I’ve kept a lot of it. On my iPad, the cost of trying an app is the actual cost of the app, which means I’m much more careful about what I click “buy” on. Sure, there are often lite versions, but if I need an app specifically for a feature only available in the paid version, letting me play with the lite version isn’t going to help me decide. 15 minutes with the real deal, however, might.

Not even Google Play allows for refunds on in-app purchases, though, which I think should be in place if a system for paid updates was introduced. That way you would be able to preview add-ons and paid updates for a short time and then decide if it’s worth it. I also think the refund timer should be developer-controlled, allowing developers of apps such as Tasker (which offers a standalone 7 day trial) to offer a trial period more suited to their needs.

I know a lot of people are going to disagree with me on what I’ve said here, but I genuinely wish I could pay more for the apps I use the most, with the promise of better and quicker updates in return. I want a better zoom mode and support for the Pogo Connect in Goodreader, I want a file manager in iTeacherBook, I want a fix for the UI issues in the latest version of Zite, I want an iPad version of TellEvent, and I want a ton of other things. I don’t expect the developers to add any of that for free, but right now, it seems like both Google and Apple expect them to do just that.

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Andreas Ødegård

Andreas Ødegård is more interested in aftermarket (and user created) software and hardware than chasing the latest gadgets. His day job as a teacher keeps him interested in education tech and takes up most of his time.