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Let’s Do Away With Buy-to-Try in the iPhone App Store

Right now, if I want to check out an application in the iTunes App Store, I have to shell out full price for it and live with my decision. If the app is crap, I have no recourse for getting my money back even if I promise to never use the app again so long as I shall live.

And that sucks.

In fact, I've gotten so sick of this happening that I have put a self-imposed moratorium on buying apps, which means that I don't get to check out apps like Tweetie or Things because, well, a rule's a rule, no matter how small (oh, and for the record, yes: those are affiliate links. If enough of you buy enough of those apps, TMO might make enough back to buy me a copy of each of them, and then I'll test 'em out, but that's the only way I agree to buy either of those, just out of principle).

All this has gotten me to thinking, and all that thinking has gotten me to a solution. But first let's identify the broader points of this issue.

The Shareware Conundrum

There is no analog for the concept of shareware in the App Store, and I'm pretty sure most developers are happy about this. After all, if you're going to write an app as shareware, you have an interesting choice to make.  You can either release your app in a crippled state that allows users to check it out in a limited capacity, only to have to pay their money to unlock its full potential, or you can release an app that expires after a certain amount of time if the user doesn't pony up the dough. Either way, though, this requires extra coding time, and neither is really an option in the iTunes/iPhone App Store.

Lite vs. Full

The current solution that many App Store developers have implemented is to release two versions of their application: one feature-starved "light" version for people to download for free and try, and another full-featured version for full-price. The hope, of course, is that the light version will entice people to cough up the money for the features they so sorely miss in the light version. But this has (at least) two problems. First,  the developer has to compile two versions of their app.  This isn't a huge deal, since it's a few if/then statements in the build and it works, but it's still extra work. Second, the user doesn't actually get to test the very features for which they're expected to pay. Instead they're using a limited version of the app and have no real idea if the full version will suit their needs enough to warrant its price. Oh, and now you have two listings in the App Store competing for attention with each other when one consolidated listing would allow you to rank much higher in the charts. Trust me, I learned this with our podcast listings. It's not perfect, but it's the way it is.

Watch Me Pull It All Together

So we've identified the problem.  Are you ready for the solution?  I knew you would be, but first let me ask you a question: have you ever rented a movie from the iTunes Store? Have you ever not watched it and let it get to day 25? It starts pestering you with warnings like, "you have 4 days left to watch this movie before it magically goes away from your iPhone," (or something like that).  Get that last part? Magically goes away from your iPhone. Wait -- isn't this the same device downloading from the same store at which we get our apps? Why can't Apple just offer the same thing for applications?

I would love to be able to download an app and have a 24-hour trial period. If I like it, I'll buy it. If I don't, it magically disappears from my device, never to return unless I fork over the cashola.

Simple, right? I think so.

The Problem With App Trials

The only problem I see here is that crappy apps will be tested and tossed by thousands of users. Apple might lose a little money, and developers of crummy apps will certainly lose money. You know what? I'm OK with that. If you write a crappy app, you don't deserve success from it. Let the good apps shine, and they will.

Apple, are you listening?


13 comments from the community.

You can post your own below.

DoctorMac said:

You tweeted it right, Dave—this is a brilliant idea. I only hope Apple is listening and that iPhone application developers flood Apple with pleas to make it happen.


Tiger said:

I’m the developers’ worst nightmare.
15,000 apps and growing, yet I’ve bought not a single one for my iPhone. I’ve downloaded maybe 10 free ones. Two I think are “lite” versions of their $$ options. But since they’re silly time wasters, I’m not going to be buying them.

But that level sure is handy.


Jeff @ Mac About Town said:

As a developer currently in the middle of writing a “Lite” version of one of my apps, I would be all over this solution. Two additional, positive things may come from a solutions like this:

1) Developers could possibly avoid the “race to the bottom” price-wise, by charging prices that allow them to sustain themselves. I’m fairly certain that Apple wouldn’t mind more profit.

2) The conversion rate (of downloads to paid users) would be a helpful statistic that could play into App Store rankings.

Where do I sign? Oh, yeah… rdar://6607262 (Developers, feel free to reference that bug ID).


gopher said:

Well, I’m not buying an iPod Touch or iPhone unless I know all the apps I’d want are either free, or high quality enough that they are worth buying.


Dave Hamilton said:

Thanks, Bob, and thanks for the comments and Radar creation, Jeff.  Perhaps we can get some traction going here.

Gopher—I think by your own definition you would get exactly what you want right now: free apps or high-quality apps that you pay for.  After all, if they don’t meet your criteria, you wouldn’t want them (by definition! smile.


Steve W said:

“Apple might lose a little money….

“Apple, are you listening?”

I wonder.


Dave Hamilton said:

Apple’s potential money loss would be short-term, if at all.  Instead of people swearing off the App Store (as many have said they have), this would bring customers back.  It might just mean that a novelty app like iFart would get downloaded and discarded after 24 hours and not generate a whole lot of revenue.  Other apps would make up for it in spades, though.


guest said:

I’ve been trumpeting another version of your suggestion.  Have a period of time, perhaps 4 hours, were users can return an app without getting their cards charged.  This in essence would delete the download and app from your device.

The difference is the non action from an end user would result in a sale, instead of a no sale.  This subtle difference would account for a lot of sales.

The other difference from today’s app store, is customers would try apps and buy the best quality they can find, in stark contrast to today’s store were consumers are afraid to spend money on the unknown, and therefore buy the cheapest app they can find… usually the free one.


Lancashire-Witch said:

I don’t see “the only problem” as a problem.
It’s about time there was a way of sorting out the crap.  With so many apps in the Store it’s getting impossible to find the good ones.


Bosco (Brad Hutchings) said:

Well, my self imposed moratorium is over not being able to buy the South Park app. I don’t care if it isn’t try before you buy. I’d just like to be able to buy it.

But really guys, when most apps on the app store cost less than a cup of coffee, you’re fighting this on principle rather than economics. And the crowd buying all those apps tells us that principle isn’t an operative concern.


Dave Hamilton said:

I disagree, Bosco—it’s more than principle.  If there are 10 apps I want to try out, that could—and has—cost me $50 only to find that one of them is what I wanted.  $5 for an app is one thing, $50 is quite another.  And yes, out of that was born principle, but it’s rooted in economics.  I don’t want to shell out $50 each time I want to find the app which works for me in each given class.


robinson said:

For years, many Palm apps have been released that were fully-functioning without expiration dates at all!  Now that’s the ticket!  I purchased many—the ones I used regularly—and deleted the rest.

24 hours may be too short a period; let’s give people a week.  But, still, the idea’s a great one.

(Note, some lite apps are fully-functioning but have a different limit—e.g., Todo—you’re limited to 7 tasks, but otherwise the full app was there—and it quickly let me know it was the one for me)


Peter said:

“But really guys, when most apps on the app store cost less than a cup of coffee, you?re fighting this on principle rather than economics.”

A bit of both, actually.

There have been various concerns regarding the sustainability of App Store prices.  Without broad sales, it can be difficult for a developer to make money.  This keeps developers of niche applications away because (a) they’ll never have the broad interest but (b) there isn’t really a good way for people to get a look at what they might end up paying “big money” for.  If I buy an application at the Apple Store, for example, I can return it and get my money back (there might be a “restocking fee”, I don’t know).

That said, there’s one obvious way of dealing with this:  Ad-hoc distribution.  Give users a sign-up sheet on your website to get a demo key which they can use to download the app.  They can use it for however long you want to let them use it.  When they are done, you revoke the key and give it to the next person in line.


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