Mac App Store Paid Upgrades: How Apple Should Fix a Broken Model

The Mac App Store has changed our world. Apps are easier to find, buy and/or download, and upgrade than ever before. Developers can enjoy ease of use for customers, and great exposure with little overhead and minimal web presence if they want to (no need to host the app and worry about server load themselves).

But not everything is a bed of roses for developers in the App Store. Apple provides no clear paid upgrade path for major versions and therefore no incentive to continue developing an app to become even greater.

What’s a Developer to Do?

I’m not an app developer, but as a user of apps, many of them professional and expensive, I’ve thought about this problem a lot off and on since not long after iOS apps came out. Though certainly the problem is not as glaring on iOS because apps are usually relatively inexpensive. A developer therefore can release an entire separate application on the iOS app store and not have a lot of blowback because pricing is pretty good without some sort of paid upgrade strategy in place. But I did think about it some because I thought it inevitable that the App Store model would come to the Mac. And indeed it did.

But when the Mac App Store came along, the problem, in my estimation became acute. I recently read a really good article by Will Shipley of Delicious Monster: The Mac App Store Needs Paid Upgrades. This is a great read on the subject and I highly recommend you read it. Will breaks down the different various options that developers have, none of them good.

I completely agree that the App Store needs paid upgrades. I also think we’re past the point where we could say that this is just something that Apple has not tackled yet but they’ll get to it eventually. It’s been too long.

Drive By Development?

I think Apple feels that they are making things simpler for the customer by not including paid upgrades. One price for a product, and the developer continues to provides support for the one product that is available for the one price. The problem with this thinkings in my estimation is that it encourages developers to move on, to not support their software well. It encourages what I will call the “drive by app developer” mentality.

And you can see where some of this thinking comes from actually. Let’s take a very old application as an example: Photoshop.

Photoshop launched initially on the Mac in 1990, and though at first glance you can tell it’s Photoshop by the signature tool palette layout, it was a far simpler and slimmer application than Photoshop CS5. Photoshop has continued to grow and expand into the ginormous application that it is today. I use Photoshop almost every day in one form or another in my line of work. I’m even pretty good at making it do what I want it to do. But I doubt I know even a quarter of Photoshop’s capabilities. It’s just a massive application. Adobe has continued to evolve Photoshop. They work on major revisions and sell to existing users at an upgrade price.

The school of thought on this that I think Apple may be leaning toward here is that this model leads to bloat and lack of innovation. Companies and developers focus on cash cows long after they should have moved on and just left the app alone. But because they can roll some more bloat into it and charge a fee they do.

The reason I use Photoshop is because though there are no good alternatives, it is widely considered to have become a bloated, inefficient, spaghetti code mess. Designers, Web Developers, and Photographers all love to hate Photoshop. (I do have to say here that Photoshop CS6 Beta does seem like Adobe is putting in some effort to return Photoshop to it’s former glory.) People tend to think if we moved away from this upgrade model things would be better.

I do not think this is the case. I think instead what will happen is that Applications will never reach the status of an application like Photoshop because there is not really a good way for a developer to stay in business that way. Some may think this a good thing, but look around. What application can you use other than Photoshop to get done what you would do in Photoshop? The only application that comes anywhere close to doing what Photoshop does is Pixelmator. And I tried to use it. For me, it just does not do what I need it to do. Photoshop does.

But in the current Mac App Store culture, how is a company, or an individual dev even, supposed to monetize the development and refinement process? If a developer or development company has no way to monetize the work they are doing, they will not be able to continue the development process. This means to me that an app like Photoshop cannot exist in the current App Store environment.

Is It Really That Bad?

Why can’t developers just charge lower prices for apps, and when the next major version is ready, make it a separate app on the App Store at the same price? No one get’s special upgrade pricing, every version costs the same. Seems simple and clean right?

Hold your horses there for a minute and let’s consider this option. To be fair, it is viable, it can be done, and it has been done. But there are problems with this approach. Say you release “My Cool App Version 1” on the App Store. Then a year later, development on Version 2 is done and you are ready to release “My Cool App Version 2” on the App Store. What do you do with version 1?

Do you pull it from the store?

This means that you can no longer provide updates of any kind, security improvements, bug fixes, whatever. That’s it. That doesn’t seem like a good option. Many developers often provide support and bug fixes for a previous version or two of their app. So that’s a no go in my opinion.

So leave Version 1 Up on the Store.

But then it would still be for sale, people might accidentally buy Version 1 when Version 2 is out and available. That’s no good either.

There are of course additional problems. It’s just good business to incentivise your current customers that remain loyal to you, to upgrade to your newest version of your product, to make them feel like there’s a reward for being loyal. This is why I think the App Store desperately needs paid upgrades.

How Would I Make It work

There needs to be a way to make Version 1 no longer for sale, but still available for customers who already bought it. They should be able to re-download the version they bought at any time. Developers should still be able to release updates to that version.

Developers should be able to associate the new version of the app with the previous version. Some sort of logic in the App Store that says, “If you purchased previous version of ‘My Cool App’ then you can buy this version for ‘x’ amount” (where x is the discounted price). And if not, then you buy it for full price.

What About The Bloaty Cash Cow Culture?

What about it? Let consumers vote with their wallets. I buy Photoshop (again, just an example) because it is the best application in its class and it allows me to do what I need to do. At the same time, let developers compete. If there is an opening in the market, a dev will fill it. Pixelmator exists for a reason, and though it’s not a direct replacement to Photoshop, it does do many of the things that Photoshop does. And because of the general bloatware sentiment toward Photoshop, there was an opening in the market for Pixelmator. I know many people who use it and are happy with it. It does what they need it to do and so they use it.

Additional Resources

As I am won’t to do, I will refer you to the Hypercritical Podcast. In episodes 62, 63, and 64 John Siracusa discusses the problem. I found his take on everything to be excellent and mostly agreed with any conclusions he came to.

Software developer Jim Cloudman takes the position that this isn’t all that bad thing in his short piece:

So What?

“So what?” you may be asking. You may be thinking this doesn’t really affect you as an app consumer, at least not directly. But it does. It affects the culture of apps on the Macintosh (and iOS). It affects the quality of the third party tools we use and will be using. I think Apple is making a serious mistake on this, and for anyone who knows me, it is unlike me to say that. Apple needs a strong third party eco system for its devices in order to succeed and have a bright future. I think by not including a paid upgrade path, Apple is doing a poor job of curating and managing its third party developer culture. It’s sad to see really. And the “so what?” is that I want Apple to do well, I want them to succeed. I want to be using Macs ten, twenty, even thirty years from now and beyond.

Am I saying that Apple cannot survive without paid upgrades through the Mac App Store for third party devs? No, but I think it’s a factor. I hope Apple comes to their senses on this and solves the problem in typical Apple fashion, in a way that was obvious in hind site, well executed, clean, and easy.