A Developer's View on In-App Purchases for Free Apps

 Apple recently announced a major shift in how they treat free apps and I have been mulling over what it means to developers, in addition to end users.

In the past, "In-App Purchases", or the ability to add features to an app, were only available for paid apps.  Free apps could not be upgraded, short of purchasing the paid version separately.  Now, users of these free apps can purchase upgrades.

On one hand, more choices are a good thing.  But I have some concerns.

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One theory is that by allowing free apps to become regular paid versions, it will ease the approval process and cut down on the number of apps in the app store, as developers wouldn't have to release both a paid and free version.  This is unlikely.  Given the way the app store is divided into free and paid categories, a developer would be missing out by not having an app in the paid section.  And developers want to be ranked in the 'Top 100' category for paid apps.

Additionally, if a developer does not have a free app currently, this new policy encourages them to add one, increasing the number of apps overall.

And what happens to the icon and app name when a free version becomes a paid version?  Many icons and names include 'FREE' or 'LITE' in them.  This could get confusing.

Given that a free app was indeed just that, free, there is no incentive for a developer to offer the upgrade at a lower price than the paid version of the app.  In other words, there was no investment that needs to be protected.  The end user could just as easily buy the paid app and they would not have spent any extra money.

However, if a free app has user data that the user might want to preserve when upgrading, that could be a valid use for in-app purchases for free apps.  But that could also be accomplished through a backup/restore option within the app.

In the end, I'm just not sold on the value of in-app purchases for free apps.  What do you think?  Let me know by email or posting here.


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Todd Bernhard is a bestselling (6+ million downloads) award-winning (AARP, About.com, BestAppEver.com, Digital Hollywood, and Verizon) developer and founder of NoTie.NET, an app developer specializing in Talking Ringtone apps including AutoRingtone. And his profile photo is of the last known sighting of Mr. Bernhard wearing a tie, circa 2007!

An iPhone is almost always attached to his hip or in his pocket, but over the years, Mr. Bernhard has owned an Apple Newton, a Motorola Marco, an HP 95LX, a Compaq iPaq, a Palm Treo, and a Nokia e62. In addition to writing for iPhone Life, Mr. Bernhard has written for its sister publications, PocketPC Magazine and The HP Palmtop Paper.