I’ve posted previously about the inadequacies of the iOS/iTunes architecture, and in particular the content management nightmare it creates, but I haven’t really reflected on the commercial model of the iTunes / App Store. I’m afraid I can hold back no more.
First, some ground rules. I’m very happy to spend money on software which works and provides me with value. I don’t like being at the mercy of a monopoly, and I don’t like being forced to spend money on things which I don’t want.
In the PC world, there’s a very simple model which meets these requirements. It’s called evaluation software. It works for something as cheap and cheerful as a tiny utility, or as complex and costly as Microsoft Office or VMWare. You download the evaluation, which is typically fully functional but time limited, and try it. If it does what you want, you pay for it. If it doesn’t, you delete it. Now there is inevitably a certain amount of “piracy”, as some people try to cheat the registration/payment process, but most people are pretty honest. I certainly always pay for anything I keep using if I can, but for every software item I retain there’s at least one I tried and threw away.
Down at the level of the small apps and plugins we even have the “donation” model. Now I am prepared to admit that the proportion of users who make a voluntary donation if the software will work without it is probably well short of 100%, but that can readily be compensated by the way in which genuine service or ingenuity are rewarded. For example, another Bibble user recently sent me €5 for a plugin which I had modified to meet his requirements. Now that’s not much by the standards of my usual professional fees, but I learned it represented about 2% of his monthly income. As far as I am concerned, that’s a really big “thank you”.
Then we have the Apple App Store model. You have to buy an app based on about 1 page of text, or less, and a maximum of 5 screenshots, which may or may not portray the functionality you’re interested in. There’s no systematic “try before you buy” model – a few applications have a free evaluation version, but these don’t always reliably indicate the functionality or stability of the full version. When you’ve paid, you can try an application. Perhaps 33-50% of the time it works, and you’re happy. The rest of the time, the app doesn’t do what you want, and you’ve effectively wasted your money.
How about a refund, I hear you say? In theory, there is a refund concept in iTunes. In practice, it seems to have about the same status as the Easter Bunny. For a start, you can’t do anything on the web, or from the iPad itself, so if you have a problem when you’re away from your main PC/Mac, tough. Assume you are sitting at your PC, you open iTunes and navigate through the account areas to find the iTunes receipt which includes the problem item, and click “report a problem”. You have to choose the nature of the problem from a drop-down: there isn’t an obvious choice, the best one is something like “the software doesn’t work properly”. You then type in a description of the problem, including something like “I want a refund”, and press the OK button. In response a little message pops up, saying something like (I’m working from memory here) “Apple are not responsible for application functionality. Your message has been filed.” That’s it. No confirmation email. No reference number. No options for further action. So you go back and try and click “report a problem” to try again, but now you can’t, because “you’ve already reported a problem”. So you email the application developers and explain what’s wrong and the fact that they really should have disclosed certain key information in the App Store advert rather than immediately after purchasing the app, and they email you back very politely saying “we’re sorry you don’t like our software. refund requests have to be processed through iTunes”.
I’m not making this up! This is not a broken business process, it’s a process which has been deliberately and systematically ground into tiny pieces under the tracks of a tank driven by the ghosts of Franz Kafka and Joseph Heller.
OK so Apple don’t give a stuff about their customers. This is not news. But the model doesn’t work very well for developers either. There’s no way to reward a developer for special effort, e.g. to meet a specialist requirement, although I might often do so through the donation model. There’s also no way to charge for an upgrade, except by creating a separate new application edition, which will have to be purchased at full price, will have its own data set etc.
This is frustrating at many levels. Although most individual apps are inexpensive, evaluating applications to find the best fit to your own requirements can become very expensive. I can afford a few wasted pounds, especially as a business expense, but that’s not true for the man who donated for my plugin from a €240 monthly income. The worst thing is that it seems to be down to laziness or callous disregard on Apple’s part. Surely with the centralist control of iTunes it wouldn’t be difficult to provide full versions which are disabled after a trial period, but for which a license is only an app store click away?
Apple’s tyrannical control makes Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany look like models of libertarian freedom by comparison. This market desperately needs some competition to an abusive monopoly provider.
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