Should developers be able to pull paid applications without warning?

Taylor Martin
 from Concord, NC
Published: May 3, 2012

Of all the people I know (except for maybe David Beren, AKA Mr. TmoNews), I am the least hesitant when it comes to buying applications. I see one I like or need, and a few clicks and a couple dollars later, for better or for worse, it's all mine. I've been known to buy out of pure curiosity, too. And when an application I think I might need in the future goes on sale, you can bet your bottom dollar I'll make it mine.

Generally, the only reservations I have when buying a new app are in relation to the platform itself, not the developer or actual quality of the app. How long will I actually continue using the platform? How long will the platform be around? Will it ever actually take off? I don't mind feeding the ecosystem so long as it's one I plan on sticking with long-term.

While it is always good practice to make purchases with future in mind, I often throw caution to the wind and slap a couple bucks down to support a deserving developer. That is usually on the assumption that they will continue to support and develop (improve) the app, even if I have to toss in a few extra bucks here and there to unlock new features.

But seldom do we actually stop and think about what is really going on when we agree to pay a few dollars to download and install an application. Are you only buying a license for the software? If so, for how long? Permanently? Or could the apps you buy have an expiration date?

Many buyers of Electronic Arts game Rock Band for iOS received an interesting in-app notification yesterday that points towards the latter. The game, which (still) sells for $4.99, gave users a prompt that read:

"Dear Rockers, On May 31, ROCK BAND will no longer be playable on your device. Thanks for rocking out with us!"

Since the prompt started making the rounds, however, EA has reached out to CNET to say that iOS users will be able to continue playing Rock Band after May 31 and that the prompt was shown in error.

First, I don't buy that for a second. A prompt like that doesn't just float around and accidentally get pushed to devices without some sort of premeditated strategy. (Sure, accidents happen, but I still don't buy it.) And for there to be several hours of latency between the prompts and a cleverly-worded response from EA tells me this was more than just a simple blunder.

There are all sorts of different theories circling the forums right about now, I'm sure. Whatever the case, though, it brings up a very interesting topic, one that few have ever given thought to, one that is sure to come up again in the future. Once you purchase a license to the app, does the developer (or company) have the right to revoke access to that software? If so, should they even have that right?

There are undoubtedly a million different ways to approach it. But rather than digging through an endless bag of ethics, think about it like this: how is digital media any different than physical media? In other words, if I buy a disc game for my console, the local content can still be played as long as the disc continues to work, regardless of whether the content gets pulled from shelves or the company goes out of business. Digital media should be no different. If I buy an Android game today, there is no reason I shouldn't be able to play it five years from now. The online content may no longer be available – and that's totally understandable. But the local content I bought rights to should be downloadable and (mostly) functional until it is no longer compatible with the hardware or the store goes dark.

I've dealt with a similar issue like this twice. (Several times before in my BlackBerry days.) In each situation, the developers handled things totally different. First was 8pen, an unorthodox software keyboard that caught my eye. Out of curiosity, I purchased it and used it (rather poorly) for a few days. A few months went by and I had forgotten about it. But a friend asked what keyboard I liked to use, so I jokingly tried to re-download 8pen. A search yielded an app with the same icon but an updated look, which said "Purchase $0.99" instead of "Install." I looked through my purchases and found the old 8pen. Alas, it had been changed to "deprecated" status and was no longer available for download. (You can click the install button, but it will never download. I imagine the files have been pulled.) The developers offered a refund for those who had purchased the application in November 2010, but that little note was added to an application that I literally had to dig up and could no longer find via search.

The other instance was with wp clock, a typographic live wallpaper clock. After several months of not using it, when I went to download it to my device, I noticed that wp clock was no longer supported and had been superseded by wp clock 2. However, the download for wp clock 2 was free, and previous owners of wp clock did not have to pay for the in-app purchase to unlock the full features.

To say this is a sticky situation would be putting it lightly. But there is one thing I am certain of. There are two ways to handle a situation such as this: a right way and a wrong way. EA, by the skin of their teeth, avoided a certain large-scale backlash by playing the notification down to an error. 8pen Ltd., on the other hand, could have handled the situation much differently.

In the end, digital media should be treated no different than physical media. Just like a disc for Adobe Photoshop will continue to work for years on end, an old version of an application I purchased a few years ago that has been deprecated should still be available for download anyway.

What say you, folks? Have you ever had an application you purchased be pulled from the App Store or Play Store? Do you think you should always be able to access that software after you purchase a license? Or should the developer be allowed to revoke access a will?