Yesterday afternoon, our own Evan Selleck asked a very intriguing question: Are you willing to pay for app updates? He explained that we mobile users have come to expect updates, in both applications and mobile platforms, totally free of charge. When we purchase a device, we demand all subsequent updates make it to our particular device, and we demand they come without a price tag. The Android Jelly Bean update that's on the horizon? The AT&T HTC One X better get it, and it better get it fast. And the iPhone 4S better get iOS 6 ... for free.
Major operating system updates, however, are only half the story. Smartphones would hardly be any more intelligent than feature phones of the past without applications. And when we purchase a license to use an app, we assume the developer will continue to support, update and improve the application. We expect the developer to add new features, implement new interface elements from major OS updates and support all past, present and future devices. And we expect all of that to come for a grand total of $0.00.
Regardless of how major software updates for full-fledged operating systems have worked since the very beginning, mobile users have become, as Evan called it, spoiled. When the Mountain Lion OS X update is officially available, I will have to pay money to upgrade from Lion to the newer version. The same goes for Windows updates on PCs. This is how it has always been. (The obvious exception here is Linux.)
Mobile OS updates haven't always been free, however. Apple did charge $4.99 for iOS updates prior to iOS 4 for iPods. The possibility that Apple could eventually go back to paid iOS updates is unlikely but very real. Windows Phone updates could also become paid, too. (I honeslty wouldn't be surprised if Apollo was a premium update.) And that's unsettling for some users.
Truth be told, though, I wouldn't mind paying for updates.
I would be less inclined to pay for major operating system updates, solely due to the amount of money Apple and Microsoft make directly off the sales of iOS or Windows Phone devices and the sheer number of devices I buy. Shelling out cash for updates and new devices that come with newer versions of software would be counterproductive. And, well, Android is open-source and Google will never (or should never rather) charge for it anyway.
But third-party developers are fighting a much more difficult battle. Some are doing quite well for themselves, making a fortune off big title games and uber-popular applications or services. But there are middle and lower tiers of app and game developers who are just barely thriving, developing on the side and using app sales as supplementary income.
When they sell an application, unlike developers create free apps and use ads to earn residual income as users continue opening and using their app, that is all the money they will receive from that particular customer. They then are expected to continue developing their app, to make it more advanced as time goes on, to continue adding support for new devices, new operating system versions, new display resolutions, etc.
It's these developers – the ones who have awesome ideas and create irreplaceable apps – that I wouldn't mind supporting through paid app updates. But there's a way both users and developers can win: in-app purchases.
Not every app update warrants more money from the customer. The fact that I have at least 30 app updates every week should serve as a testament to that. I'm an app hoarder and if all the updates for all the applications I own were paid updates, my wallet and bank accounts would be drained in a month's time. But major updates – ones that implement new features and vastly change the experience of the app – might call for some extra cash.
That said, a paid update should not be forced. Not everyone will want new features, but the application may look or perform better overall – both things that are expected of applications as they mature. To unlock new features within the application, though, the developer could ask for, say, $0.99. As an example, say Camera+ (a premium, feature-packed, third-party camera app for iPhone) was updated and the development team added several more features. Instead of forcing everyone to pay upwards of $5.00 for all the new features, possibly ones they may never use, the development team could just offer the update as various in-app expansions. That way they can continue to make money for their continued development and offer new features without scalping all existing users.
There are right and wrong ways for developers and other software providers to do things. Sticking your hand out and begging for money when it isn't warranted is the wrong way. I will look for a similar, alternative application before I put more money in the hands of a greedy, haphazard developer. But for those that deserve more compensation and treat their loyal customers with respect, I am more than willing to pay and thank them for their hard work. Not everyone feels the same, though. And to avoid vexing loyal customers, developers should consider avoiding paid updates in favor of in-app purchases for new features.
Where do you stand on the issue, folks? Should the one-time purchase of an application license include all future updates and new features? Or do you feel that new features should cost a little money (not necessarily the same as what the entire application cost to begin with)? Are you willing to continue to compensate developers for their hard work?