We’ll Pay for App Upgrades, but Only If They’re Meaningful

Developers need to strike the right balance between offering free updates and charging for major overhauls.

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Last week, something interesting happened: My favorite iOS Twitter client, Tweetbot, got a major update. The catch: It wasn’t free.

Apple‘s App Store policies don’t allow developers to charge for upgrades to their apps. Now in general practice, app developers shouldn’t charge for incremental upgrades or bug fixes, but they absolutely should be able to charge for major new upgrades to the features and functionality of their apps.

This is what happened with Tweetbot, and the crew at Tapbots proved that not only should they be allowed to charge for major upgrades, but that people are willing to pay for them.

It Works for Games

When you think about it, the model for paid upgrades has been around in the video games industry for some time — the game is usually disguised as a “new” game, but more often than not it’s just an upgrade.

Take EA’s Madden football series. Every year a new version comes out with updated technology, graphics, rosters and so forth. People spend money — upwards of $60 for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions — each year for these iterations.

The same goes for apps for smartphones and tablets. Take Angry Birds. Each version of Angry Birds is marketed as a new game. I bought Angry Birds Star Wars and greatly enjoyed it. Then Rovio brought out Angry Birds Star Wars 2, which is basically the same game with some new features and levels added. The latter debuted as a new game, not as a free upgrade, and Rovio charged its customary $0.99 for it. None of this is any different than what I’m seeing happen with great apps I use every day as vendors overhaul them while optimizing for iOS 7.

Like Rovio, the folks at Tapbots released their Tweetbot app as a new version dubbed Tweetbot 3. I paid $2.99 for it, as did many others, and it’s been well worth the money.

Pay Once vs. Pay Many

The pay-once-get-free-upgrades approach isn’t a perfect solution. If it was supported it certainly could be abused, which is why I suspect Apple has yet to support paid upgrades in its app stores. It’s a tough balance to strike. Apple is trying to look out for the best interests of consumers while at the same time build a model for developers that rewards creativity. Developers deserve to be rewarded if they truly advance the form and function of their software regularly.

Perhaps following the model of releasing major upgrades as new versions is the better, more sustainable way forward. This is how game publishers do it, and it’s certainly a valid model for app developers. Or maybe Apple can do something like give developers the ability to charge for a major upgrade but limit it to one per year.

Not all upgrades should be free, but not all upgrades should incur a charge either, and there’s the rub. Developers need to know that their customers will pay for upgraded features and functionality, the key being that those upgraded features and functionality are bona fide. Some developers make only minor updates to their apps, but charge for them anyway. That’s not how you earn customers trust. If developers take advancing their software’s features and functions seriously, on the other hand, they’ll find customers willing to pay for that upgraded functionality.

We’re living through volatile times when it comes to app stores and pricing policies. But I remain convinced that developers who take more of a software publishing mentality — looking to constantly and meaningfully upgrade their apps, features and functionality — will be rewarded with a surplus of appreciative, paying consumers.

Bajarin is a principal at Creative Strategies Inc., a technology industry analysis and market intelligence firm in Silicon Valley. He contributes to the Big Picture opinion column that appears here every week on TIME Tech.