Mobile app developers: Beware the dreaded 'buy once' mentality

Mobile app developers: Beware the dreaded 'buy once' mentality

Summary: It's hard enough to produce a popular app, but even those who do will have to deal with this particular buyer mindset.

TOPICS: Mobility, Apps, Tablets
iPad mini and Air
(Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet)

The business of producing a mobile app is difficult. After the hard development work, there's the process of promoting it, followed by long hours of supporting the app. Those successful at doing this can look forward to a long life for such an app, but without continued compensation.

I had the good fortune to sit down with Oliver Grahl, the developer behind the very successful PDF Annotator app for Windows. This app was released 10 years ago--an eternity in app years--and it's still doing well according to Oliver.

See also: App developers: Text size matters

The conversation with him quickly turned to the possibility of producing a version for Android or the iPad. This was fitting as PDF Annotator is specifically designed to work well on tablets.

I was surprised to hear him explain that, while he's given it a lot of thought, he has no plans to develop a version for those two mobile platforms. Having said that, I expected Oliver to express concern over the relatively low prices of apps in app stores, or perhaps over the cut that app stores take from sales. While those were concerns to him, they were not the main ones.

The biggest roadblock he sees in selling a version in an app store, is what he termed the "buy once" mentality of app store customers. He described that those buying a program in a mobile app store expect to buy it once, and then get updates without cost forever.

I believe in supporting developers of the apps I use, but I confess that I expect the same. It's not a conscious thing, rather it's become that way over an extended period using mobile apps. We buy the app and then updates are pushed to our device for free.

This makes it difficult, perhaps impossible, for developers like Oliver to make a sustained living off of a popular program. He's made a good living off PDF Annotator for a decade, because he's been able to charge extra for updates with major new features. His large installed user base has been willing to support his efforts by occasionally paying additional fees to make a good program even better.

But this mindset is opposite that of mobile app buyers, and is true for any mobile platform, even Windows. If there's an app store, we have come to want everything for little, and no ongoing, cost. 

This has kept Oliver from producing versions of PDF Annotator for other platforms. He hasn't even produced a Metro version for the Microsoft Store. He didn't say that wouldn't happen, but he admitted his app is still doing well outside of the app store. Perhaps that will change in the future, but for now he has no plan to change his business model. Nor should he.

Topics: Mobility, Apps, Tablets

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  • Another point of view

    I'm not an App developer. I'm an App user. The trend that *I* don't like is that everything needs to be a subscription. "Hey, for just $8 a month, you can enjoy...."

    Maybe we need a happy medium, using "major.minor" versioning. Give away the ".minor" updates to those who bought that "major." version. After a time, you add enough features to release a new "major." version.

    Some will choose to buy the new version, while others will stay with the old version.

    But there's not much software good enough to get me on the monthly subscription hamster wheel. And no, I don't want to pay to put my data in "the cloud", thanks.
    • Agreed most things in life require a happy (for everyone) medium

      Especially if it is just bug fixes that I am getting periodically. Developers with app store have VERY little in the way of distribution headaches, so things have gotten a lot better for them. Also there is almost always going to be a stream of NEW users that can help pay the heavy lifting costs for significant new development. It sounds like the developer interviewed is making enough money off of his current income stream (PC based) that he doesn't need the new revenue, but a new younger, hungrier developer may not worry about the changing business model. He/she may decide some money is better than no money.
    • But will critical bug in the .major back versions be fixed?

      Or will users who don't NEED the major upgrade features have to go to the next level just to get the bugs fixed that their current version ideally should not have had?

      If you buy a Chevy and something is recalled because of a design error, GM recalls the Chevy and fixes it, rather than telling you that you MUST trade it in on a Cadillac or continue to endure the safety risk.
    • Agreed

      Sounds like the compromise is how it was run before the mobile app craze.
  • He hit it right on the head.

    In the end, software will go back to what it originally was, something written for internal corporate use, or to facilitate use on a device thus making the device salable. Selling software itself to the masses will be a very limited thing.

    And the app store mentality, along with the already well entrenched idea that software should be free as in beer, is killing the market. Unless your software can be sold with an intimate link to a device and as a consumable (like a game) then once a version is done, you MAY be able to sell it. But after that, selling upgrades, especially in the consumer and SOHO markets will be non-existent. Why do you think the usual suspects are shifting either to a device-driven market (Microsoft), services market (Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, etc.) or device-driven market (Apple - who was already there, Dell, HP). In fact, Dell and HP are going to the turnkey market, where they supply the devices, software and service. And IBM, with the exception of it's large systems is shifting to a services and consulting model.

    Blame Google, who proved if you can find another way to milk the cow, you can change the genetics of the herd. They can afford to give away (and even subsidize) Android and Chrome because that is just the udder. The milk is the advertising and the incoming data they receive and can use to sell, well, more advertising. No one else has an ecosystem like that. And look at Samsung. They can do what they do because they are a megacorporation and on top that pay for the changes they want, but get their base software (there's that free thing again) free from Google. Perfect.

    But what it means is software developers unless they are working for a corporation or have a good sugar daddy are going to have an increasingly hard time. If eve Apple has reached the point of giving away OSX and iOS and there are strong hints the day of charging much, if anything for Windows at the consumer level is about passed, what chance does an ISV have. Maybe subscriptions, but otherwise once an app "pops" and initially sells, that's it. So kids, start coding. But don't give up your day job.
    • Reality always trumps theory

      so get back to me when app development for iOS or Android actually starts to drop.
  • Freemium and In app purchases

    That is the model that appears to reap the rewards for developers, but the key is finding that special extra that people what, i.e. extras in candy crush, coins for games etc.
    Carl White
    • The Buy-Once...

      ...mentality leads to people hating those sorts of things, even though 'buying' it was free. There's still a perception among some people that 'I downloaded it so it's mine so why are they asking for money?'

      Of course, there's enough people that don't think like that to make them a lot of money
      luke mayson
  • There is an obvious solution to the problem.

    The same one Microsoft and most software companies do it.

    Sell a version, with limited time support.

    Sell a NEW version, with limited time support.

    Why should anyone want to pay again for something already purchased?
  • I buy a chair - I am good for the next twenty years

    I buy a piece of software - why do I have to pay again, and again?
    Updates are free because the original version is still good enough, that is why.
    I can download a new version, but I might as well not.
    Apps prices are too low, and the whole industry is ready for consolidation. :-(
    • Seriously?

      You're comparing a chair and software versions? You buy your chair, you don't get new models from the company for free! Want an upgrade? Buy a new one.

      Many updates are quite significant. I'm surprised at some of the apps updates I've had over the years. Drastic redesigns sometimes, and at no cost. "How do they do it?" is the first thing that came to mind.

      What's missing from app stores is the possibility for developers to have upgrade pricing. Get minor updates for free. If you've purchased an app, get a new much-improved version at a reduced price. Apparently the likes of Apple won't built this capability into the app store.
      • His points ARE valid.

        ForeverSPb's points ARE valid.

        "I can download a new version, but I might as well not."

        I don't have a problem with the idea of paying for a MAJOR version that adds a lot of new features.

        But this goes back to Microsoft's "triple E" philosophy, "Embrace, Extend, Eliminate" that wound up taking loads of great ideas like disk defragmentation (Steve Gibson), web browsers (Netscape), advanced memory management (QEMM), disk compression (Stacker), advanced utilities (PC Tools), etc. and incorporating watered-down versions into Windows: (1) Most folks only need the features in the watered-down version, (2) That "yanks the rug out from under" the original developer, killing that independent product line including all copycats, (3) It makes the major product (e.g., Windows) that much harder for anyone else to create a functionally equivalent product.

        [Linux fanbois will no doubt scream ... but the fact that ONLY Apple and Linux have managed to make functional equivalents actually proves the point.]

        The fact is that for most people very few new features are "must have" unless the original product was really "not ready for prime time". Look at word processors. How many people actually use things beyond setting the font, the margins, bold, italic, underline, auto page numbers, etc? Wordpad could do most of that.

        There are also three related points not mentioned in the article:

        1) If a new version comes out, that will kill sales of the older version unless there is a significant price difference. And few folks would consider $2-3 "significant".

        2) If two versions were sold, the developer would have to constantly deal with complaints that "I didn't know you had a newer version. You should have mentioned that! I want a refund so I can buy the other one!"

        3) It's very unlikely that Google, Amazon or Apple would allow a developer to keep selling an older version alongside a new version. THEY would probably get a lot of complaints from folks who bought the older version and then found out weeks (or even months) later that a newer version was available a the time.
      • Is it missing?

        Just release your app called Blah-di-blah 2014. And update it all year. Then, promise you will patch major bugs and fix security problems through 2015 or whatever), but not add any new functionality. To get the new stuff, you must buy Blah-di-blah 2015. And so on.

        This is exactly the way it works now with boxed software.
        x I'm tc
        • Upgrade discount

          Now that I think of it, it seems like an upgrade discount is probably the missing feature. Probably that could be done through in-app activation that checks against a server and charges a different price to registered users. Although, I am not sure if that's possible?!?
          x I'm tc
  • Or maybe he saw that there

    Are already several very good PDF annotation apps out there right now for tablets and that he didn't think he'd be able to compete.
  • Mobile app developers: Beware the dreaded 'buy once' mentality

    There is a way to cure this problem. Sell the app at price for 1 years worth of support, much like Call Blocker from EveryCallUS and Vipre from GFI / ThreatTracker do. Those are "yearly" subscription apps that require renewal. These are legitimate ADULT apps whereas many of the other apps offered in the Google Play Store for Android are ELEMENTARY apps or one time builds with maybe 2 or 3 modifications after the fact.

    As far as paying for ongoing changes, charge a one time 5 or 10 dollar fee for lifetime support and updates at the time of purchase, only able to buy it at the time of purchase.
  • I'd make a distinction

    between updates that are mainly "bug fixes", i.e. the developer sold a defective product to begin with and is repairing it as s/he should, and updates to dramatically new versions. A twenty year Windows user, I've seen all shades of third party app models, but generally when a developer has done a lot of work on a new version they will charge again for it, often at a discount to registered purchasers of the original product. Of course, some products like anti-virus are natural candidates for a subscription model, e.g. instead of an annual repurchase, and have been trending that way. But unlike the writer, I don't see this has been a problem for Windows app developers or should be for Android or Apple developprers.

    I will say as a relatively new Android user, that I find it odd that so many apps are released as two separate products - a free or ad-supported version and a better full or "premium" version, instead of simply building the full version in to be conveniently unlocked with purchase. I recently tried a free version of an Android "launcher", decided to buy and found that instead of replacing it and saving all the time and effort I'd put into configuring it, the full version simply installed a separate default configuration of the app. (Luckily I had saved a backup of the configuration that worked in the full version, but luck it was.) Developers should give some thought to whether they are updating an existing app the user had invested time and care setting up, or offering something dramatically new and different.
  • I do expect higher prices and upgrade pricing eventually.

    I do expect higher prices and upgrade pricing eventually. If we expect mobile to eventually do everything that desktops currently do - it's going to cost just as much. The current mobile prices are simply unsustainable.

    And no, the solution is not to push everything to "as a service." That's just baloney that ZDNet loves to keep pushing.
  • There is a problem with this proposition...

    So, for example, should system updates for Hardware and OS updates and updates for software like, say, MS Office be chargeable? What is the difference between these kinds of updates and App updates? Yes, there is a difference between an update and an upgrade, but the latter is a different kind of a beast - it is virtually a new product because, by definition, it should contain newer capabilities. I can understand charging for the latter but not for the former.
  • I'm more than willing to pay for updates.

    As long as the update provides a reason to upgrade. I don't want to be paying for bug fixes. I will pay for new functionality. As long as I see value in that functionality. However very few of the applications I use have introduced new functionality I'd be willing to pay for.

    I have some shareware software I bought back in 2000 (for example ACDSee 3.1) which I still use today because it does everything I need it to. I purchased a copy of Ultra Edit 7.20a and only upgraded to version 15.20 in order to use it on 64-bit Windows. I only upgraded to version 16 because it was free. I have no plans to upgrade again until there is a compelling reason to.