macOS developer explains why App Store trials are flawed

macOS developer explains why App Store trials are flawed


App Store
Apple's trial solution just won't work for some developers.
Photo: Apple

Apple’s updated App Store guidelines finally give developers the ability to offer free trials for all apps — not just those that require a subscription. It’s a great move for users and creators, and something we’ve been demanding for a long time, but it has its problems.

Daniel Jalkut, developer of the MarsEdit blogging app for Mac, lists eight reasons why Apple’s approach to app trials is flawed.

To provide a free trial for their apps, developers must make their software free initially, and then offer in-app purchases that unlock full functionality. They can then offer a free “subscription” for up to 14 days, which gives users a chance to try the complete version of the app before deciding whether or not to cough up their cash.

Some developers have already been employing this tactic for years, without knowing whether or not Apple really approves of it. Now they know they’re not going to run into issues with the App Store review team, but some still don’t feel this is the best solution to free trials.

8 problems with App Store trials

Jalkut has provided eight reasons why Apple’s current approach could backfire.

Firstly, Jalkut believes it is confusing to users. Apps are listed as free-to-download, but users must provide payment information to unlock their free trial. It could lead to “a feeling of bait-and-switch, and that they’ve been betrayed by the developer.”

“This is particularly problematic with apps whose price points make them most suitable to free trials. MarsEdit is $50, so some users who download the “free app” are understandably annoyed when the first thing they learn is that it will cost a significant amount to unlock it,” Jalkut writes.

No bulk purchasing

The second problem is that this approach prevents bulk purchase programs. There is no way businesses or education institutions can obtain in-app purchases in bulk at a discount in the same way they can with paid apps through Apple’s Volume Purchase Program.

If you need 100 copies of an app, you’ll need to download it on 100 devices and then pay full price for the in-app purchase that unlocks full functionality on each one. Family sharing isn’t available on in-app purchases, either, so this creates a third issue.

Free downloads aren’t suitable for all

Another problem is that the free-to-download model isn’t suitable for all app types, Jalkut explains. It would be very difficult, maybe even impossible, to establish what might be available for free and what might be locked behind a paywall in certain apps.

In this case, developers would have to lock down all functionality until an unlock is purchased, which would essentially make the app useless when the free trials end if the user decides not to make a purchase.

Apple almost certainly wouldn’t allow this to happen; it would want the app to do something for free.

App ranking becomes a problem

Making paid apps free would also made it difficult to rank them honestly in the App Store’s charts, Jalkut says.

“An app that is $50 and sells very well will never make its way to the top of the “Paid” charts, and if it is lucky enough to beat out actually free apps in the free charts, it will only confound users who are surprised to learn that one of the top free apps actually costs money.”

Jalkut also explains how Apple’s solution essentially forces developers into accepting new transaction methods that require more work, and makes it difficult for free trials to be reset so that developers can offer a second or third trial after a significant update.

Check out Jalkut’s blog to read his thoughts. It’s an incredibly interesting take on App Store trials as they are now, and it certainly highlights the complexities many developers will face if they want to allow users to try their apps for free before making a purchase.

Apple’s solution is certainly going to work well for some, but it doesn’t solve the trial problem for many others. It seems like there’s still work to be done to get it right.


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