Apple’s universal purchases will change how you buy and use apps


Universal Purchases are coming soon to iOS and Mac apps.
Photo: Apple

Apple is laying the groundwork to make it easier for developers to distribute their apps across all of Apple’s platforms.

Included in Wednesday’s big batch of beta updates, Apple introduced a new option in Xcode 11.4 beta 1 for developers to build and test apps using a single bundle ID. Starting in March, iPhone users will be able to download an app via the iOS App Store and then (if the developer supports it) download it on other Apple platforms with ease.

This simple change might seem like an obvious added convenience for users, but it also sets up the App Store for some colossal changes over the next few years. It will force Apple developers to make some big decisions about their businesses.

For instance, imagine being able to buy Pixelmator on Mac, then automatically downloading the iPhone and iPad versions to your devices without having to do anything. That’s the power universal purchases will bring to consumers … a unified experience of buying and using apps on different Apple devices.

With Project Catalyst, Apple is trying to encourage developers to think of apps as a unified cross-platform experience. Universal purchases are key to making this happen, and it’s coming sooner than many developers thought it would.

Universal purchase problems for devs

For developers, universal purchases removes a lot of the pain points in creating free apps with in-app purchases or subscriptions. Cult of Mac asked respected iOS and macOS developer Steve Troughton-Smith how the changes will affect developers’ business plans. Troughton-Smith said universal purchases will help developers because they won’t have to create two separate backends to support iOS and macOS versions of their apps.

“As a developer, this is pretty frightening, but as a user, this is something I want,” Troughton-Smith told Cult of Mac.

Universal purchases definitely come with some drawbacks for developers. Many Mac developers worry that the changes will devalue their software, according to Troughton-Smith. Going back to the Pixelmator example, the company charges $39.99 for the Pro version of its Mac app, while the iOS version costs just $4.99. With universal purchases, the company would either need to cut its Mac pricing to $5, or jack up the price on the iPhone app to $40. Downward-trending software pricing could force the company to do the former — and lose profitability.

“In the long term, I think it’s true — this has the potential to devalue Mac apps, and users will come to expect a shared purchase between Mac and iOS,” Troughton-Smith said. “We will have to come to terms with the ramifications as developers, and make choices as to what to do in our apps for our user bases.”

Aligning macOS with iOS

So far, developers aren’t being forced to support universal purchases if they produce Mac and iOS versions of their apps. Pixelmator and other companies that offer premium (i.e., high-priced) apps will still be able to distribute two different versions if that’s what they want to do. Most big Mac app-makers probably won’t change a thing in the immediate future.

However, the addition of universal purchases ultimately points to Apple’s desire to align macOS and iOS as developer and App Store platforms with Project Catalyst. In the future, there probably won’t be separate iOS, macOS and watchOS app stores. Everything will exist under one roof, with apps being universal.

That future of a unified Apple experience across all platforms remains a few years away. But for developers, the time to start planning for it is now.


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