21 Aug 2014

Bait and Switch

We live in a world where many companies have been very successful giving an app or game away for free, and charging for extras – called IAPs (In App Purchases). Like many people, I hate this new business model. I like the old way of purchasing something outright, and owning it forever.

The wrong way to do things:

Over the last couple of years, I’ve seen several companies release apps, only to change the price, or adjust their business model. The common use case is charging a one time fee, only to switch it to a subscription. This is common where there are ongoing costs, like a cloud sync, or something like that. However, it also happens with regular apps that have zero ongoing costs besides updating the app. The worst two that I’ve encountered are Tiny Thief, and Scanbot. Tiny Thief was an interesting new point and click adventure game published by Rovio, and Scanbot was a great app for scanning and uploading receipts. Both were paid apps, costing several dollars each, had no IAPs and no ads, so I was happy to pay for them. You can probably guess where I’m going here. Both companies recently decided to make their app free, and then charge for the ‘pro’ features. This would have probably have been fine, providing they’d given existing paying customer the IAP stuff for free, but no, they didn’t. In the case of Tiny Thief, they actually removed all the levels that previously came with the ‘pro’ version, and hid them behind an IAP. That should be (and probably is) illegal. I’m hardly going to sue a company of a $4 app, but the behaviour is despicable. Do they honestly expect me to purchase the levels again? They didn’t reach out to customers. They just updated the app and silently removed all the ‘pro’ stuff. What about Scanbot? They more or less did the same thing. They made their ‘pro’ version free, and added some paid features as a $5 IAP. I contacted Scanbot, and got the following terrible copy/paste response:

Thanks for your email. Sorry if we confused you with our communication. All standard features in Scanbot you already bought will stay free, be maintained and we will add new standard features. What’s new and what we charge extra are specific pro features, like OCR or soon many more. Comparing with other scanner apps we consider our pricing more than fair.

Let’s begin tearing this email apart.

“Sorry if we confused you with our communication.”

– There was no communication. You just silently screwed over your paying customers. Do they really expect me to now shell out an additional $5?

“Comparing with other scanner apps we consider our pricing more than fair.”

– Except for the fact that I paid for the ‘pro’ version, not the free version.

Who are the most likely people to pay for an app? Probably those who already did! Maybe that’s their logic. They want their target market to pay again! However, much of that target market will probably not trust that company ever again. If you look at either Tiny Thief, or Scanbot’s Play store reviews, there are dozens and dozens of 1 star reviews complaining about it. Everyone is furious. Tiny Thief’s developers are ignoring it, and Scanbot’s developers are just replying with the above copy/pasted email to everyone who complains or gives a bad review. It’s truly terrible behaviour, and probably something that Google and Apple should not allow.

The right way to do things:

Avocado was once a paid app in both the App Store, and Play Store. The service itself was free through the web app, but you had to pay a one time fee to get the mobile app. I really like one time purchases, so I was happy to pay for it. It became fairly clear to me that this business model probably wouldn’t work forever, as there are ongoing costs with maintaining the cloud sync and storage. Avocado saw this too, and fortunately, did the right thing. They made the app free, switched to a subscription service, and gave all existing users a lifetime pro subscription for free. Now I recommend Avocado to all my friends. You can’t buy that kind of free positive publicity. Oh wait, you sort of can. Be grateful of your existing customers, and if you have to change your business model, do right by them.