I’m : a programmer, writer, podcaster, geek, and coffee enthusiast.

Free Trials and Tire Kickers

Time-limited trial or “demo” versions of apps have always been prohibited in the iOS App Store. Recently, discussions about trials have reignited in the circles I follow.

Rene Ritchie, partially in response to my paid-app market post, wrote The market for paid apps, and the sum of all compromises a few weeks ago:

Buyers want to avoid risk and expensing any more money than they have to, so they compromise on buying apps they might otherwise enjoy. Since there are no trials, absent urgent and immediate need or factors like addiction or ego-gratification, most people won’t spend any significant amount of money on apps.

This week, Dave Addey touched on a similar point in Apps Are Too Cheap:

If I purchase one app, and it doesn’t solve my problem, then I have no way to get the cost of that app back. If I try another, and the result is the same, then that’s two apps I’ve paid for that don’t do what I need. In fact, the price of the app that eventually does solve my problem is the cost of all of the apps I have to buy to find it. The result is that I’m willing to pay less for each individual app.

This is certainly a common occurrence. And the root of most of this discussion — that apps are too cheap, and everyone would be better off if they weren’t — is a real problem for a lot of developers. But Apple permitting (and technically supporting) free trials may not be the panacea to fix low app prices for everyone.

It’s not hard to imagine a world where we have free trials, because we already have such worlds: the Mac and Windows. What most mobile-app developers want is the ability to charge PC-class pricing — $30, $50, $100 instead of 99 cents, $2.99, $4.99.

But PC-class pricing would fundamentally change iOS buying habits, and we may not like the results.

Browsing the App Store and getting new apps, often spending a few bucks along the way, is a form of casual entertainment for a lot of people. This role used to be filled by movies and music. Today, it’s filled by browsing the internet and playing with mobile apps. Usually, they’re games, but not always — modern mainstream culture, especially among younger people, seems to be more interested in media and social apps than games.

This apps-as-entertainment market falls apart if app pricing rises above casual-disposable levels for most people. Few people balk at spending $1-3 for something that doesn’t end up being that great, but when someone’s $30 app is disappointing, that’s going to stick with them and inhibit future purchases.

There’s also the market of geeks, power users, and productivity users, including me and probably you. We want good apps to do the things we care about, so we’re likely to try multiple options before settling on the one we end up using (…for a while).

We’re often tire kickers:

Someone who is indecisive about purchasing a product or service, and never feels satisfied with what they are offered.

We’ll buy a new to-do app every three months because we’re never more than 80% satisfied with the one we’re using. We’ve bought seventeen weather apps, and next time Ben Brooks finds a new one, we’ll buy it, too. When we need to solve a new problem and three $1–3 apps all purport to solve it, we’ll probably end up buying all three of them to find the one that works best for us.

We’re not the mainstream, certainly, but we’re not a small market. Depending on what your app does, we might even be the majority of your market.

If you sell a low-priced app in the App Store with no free version, you make money from every tire kicker.

Even if we end up using a different app instead of yours, we still bought yours to try it out. We had to, because we couldn’t get a free trial — we paid to satisfy our curiosity of why Viticci raved about your app so much, or how a Twitter friend used your app to post that cool link, or how well you’re going to solve our most important problem right now. If the app is only a dollar or two, enough of us are OK with paying just to try it,1 even if we’re not going to end up using it every day for the next five years.

If the App Store mostly moved to higher purchase prices with trials, rather than today’s low purchase prices and no trials, this pattern would almost completely disappear. Instead, we’d get the free trials for almost everything, and then we’d only end up paying for the one that we liked best, or the cheapest one that solved the need, or maybe none of them if we didn’t need them for very long or decided that none were worth their prices.

In this type of market, the winners can make a lot more, because you can indeed charge more money.2 But the “middle class” — all of those apps that get tried but not bought — all make much less.

That’s exactly how the Mac and Windows markets, with free trials and higher prices, have always been. A few people make a lot, a few people make a living, but most people make very little.

Far more developers3 can make a living on iOS — partly because of the payment integration, partly because of the market size, and maybe also because the low prices and lack of trials boost the middle-class income from apps-as-entertainment buyers and tire kickers.

If we get trials, even if implemented very nicely, we may ruin that. Is that really what we want, as developers or customers?

  1. I believe the “paying just to try it” effect is why Instapaper’s sales saw a slight increase, rather than any decrease, after I discontinued the free edition. The only remaining option if you wanted to see what Instapaper was like was to buy the paid app. ↩︎

  2. Although how much more you can charge is debatable. Look at the Mac App Store: people can get free trials from many developers’ websites, yet we’ve still seen Mac software pricing drop dramatically since the introduction of the App Store.

    Maybe the real cause of lower Mac pricing since the App Store is that if you drop your price, you have a better chance of climbing the charts, which drives more sales and you end up grossing more overall — the main reason why iOS apps are so cheap.

    Abolishing the “top” lists from all App Store interfaces and exclusively showing editorially selected apps in browsing screens would do a hell of a lot more than trials to promote healthy app economics and the creation of high-quality software. ↩︎

  3. Not every iOS developer succeeds at making a living from it, but I’m still convinced that’s usually a matter of oversupply, not pricing or trials.

    I bet that far more developers make their living developing iOS apps than Mac apps, even if you do a per-capita-like adjustment to normalize their installed bases. ↩︎