“Free Trials and Tire Kickers”

May 10th, 2013

Marco Arment argues that free trials with higher-priced applications in the App Store would undermine people’s tendency to try out a number of applications even if they don’t use them long-term because they’re so affordable:

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. But the “middle class” — all of those apps that get tried but not bought — all make much less.

I think Marco’s right. (Please do read his entire piece. It’s very good.)

Since releasing Basil last year, I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and paid upgrades, which is a related topic. Trials seem like they would be a positive thing for developers; users could try out our applications, see how good they are, and then, theoretically, they would be willing to pay a higher price, and would do so at such a volume that our current sales would increase or, at minimum, wouldn’t suffer. Charging $10 for an application sounds a hell of a lot better than charging $2.99 or $3.99.

Marco is right that this would fundamentally change the nature of the App Store. Rather than spend a couple bucks here and there to try out new applications, users would more likely try out a large number of applications and end up paying for the one that best fits their needs. Of course, that may be more fair; users only pay for the application they need, and only the developer who provided it is paid. But as Marco points out, that erodes the entertainment aspect of the App Store.

As a result, since that market would resemble the PC or Mac software market, he argues the outcome probably would, too. A relatively small number of developers and companies will do especially well, and most others will make very little. That’s convincing.

I don’t think there’s a net benefit here for introducing trials. That market may support deeper, more full-featured applications, but it could also throw out one of the App Store’s greatest attributes: the ability for a single developer or small team to take a single good idea, turn it into an application, and make it accessible to a huge audience—all while possibly making a decent income and having the chance to make it a huge success.

Rather than hope for trials or even paid upgrades, I think developers need to utilize the tools we have: in-app purchase and subscriptions. IAP can allow developers to reach a wide audience with a low initial price (or free, even), and make more from those customers who are willing to pay for more. Paper for iPad is an excellent example of how to do this. The application comes with a “pen” drawing tool for free, but pencil, marker, paintbrush and color mixing tools are available through IAP. There’s nothing predatory or abusive about Paper; it’s a beautiful, useful application, and the tools available for purchase make it even more useful.

Those are the kinds of things we should be thinking about. Not only is hoping/waiting for trials unproductive, but it limits what your application is capable of. IAP is an incredible tool that allows for unique, powerful applications for users, all while making it available to a very large audience. That capability shouldn’t be shunned; instead, we should think about how to use it to make businesses that are sustainable for us and useful for customers.