The life and death of a fake hotdog app

Everyone and everything has a lifespan. Software is no different.

How well will the Mac App Store fare for the most common business model for desktop apps?

Initial Release

Break out the champagne, Acme has just shipped Hotdog Log (a log book for keeping track of your hotdog eating habits). Apart from a potentially bumpy ride through the approval process and a small delay, App Store distribution is no different to direct distribution via Acme’s website.

As a bonus, the App Store makes installation and payment easier for users and places Hotdog Log in front of more eyeballs, so things are looking good. Sales are strong, which is no surprise… who doesn’t like hotdogs?

After a small amount of time, a few feature and bug fix updates are released. Users are happy and Acme is happy. So far, so good.

Version 2

Hotdog Log 2—a paid update—contains some great new features and is ready for release. The App Store doesn’t allow paid upgrades, so Acme is forced to remove version 1 from sale and submit the new version as a completely separate app, just as quite a few developers have done in the past, including Atebits when Tweetie 2 was released.

Unfortunately, this results in several negative side effects.

Users of version 1 can’t be automatically notified about version 2. Prior to the App Store, this was a trivial thing to do. Acme could build some kind of additional update notification system into the app, but that seems like it might be against the App Store guidelines. This is a huge setback, as developers like Acme rely on a certain percentage of their user base upgrading to fund the additional work that’s been done on an app.

Users of version 1 must pay full price for the app again. While potentially reasonable for games or cheaper apps, it feels like a huge hurdle for larger, more expensive apps.

Worst of all, people who’d like to continue to use the old version won’t have any way to redownload it if they need to—a likely situation with Mac apps, as they’re not backed up to another computer in the way iPhone and iPad apps are. Acme could leave version 1 on the store, but the chance of someone buying it by mistake is high, even if a large note was left in the App Store description text. There doesn’t seem like any sensible way to support two versions of the same app on the App Store. This also means that Acme can’t release bug fixes for Hotdog Log 1. If someone emails in with an issue, the only response Acme can give is “I’m sorry, but you’ll have to buy version 2”. Customers would be furious, and rightly so. Ad Hoc distribution won’t help—it’s limited to a very small amount of devices and it’s a time consuming process (Ad Hoc isn’t intended for widespread app distribution to users).

Getting Hotdog Log 2 to market was quite an ordeal. Users of version 1 didn’t know the update existed, they were forced to upgrade if they wanted continued bug fixes and updates, plus they had to buy the app again at full price. Not a good way to treat your loyal customers.

As a result, Hotdog Log’s App Store page is bombarded with negative comments, death threats and one star reviews.

Version 3

Hotdog Log 3 is awesome. It’s 10x faster, tweets every time you eat a hotdog and contains four types of 3D mustard. Unfortunately, every single problem encountered releasing version 2 has been relived with version 3. Owners of version 2 can’t be notified, they have to upgrade if they want bug fixes and they have to pay full price for the app. Again.

Hotdog Log’s App Store page gets filled to the brim with venom, despite being a fairly decent app with lots of great updates.

It seems like this is how things will pan out with every major release.

End of development and support

Acme gets acquired by HP. Or the lead developer gets hit by a bus. Whatever the reason, Hotdog Log development has stopped. What’s the best way to wind things up?

Typically, support for an application would continue for a reasonable amount of time after development has ceased. Acme’s faced with a familiar dilemma. Should they leave the app on the App Store so existing users can redownload if they need to, or pull it so new users can’t purchase an app Acme no longer want to support?

There doesn’t seem to be a good answer, so they pull the app. Existing users email in, furious over the decision. Fuck.

We complain because we care

The Mac App Store is an opportunity we’d like to embrace with open arms. However, as it stands, the App Store is missing some significant features required to sell larger apps.

Not allowing upgrade pricing is something we can probably deal with, but not allowing support for older versions is a disaster. It creates a system where the likely outcome is for users to hate us at every major milestone of an app’s life, except the initial release. Milestones that should be joyous occasions. Milestones that occur after we’ve just spent months slaving over every single detail.

That’s not good for us, it’s not good for users and it’s not good for Apple.

We love the iPhone, iPad and Mac and we want our Mac apps on the App Store, but we also need to ensure we can treat our customers with the respect they deserve. Right now, that’s not possible.

Updated June 9, 2011: It is now possible to redownload apps, even if they’ve been removed from the App Store. This can be done from the Purchased item under the Updates tab of the App Store on the iPhone and iPod touch or from the Purchased tab on iPad and Mac. It’s a great start, but doesn’t solve all the issues outlined above.