In App Purchase for free iPhone apps

iPhone App StoreI've been meaning to follow up on this for the past few days. Back in March, I wrote a blog post titled "Apple, please support iPhone trial apps", where I urged Apple to reconsider their position that "free apps will always be free."

I discussed how not allowing free apps to use the new In App Purchase feature introduced in iPhone OS 3.0 was very limiting — this restriction prevented free trials of apps, as is very popular in Mac software, meaning that the only way a developer could provide a trial is to have two separate apps (e.g. Lite and Pro editions), which is more hassle for the developer and customers, including issues with migrating data.

So you can imagine how pleased I was when I learnt recently that Apple has removed this restriction. Now any app can use In App Purchase, including free ones. So now the trial distribution model is finally feasible.

There is no more need to release Lite and Pro editions. Developers can release a single application as a free download, perhaps with limited features, then enable people to purchase an upgrade to the "full" edition.

There are still some restrictions. The most common trial model for Mac software is a time-limited demo, where the application lets people evaluate it for a certain time period (e.g. 14 or 30 days), then disables some functionality if still not purchased. My Mac apps do this, as do most other "shareware" apps. This is not allowed on the iPhone App Store. iPhone apps have to be fully functional, and can't disable essential features.

But there are other things that can be done, like provide a basic set of functionality, and perhaps display ads, then the purchase provides extended functionality and removes the ads. So the app remains useful forever as a free app, but becomes more powerful (and without distracting ads) if the user chooses to purchase.

This is what I plan to do for my future iPhone apps. For the secret project I'm working on now, I'll release it as a free app, with ads and perhaps some feature limits (but nothing that impinges on the usability), then offer In App Purchase to disable the ads and extend the functionality.

It looks like it'll be quite easy to set up; for this sort of situation, it appears that the purchase can be handled entirely via Apple's server, storing the purchase in the iTunes account, enabling multiple phones used by that account to use the full app (e.g. when buying a new phone).

I haven't decided on terminology for this yet... call the purchased upgrade the "Paid" or "Premium" edition, or something else.

It'll be most interesting to see how many app developers adopt this technique. I've seen a few so far, and expect it to be quite popular, especially with the indie developers who are used to this kind of distribution model.

But, thank you Apple!