The Mac App Store still needs paid upgrades

There’s a growing number of abandoned or apps missing from the Mac App Store, and this troubles me. I know there's always been abandoned software and there always will be. It just feels like there’s more of it now than ever before. Why is this?

One of the main culprits is the lack of paid upgrades on the Mac App Store. Three years ago Will Shipley wrote an excellent article on why we need them. It’s three years on and we’re still waiting. He’s article is still spot on and relevant today.

Without paid upgrades developers are strongly dis-incented from writing new major versions of existing products. Which stinks for us, and for customers. – Will Shipley

There's no question that the App Store has been a net positive for developers and customers (I know it's helped Realmac immeasurably). However, I feel it has the potential to be so much more if Apple would just implement what every Mac developer has been asking for since day one. Paid upgrades.

Paid upgrades are the lifeblood for indie businesses

Most mildly successful developers will confirm that after an app launch, revenue makes a steady decline into the long tail. It’s the nature of the beast, every day after a launch the revenue halves until it finds it’s plateau. That is until you do a paid upgrade.

Here's a graph showing the revenue from direct sales of RapidWeaver. Notice how we get a huge bump in sales when we launched RapidWeaver 6 as a paid upgrade, also notice how it affects ongoing sales. We wouldn't have got this had we launched it as a free update.

RapidWeaver Upgrade Sales

At Realmac we rely on launches like this for the extra revenue they bring into the business. Without them we might not be able to survive.

The Mac App Store doesn't offer paid upgrades, so developers never see this kind of uptick in sales for an existing app. So what's a developer supposed to do?

Well, you could release the next major version as a new SKU on the App Store and do paid upgrades that way. If you go this route, you get punished. You loose all your reviews, store rankings, historical downloads, not to mention none of your customers would be notified that there’s a new version available. Oh, and you can’t offer existing customers a discount. It’s confusing, and horrible for everyone involved.

The fact you can’t do paid upgrades on the Mac App Store offers little incentive for developers to work on the next big release, it’s just not sustainable. Developers can never hope to earn the revenue they did from the initial launch of an app. So instead of re-investing in the app to improve it, they spend time building another app to try and earn enough revenue to keep going.

I know this is oversimplifying things somewhat, but this is what we’re telling customers when we put our apps on the App Store:

“I will continue to work on this app and provide you free upgrades and support for just $4.99. Forever.”

I don’t know about you, but that doesn't sound sustainable to me. It’s simply not a good business model. It's no wonder developers are unhappy, and customers are left wondering why their favourite apps have been abandoned.

If the Mac App Store offered paid upgrades

Just imagine. The App Store could notify all existing users that there is a paid upgrade available, much the same way it does for free updates. This might sounds crazy, but this is the exact same ability you have as a developer when you sell your Mac apps directly.

I believe a lot of independent developers on the Mac have survived because of the ability to offer paid upgrades outside the App Store. I know Realmac has. If we only produced apps for iOS I'm not sure we'd still be around. Maybe we'd be doing client work, or maybe we'd have just given up and joined Facebook and Google. This is the reality, and it's not good.

Free upgrades for life is not sustainable

Music artists charge for their next album, they don't sell one album and just keep adding and remixing songs for an all inclusive price. The same goes for movies, books, games or any other digital or physical product.

Software is the outlier. As I write this, I can't think of any other business where the customer pays just once and receives free updates and improvements for life. But yet this is how the App Store has been setup for software developers. It's simply not sustainable.

Paid upgrades reward continued development of an app. The developer gets paid for their work and users get more of the app they love. For a sustainable app ecosystem, things need to change.

If the App Store never offers developers the options for paid upgrades, it will continue to encourage a culture of disposable one time apps. This is not good news for developers, Apple or our mutual customers.

Fight the good fight

Apple could change things if they wanted too. They could add paid upgrades on the Mac App Store if they wanted too. They won’t unless we bang the drum loud enough and make ourselves heard. As developers we have the power to change things, but first we need to speak up. So, who's with me?

Let me know if you write a response to this post and I'll link to it below:

And yes, there's a radar, rdar://17845930: Developers cannot monetize continuous development of their products.

Dan Counsell

I'm the Founder of Realmac Software. I've been designing, building, and shipping products for over fifteen years. I write new articles every month on how to run a profitable online business.

Brighton, well Hove actually.