Upgrades and the Mac App Store

In the last segment on this week’s Hypercritical, John Siracusa discussed the fact that the Mac App Store, like the iOS App Store, has no mechanism for developers to charge users for software upgrades. Surprisingly, he missed a couple of points that may indicate where Apple is going on this issue.

The inspiration for the segment was this article by Wil Shipley on his Call Me Fishmeal blog. Shipley, a longtime Mac developer who runs Delicious Monster (and used to be at Omni Group) is, not unexpectedly, in favor of Apple creating a way for developers to charge for upgrades in the App Stores. Traditionally, upgrades have been an important source of income for software publishers and are, in turn, an incentive for publishers to continue to improve their products.

The question is whether Apple wants to continue that model in the App Stores or whether it wants to break it.

Apple is nothing if not inscrutable, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s deliberately holding off its decision on upgrades until there’s enough pressure to make a decision necessary; but there are, I think, three hints as to the direction Apple’s leaning, neither of which were brought up on Hypercritical.

First is how Apple has been handling iWork. Shipley mentioned iWork in his article, suggesting that an upgrade to the iWork programs has been delayed because there’s no paid upgrade policy for the Mac App Store. This is almost certainly wrong. Apple has never offered an upgrade path for iWork, a practice that’s been in place since it was first released, well before there were any App Stores. Whenever a new version of iWork came out, upgraders paid the same $80 full price that new users paid. The idea was that iWork’s initial price was so low that a reduced upgrade fee was unnecessary.

With this pricing for iWork, Apple was following in the footsteps of Microsoft, who offered a low-priced Office for Students, which was functionally the same as the regular Office suite but sold at a cut rate. The tradeoff was that Office for Students had no upgrade path—if you wanted a newer version a few years later, you paid for the whole thing again.

The second hint is FileMaker, which just released a new version this past week. Because FileMaker does offer an upgrade plan for users of earlier versions, you may think this represents a contradictory position. I don’t think so, because FileMaker isn’t in the Mac App Store.

Finally, there’s Bento. Bento is weird because it’s offered both in and out of the Mac App Store, but it follows the iWork template: if you have an older version of Bento and want to get the current version, you pay the same as someone buying it for the first time.1

These hints suggest that Apple believes consumer level applications sold in the Mac App Store should be inexpensive and should be sold at full price when a sufficiently improved version is released (this is the Tweetie 2 pricing model). Expensive, professional level applications that require a traditional upgrade policy to keep customers happy should be sold through traditional channels.2

Are these hints definitive? Not in the least. Until Apple says explicitly what its plans are, this is just supposition. I do think this is the way Apple is leaning, but it’s delaying a final decision until one is necessary. My guess is that the next release of the long-delayed iWork set of apps will force Apple’s hand.

  1. I know Bento has had discounts, in the form of rebates, for people who bought a version shortly before a newer version came out, but that’s to keep customers with bad timing from feeling cheated. It’s not a traditional upgrade scheme. 

  2. Yes, this implies that both Aperture and Final Cut Pro X are no longer pro apps. I think this makes sense with Aperture, but obviously not with Final Cut. Oh, well. No theory is perfect.