Wednesday, April 18, 2012

When Upgrading is not a Choice

On the latest Hypercritical episode, John Siracusa is talking about Apple’s App Stores and the lack of paid upgrade capability. He is spot on for much of the episode, but I take issue with what he says around the 100 minute mark. He thinks the mindset that people can be forced into upgrading an application is a false one - that there is nothing truly forcing you to stay on the current version of your application.

This is indeed true for most apps, but I think John forgot about one important exception. Let’s use Adobe Creative Suite as an example. Printing companies typically have the latest versions of CS available to them. The reason is not that they want the new features, but that inevitably at least one of their customers will, and if they send in a new file that only the latest CS can open, then they have to have it or they lose the customer.1 This is not unique to CS - Microsoft Office is notorious for the 2007 transition to new document formats which could not be opened in earlier versions of Office.

What we have in those cases is social lock-in - you have to have the highest version of the application that the people you’re working with have. It could happen with proprietary and incompatible file types, such as with CS and Office. There is also social lock-in in the broader sense. Let’s say everyone else has a version newer than yours of a cloud-syncing app. There’s a chance that down the road you will no longer have access to the API because support for the old one has been cut off, and then your app gets bricked. If you have to pay to upgrade to the one that isn’t cut off, then most people would feel cheated by that.

iOS’s free upgrade system - the OS too, not just the App Store - ensures that as many people have the latest version of the application as possible. The hard work Apple has put in to ensure that even iPhone 3GS users can get the latest iOS version ensures that apps are also broadly compatible across as many devices as possible, and forcing free updates means nearly everyone can and should have the same version of the application.

When everyone is on the same version, then compatibility problems largely disappear, and as a result customers are usually happier. Apple is famous for putting the user experience ahead of that of developers, and this sounds like a scenario where paid updates have a detrimental effect for users, minor though it may be.

  1. Maybe they could have the customer send it in an older version, but that’s mostly irrelevant for this discussion.