App Store Updates: There's a Piece Missing

The online file sharing and storage service Dropbox is killing support for an old and outdated version of its tool that lets apps tap into its features. That shouldn't be a big deal, but for iPhone and iPad developers that have older apps they'd like to update, they can't. Apple's App Store doesn't have a system in place so developers can release maintenance updates for apps they no longer sell, and that ultimately hurts customers.

1Password 3 from AgileBits is a perfect example of where the App Store system falls down. The company doesn't sell version 3 of its password management app because it moved on to 1Password 4. Version 3 is still a perfectly good app and is serving many satisfied AgileBits customers well.

Apple needs to address App Store issues like trial apps and old app updatesApple needs to address App Store issues like trial apps and old app updates

The problem in this case is that 1Password 3 is old enough that it relies on Dropbox's deprecated sync API to keep password lists up to date on multiple iOS devices and Macs. Come September 1, 2013, that sync feature will break, and there isn't anything AgileBits can do to fix it because 1Password 3 isn't available for sale through the App Store any more.

Like other companies, AgileBits stopped selling the old version of its iPhone and iPad app after the new version came out. That cuts down on confusion for consumers, and makes managing and supporting its products easier. Once an app is gone from the App Store, however, there isn't any way for developers to push updates out to their users -- say, for example, if an API they rely on is killed.

Giving developers that option, however, comes at a price. If iOS app developers have a mechanism to continue offering updates for discontinued apps, some customers will expect that even when it isn't reasonable for a company to invest the time and resources in those updates. Customers could start to expect free updates for old apps forever and never update to newer versions even when it makes sense for them to do so.

Making customers understand why they should pay for software, and buy new versions of the apps they already use, is an ongoing battle for developers. Why pay for the new version when the old one still works fine?

Without any option in place, developers can't offer updates when they want to and the only recourse for customers is to buy new app versions. This is more of a problem for iOS than Mac apps because the App Store is the only place to get iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch apps and updates. Mac developers app can still release patches and other updates through their own websites if they want.

Since I'm approaching app updates from a customer's perspective, I asked AgileBits Herald Dave Chartier for his take. Like me, he sees old app updates as a mixed bag. He said,

It would be great if the App Store provided a lot more flexibility, including updating old apps. My worry with introducing more flexibility is the potential for added complexity that might cause as many problems as it solves. I am confident that there is a middle ground that can benefit Apple, us as developers, and our customers.

The solution AgileBits came up with for their problem with 1Password 3 Dropbox syncing was to offer those customers a steep discount on 1Password 4, and for users that can't upgrade because they aren't running iOS 6, they detailed the steps for syncing their password databases over WiFi. Maybe not a perfect solution, but a nice good will gesture to help out their loyal customers.

Expecting changes like update support for apps that aren't for sale anymore is probably an act in futility. Even though Apple offers a powerful system for delivering apps to iOS device users, the company hasn't seemed interested addressing limitations such as upgrade pricing and trial app versions. With those key features missing, it isn't likely Apple is looking at old app update support.

That puts the responsibility back on developers, and their hands are tied. Even though it's time for Apple to reevaluate App Store features, that isn't likely to happen any time soon. Right now it's all about finishing iOS 7, OS X Mavericks, and getting iTunes Radio up and running. With priorities like that, old app updates are probably really low on Apple's to-do list.