iPhone In-App Purchases: Lost and Found

With iPhone OS 3.0’s In-App Purchase, an iPhone app can include the option for you to buy additional features directly from within the app itself. For example, you could use this to buy more levels of a game or (as in my recent adventure) to add the Traffic Live option to the latest version of Navigon’s MobileNavigator.

Soon after I made the $19.99 in-app purchase from Navigon, things began to go awry. Not to worry. The story has a happy ending.

First, a brief digression about MobileNavigator itself: When I last wrote about this GPS app, I gave it high marks. And that was before an upgrade that added text-to-speech for street names. Navigon did a fabulous job with this feature; I find its spoken directions to be superior (clearer and more detailed) to those on my Garmin GPS. MobileNavigator is a great app that keeps getting better. Now back to our story…

In-app purchase lost

Almost immediately after adding Traffic Live, MobileNavigator developed a glitch: it became mute. This was a serious glitch for a GPS app, as it meant that voice navigation no longer worked.

Hoping for a quick fix, I restarted the iPhone. Still no sound.

A common recommendation at this point is to reinstall the app. To do this, you delete the app from the iPhone and reinstall it from the copy on your Mac via your next sync in iTunes.

I briefly hesitated doing this. Would deleting the app erase any record of my in-app purchase? Did I first need to back up my iPhone in iTunes before deleting the app? I had no idea. But I decided to risk it anyway.

Happily, the reinstall remedied the sound problem. Unfortunately, as I had feared, things did not go as well for the in-app purchase. I no longer had the Traffic Live feature. Worse, the app indicated that I would again need to pay $19.99 to get it back. Again hoping for an easy fix, I re-downloaded MobileNavigator from the App Store. No such luck; still no Traffic Live. 

In-app purchase found

According to this Apple document, my next step should be to contact not Apple but Navigon (the “developer”) for assistance. I did send an email to Navigon, but I decided to give Apple a try as well. I wound up at the Live Chat feature on Apple’s iTunes Support page. Within a minute or two, an Apple rep and I were having a pleasant chat.

The bad news was that he was just as uncertain about how to proceed as I was. He explained that, while Apple had a record of my purchase (that’s how my credit card gets charged the $19.99!), Apple’s servers did not maintain the information needed to restore Traffic Live to my app. Such information is maintained instead by the third-party developer (Navigon). The best he could do was refund my money, so that I could make the in-app purchase again. That was a fine solution for me. 

The good news is that things worked out even better than the Apple rep had expected. When I went to repurchase Traffic Live, I got a message that said that I had already purchased the item and could “download it again for free.” This is the same message that pops up when you select to re-download an app that you have previously purchased, as noted here. Apparently, despite what the chat support rep had indicated, the data on Apple’s servers are sufficient to recognize a prior in-app purchase (at least for this app).

This and similar hassles could be easily avoided if the message about the free re-download appeared before you had to commit to the purchase. The way it works now, you don’t find out for sure whether or not you will get an item for free until after it’s too late to cancel. What would work better would be if, after entering your account password, you had the option to back out of a purchase if you discovered it would not be free.

Home Sharing and In-App Purchases

With iTunes 9’s Home Sharing feature, you can share your iTunes Library with other authorized users. This allows them to copy apps from your Library to their own. This led me to wonder: What would happen to an in-app purchase for a shared app? To find out, I copied MobileNavigator from my Library to my wife’s — and loaded the app onto her iPhone. As I suspected, the Traffic Live feature did not transfer. Would it download for free in this case? I doubt it — because her iPhone uses a different iTunes account name and password. When she entered her password, the server would not find the record of my purchase. So she would be charged. At least that’s my guess. I confess that I did not confirm this — as I didn’t want to risk losing $19.99 for a feature I knew my wife would never use.

Speaking of the $19.99: Given that I was able to get Traffic Live back for free, the credit I was given by Apple is now “overcompensation.” If someone from Apple is reading this and wants to ask for the credit back, that’s fine with me. I’m just happy that everything is now working and doing so at no more than the price that I had expected to pay.