Bait-and-Switch Apps: The Dark Side of In-App Purchasing

Late last year, Apple started to allow free applications to take advantage of the new In-App Purchase feature, a reversal of its original policy that free applications would stay free, and In-App Purchases could only be used to enhance paid applications. The reversal has had some positive consequences, and many developers are now properly and transparently leveraging this feature to provide add-ons and paid premium features. But there are also some serious negatives, and this month, they’ve become increasingly apparent.

One example is Indusblue’s official CTV Olympics app for the Canadian broadcast network CTV. This application was originally released two weeks ago as a free app offering information on the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. The first version provided a schedule of upcoming events, venue information and athlete profiles, promising a future “Games-time release” that would add more features and details.

Coinciding with the start of the Olympics last Friday, the version 2.0 “Games-time” update appeared on the App Store as a free update for existing users and a free download for new users. The App Store description at the time clearly listed the new features that the update delivered, such as “in-depth medal breakdowns and results data on every event of the Games.” No mention of any additional costs was indicated in the application’s description, so you can imagine the surprise users felt when they were presented with the following screen when attempting to access the new features:


The App Store page continued to clearly imply that these “Premium” features were included at no extra cost, leaving users to download the app and discover the hidden “Premium Version” screen for themselves. Soon, a multitude of scathing reviews began to accumulate from users who had already discovered the trick. Apple’s only hint that a “Premium Upgrade” even existed was found in the “Top In App Purchases” section in the bottom left corner of the App Store page—a section not created by the developer, but automatically maintained by the App Store itself.



Following more than 400 very negative reviews about the hidden upgrade cost—ones that spanned the entire first weekend of Olympic coverage—the App Store page was finally updated this morning to reflect the fact that the application now “Includes a Premium Upgrade for $1.99” and describes the features that are available only as part of the Premium Upgrade.

The issue here is not whether these Premium Features are worth the $2 asking price—several of the positive App Store reviews seem to think that they are—but rather the way in which this was handled, leaving users to download a free app to only later discover that they will be required to pay extra for features that they rightfully expected to be included. Although the developer has now made this clear on the App Store page, it’s disturbing that it took hundreds of negative reviews before this happened.

Appy Entertainment’s Tune Runner provides another disturbing example of a misleading “Free” app. Tune Runner is a music-based game that leverages the user’s own iPod library. Both the App Store page and the press release we received clearly promote this as a free app, as does the developer’s own web site. Unfortunately, they omit one very important detail: the app is ad-supported unless you make a $3 In-App Purchase for a “Fusion Pack.” To make matters worse, the ads aren’t merely the relatively unobtrusive banner ads found in other ad-supported apps, but actual cut-scenes that are the equivalents of bad Internet pop-up windows.



Yet the App Store description makes no mention whatsoever of the app being ad-supported or even acknowledges the existence of any in-app purchase “upgrades” being available, leaving the user to figure this out for themselves only after they have downloaded and installed the app.



Once again, only the Apple-maintained “Top In App Purchases” section of the app’s page gives the user any clue that there may be more to this than just your average “free” app.



Another trick in this app is a “battery” feature that limits your ability to play the game unless you’re willing to play a separate “recharge” game that recharges your in-game battery. Of course, Appy is willing to sell you a “Battery Pack” upgrade via In-App Purchasing that removes the need to interrupt play for recharging, but once again, this In-App Purchase isn’t mentioned on the app’s selling page, either—the user must learn about it on his or her own within the app itself. It is telling that several of the App Store reviews are confused about this, including comments such as “Fun but what’s with the batteries? Have to pay just to listen to a song that I already have?”

We’re not suggesting there’s anything inherently wrong with ad-supported applications or premium features—to the contrary, they’re viable business models—but some approaches to this are better than others. The issue here is transparency in the selling process: if an application requires In-App Purchases to unlock its full potential or disable annoying ads, the App Store page should make that abundantly clear to potential customers before a download, whether the download is paid or free. Applications that purport to be free while hiding their full capabilities behind the veil of an In-App Purchase system are not doing their consumers any favors, and it’s clear that such behavior will result in a backlash against even an otherwise promising application. Even more concerning is that idea that other developers may consider employing similar tactics to keep up with the competition, resulting in an App Store where many so-called “free” apps are no longer truly free. Should the Store devolve into a snake’s nest of apps that frequently bite customers after the initial download, everyone—including Apple and any developers who may be accused of deceptive marketing—will be worse off for the experience.

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