App Store Updates: The Gift That (Sometimes) Keeps on Giving

Everyone agrees that the release of apps for the iPhone and iPod touch has been a huge net positive, and though the App Store continues to have well-documented problems, it’s great that there’s a central place to search and buy software. Yet due to an unexpected feature—the ability to “Update” apps after purchase—the App Store made a major change to consumer expectations for both Apple and third-party software: no longer is the first software release considered to be “final,” and in some cases, it’s possible that an app won’t even be working fully on day one. Developers have come to expect that they can make fixes in updates that may come days, weeks, or months after the initial purchase.

For users, this perpetual beta approach to software development has alternated between maddening and beneficial, as some developers have used their first release or three as opportunities to charge people while working out kinks, and others have created feature complete 1.0 releases with subsequent updates adding more content and features for free. Reviewers such as us have become accustomed to receiving “but wait!” e-mails from developers: “sorry it didn’t work in that last version,” we hear, “but the new one is just about to go up and fix it.” For obvious reasons, this has become tiresome; users, including us, are actually depending on these apps to do what they’ve been marketed to do without having to wait around for a patch. “It just works” used to be an Apple fan’s mantra; now it’s somewhat of a pleasant surprise.

Thankfully, there have been a number of noteworthy developers who have followed in the prior Apple spirit, taking solid, completely working software and improving it after release, turning the prospect of an update into a treat—possibly a reason to re-play a game again, or recommend it to a friend. Here are a few of the ones that we’ve found noteworthy in recent months.


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Zen Bound: Shapes are presented, and you wrap rope around them in an effort to cover as much of the surface area as possible. Secret Exit added a large new collection of stages (the Tree of Nostalgia), bringing the current total to 76, and made visual improvements after the initial release.


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Real Racing: Twelve new vehicles, 6-player Wi-Fi, environmental vehicle shadows, and other additions were made in two July updates to this already spectacular driving game.


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Zombieville USA: This simple, cartoony zombie-shooting side scroller added melee weapons—a baseball bat to start, and a hammer as an upgrade—plus improved controls in subsequent updates, making the game a little deeper and more fun to play.


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Tetris: EA’s excellent version of the classic puzzle game recently added iPod music support, enabling you to create your own playlist from within the game, or select an existing playlist rather than listening to the game’s own tunes.

Unfortunately, not all of the app updates have added features—some of the ones people used to love have slid backwards, or transformed themselves into restricted versions in order to sell new releases, angering past fans in the process. Notably, the free Palringo Instant Messenger flipped out users when it rebranded as Palringo Instant Messenger Lite, setting the stage for a paid version, and leading to one-star reviews with complaints that features such as theme changing and group administration had been pulled to “make a… buck.” Meanwhile, competitors released superior upgraded versions with features such as Push Notification support, and Palringo went from being our IM application of choice to a faded pick within days.

We’re curious: what are some of the most noteworthy updates you’ve seen for iPhone and iPod touch apps in the last three or four months—positive or negative? Do you follow the Updates number in iTunes or on your iPhone/iPod regularly, or do you stop checking once you’ve made the initial purchase? Are you finding that updates are more about bug fixes or feature additions? Share your thoughts in the comments box below.