Apple’s revisions earlier this week to its App Store Review Guidelines to explicitly allow free trials may not be sufficient to appease calls by developers for a proper free trial system. In a blog post titled Ersatz Free Trials (via Daring Fireball), Red Sweater’s Daniel Jalkut, best known for MarsEdit, outlines a number of valid reasons why Apple’s solution falls far short of what many developers have been hoping for almost since the advent of the App Store ten years ago. As Jalkut notes, Apple’s revisions aren’t even offering anything specifically new, but are more of a codification of a practice that was started by The Omni Group back in 2016 and has been used by several other developers since — that of basically giving away a free version of an app and unlocking the “paid” functionality via in-app purchases. The change to the App Store Review Guidelines offers some comfort that Apple isn’t going to pull the plug on these practices, but still doesn’t address the real issue with the lack of “proper” free trials.
Jalkut outlines several obvious problems with the current system, including the fact that it forces paid apps to be listed and tracked as free apps, even though such apps are basically non-functional without payment. This not only creates confusion for customers, some of whom may feel that the developer is being dishonest with them, and leaves such apps with no proper place to live in the App Store’s sales charts, particularly with the removal of the “Top Grossing” category in the new iOS 11 and macOS Mojave App Stores. Jalkut also describes several issues that may be less obvious to non-developers, however, including the fact that the free-with-IAP-unlock system makes bulk purchase programs cumbersome at best, and makes Family Sharing basically impossible, since only outright app purchases can be shared among family members, not in-app-purchases. Further, some app types aren’t particularly well-suited to this IAP free trial model, since it’s difficult to determine what should be done with the app’s functionality if the user opts to not purchase the app beyond the free trial — Apple traditionally requires that free apps must be functional in some way, and there appears to be no exception to this in the new App Store Review Guidelines.
What Jalkut suggests Apple should do instead of this “ersatz” approach is to enable “real-life free trials” where apps could be honestly listed in the App Stop at their actual prices — for example, _“$49.95 with 14-day free trial”_ — and be otherwise treated in the same way as any other paid app, allowing them to be ranked properly on sales charts, made available to bulk purchase programs and family sharing, and allow developers to more easily build their apps for free trials without having to jump through the hoops of juggling IAP functionality and different behaviours within the app. Such a move would also make the nature of free trials much more obvious to end users, who would know what they’re getting at the very outset of their purchase, and would gain a fully functional “trial” app immediately without having to deal with the burden of dealing with in-app purchases. As Jalkut adds, “Happy customers trying excellent apps and ultimately paying for them is something that we can all get excited about.”