Demo-to-Paid with In-App Purchasing: STRIP's Cautionary Tale

2011-04-06 20:00:00 -0400

Updated, below: Apr 8 9:22 AM

We first released our Password manager, Strip, to the iTunes App Store in May of 2009. It started life as a paid application priced at $9.99 USD to download. Unfortunately, this left early users with no way to test or evaluate the software before buying. Or course, the app was quite new to the store, didn’t have very many reviews, and users were reluctant to pay sight-unseen.

Like many application developers we decided to make a “Strip Lite” version that would provide an easy way to evaluate the software. This was basically the same application with a couple of build settings changed to introduce reasonable demo limits (10 entries, no WiFi Sync feature). Strip Lite allowed a potential customer to see if the software was indeed right for her before purchasing. At the time there was no other way to provide trial-ware, where the user has a certain period of time to review an app before paying for it.

Even so, there were some clear disadvantages to the Lite-app approach.

  • All of our stats, ratings, and reviews were walled off into two separate gardens in iTunes Connect, one for each app.
  • We had to develop a custom upgrade system so people could bring their data along to the paid version. Even though this worked, the process was a bit confusing and increased our support load.
  • We would often hear from people who were confused about the versions, upgrades, differences and prices between the two application versions—another increase in support cost.

Strip Lite really did help grow the visibility and popularity of Strip by a wide margin, but it wasn’t ideal.

Demo-to-Paid using In-App Purchasing / StoreKit

When Apple announced In-App Purchasing for free apps it was widely touted as the perfect way to provide demo-to-paid upgrades. Indeed, it seemed like the ideal solution to our problems: we could make Strip free to download (with the Lite limits in place), allow users to purchase the full version inside the application, and get rid of Strip Lite and it’s confusing upgrade process.

Before taking the plunge on our most popular applicatiom, we tried it out on Codebook first, a paid-only app that had a smaller user base. It led to a big increase in overall downloads and sales, and amazingly we received no complaints. This seemed to be the best approach for us and our customers, so we got to work on building it into Strip for release in version 1.5.0.

On March 1st, 2011 we released the new version of Strip to the app store. At first there were no problems. On the contrarary, the jump from paid to free resulted in a huge spike in downloads, placement in the top-ranking productivity tools lists, and even an uptick in conversions. Unfortunately, this didn’t last very long, and the troubles started shortly after.

Is It Really Free?

Free apps with In App Purchases can be confusing on two levels.

On the one hand, even though we had placed a prominent note on the app description saying that Strip was only free to use for up to 10 entries without paying for the upgrade, many people don’t carefully read the descriptions. This resulted in some customers feeling that the In-App Purchase was a “bait-and-switch” tactic, even though this was never our intent.

On the other hand, I can’t tell you how many emails we received that asked, “is it really free to install on another device?” With a paid application, people are accustomed to selecting apps they already own in iTunes for installation on a new device with no charge, getting all the functionality immediately. However, when customers buy an In-App Purchase for your app on one device, it does not automatically transfer to a new device. Even though they are entitled to that purchase for free the user is asked to confirm if she would like to buy “1 Strip Unlimited” (love that qty of 1) for $9.99, with no hint of “free for you”. Only after the customer agrees to pony up the additional $9.99 does iTunes inform her that it will be a free download and that she won’t be charged1.

Which version is this?

“Where’s the full version of Strip, I only see the Lite version available for the new upgrade!?”

When thousands of our existing customers saw that the only available upgrade for the new versions was free, they thought we’d eliminated Strip in favor of Strip Lite, along with their unlimited functions. This resulted in a big increase in support mail. This is a confusing thing to have to explain. We tried to head this off at the pass, by making this clear in our release announcements, but it didn’t help.

Don’t get us wrong, we love the opportunity to provide great support to our customers (if done right, these interactions are invaluable), but we really don’t like confusing them and wasting their time. We’d rather save that karma for when there are bugs—there will be bugs and you don’t want to use up good will!

But the next problem was a real Charlie-Foxtrot.


For users who’d already paid for the full version of Strip, we needed to make sure they weren’t charged again via In-App Purchase when they upgraded. Thus, when Strip 1.5.0 launched for the first time on your device, it would do some clever stuff to check for a previous install and grant you the unlimited upgrade by writing a receipt file onto the device in the application’s documents directory.

Unfortunately, that only works for one device. When a user gets a new device, the old version of Strip isn’t already on there, and only the new version where you have to pay in-app is available in the store. Since there is no old version on there already, it asks the user to pay again. This doesn’t just affect users who go and buy an iPad to go along with their iPhone, it affects people who need to get their devices replaced, or who upgrade and find iTunes just forgot to copy their apps and data over. Consider this lovely email from one irate customer who wiped his phone and couldn’t restore from backup:

"what the fuck iz wrong with you guys?? i bought the app 4months back. and now the app is askin me to pay another 10bucks for sum shitty upgrade. jus fix this issue asap."

This was an aberrational response, most of our customers are very good spellers (and rather polite), but it was a harbinger of serious trouble. At first, we had no way to help these folks get Strip without being charged a second time. We also had no way to tell the StoreKit API that the user should be granted the purchase for free when we did the grand-fathering check described above.

This problem was made worse by the confusion around the in app purchase screens. Now, when our customers downloaded the new version and then contacted us to ask, “Will I be charged again?” we had to go through a complicated process to determine what version the user previously had, when he or she made the purchase, what state the device was in (is this a restore?) and whether or not he or she would be charged before we could say, “go ahead, it’s gonna be alright.” Many customers just went ahead with the purchase, thinking they wouldn’t be charged per usual iTunes store policies (expecting the little “don’t worry it’s free” modal dialog to come up) only to find out otherwise.

The kicker here is that there’s no way for us to offer refunds in the iTunes Store, still, after all this time. Not cool at all, and not how we like to do business. The only thing we could do was to offer a $10 gift card to cover the re-buy, but since iTunes had already taken their cut, we covered 30% of the refund straight out of our own pocket. Even worse, we could only do that for our customers in the US.

A Temporary Hack

We published Strip 1.5.1 to the iTunes App Store on Monday, April 4th. It fixes a couple of bugs in 1.5.0 (thus the delay in getting it out), so we recommend everyone upgrade now. This version has a facility allowing us to remotely grant a user unlimited access to Strip on their device. If a customer gets in touch and it turns out she has or will be double-charged, we can put their UDID in a remote database and give her a couple of steps to perform in Strip to check with an authorization web service.

At least this allows us to help our customers out in the short term, but it still requires a lengthy support process full of confusion and often beginning with frustration for the user, so we’re not stopping here.

Back to Paid Downloads

We will be publishing Strip 1.5.2, which disables in-app purchasing, as soon as it’s approved by Apple. We’re going back to doing what works: $9.99 to download, no more screwing around. Anybody who upgrades won’t be charged for the upgrade a second time.

We won’t be using the In-App Purchasing API for this purpose again. In-app purchases clearly work well for icon packs, new levels in video games, and paid content downloads. They might even be appropriate for demo-to-paid apps that start out free, if you can live with forcing your users to “re-buy” every time the install on a new device (where they must confirm a new purchase before iTunes offers it for free). But for an app like ours there is just no easy and clean way to take care of the problems described here without incurring significant support overheard and/or creating a complex StoreKit companion to track purchases and authorizations.

We’re really grateful to our customers for being so patient with us while we worked through all the email and got back to everybody. If you are currently in a pickle yourself, get in touch, and we’ll pull you out of the brine. We’ll post a note here and to the mailing list once Strip 1.5.2 is available for download.

[1] Suggestion for Apple: The StoreKit makes no effort to check before hand if the user is already entitled to the purchase, but it could do so quite easily, rather than requiring us developers to set up our own system. It could simply be part of displaying the price: just make it zero if the user already bought the requested product ID. Better yet, create an API method we can call to check. Don’t make us set up a companion system to register our customers, that’s the whole point of the iTunes App Store.

Update: As mentioned by Mark J below in the comments, the StoreKit API gives the developer a way to restore a user’s previous in-app purchases without forcing anyone to try their luck, with the SKPaymentQueue method - (void)restoreCompletedTransactions.

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