Simulating Upgrade Pricing with App Bundles

Posted on June 9, 2014

At last week’s Worldwide Developer Conference (universally referred to as WWDC), Apple gave independent developers a lot to be thankful for. In fact, Apple gave us many of the things we’ve been requesting for a long time – things like app bundles, preview videos in the App Store, better options for beta testing, and App Store analytics. One thing that Apple didn’t give us, though, is upgrade pricing, or the ability to charge owners of our current software a reduced price for the next major version of that software.

Upgrade pricing is a staple of the non-App Store software market, and its absence from the App Store has long been considered one of the biggest obstacles to creating a sustainable software business within Apple’s ecosystem. Wil Shipley wrote the seminal piece on the subject back in 2012, but complaints about the omission of upgrade pricing in the App Store go back much further. It seems clear at this point that Apple has no desire to add upgrade pricing to the App Store, so conventional wisdom has been that developers had better adjust to the new reality and get on with the business of building software.

But Apple may have unintentionally cracked the door to upgrade pricing with one of its announcements last week. In the latest episode of Release Notes, you can hear my podcast co-host Joe Cieplinski wonder aloud at the possibility of using app bundles as a form of upgrade pricing. His comment was off-the-cuff, so the idea wasn’t fully developed, and we both quickly dismissed it, but upon further consideration it appears that it might be possible to simulate upgrade pricing through the use of app bundles.

First, a little background. In the WWDC Keynote, and later in Session 302: The New iTunes Connect, Apple announced that they will soon allow developers to create bundles of their apps. The gist of the information provided is that developers will be permitted to bundle up to 10 of their apps and make them available to be purchased as a group for a reduced price. One of the key features announced about app bundles is that consumers will be able to complete a bundle at a “discounted price” if they already own some of the apps in the bundle. It was never defined what exactly was meant by a “discounted price,” but it seems reasonable to assume the simplest case – that customers will just have to make up the difference in price between the cost of the bundle and the cost of the sum of the individual apps that have already been purchased. For example, if an app bundle costing $14.99 contains two apps, App A (priced individually at $9.99) and App B (priced individually at $9.99), then a person who already owns App A could “complete the bundle” and receive App B at a cost of $4.99.

But what if instead of bundling two different apps, we instead bundled two different versions of the same app, released as two different SKUs? Modifying the example above, what if our $14.99 app bundle contained My App (priced individually at $9.99) and My App version 2.0 (priced individually at $9.99)? That would allow people who owned My App to purchase the new version 2.0 at the reduced price of $4.99, while still requiring new customers to purchase version 2.0 for full price. This is exactly the effect that we have been seeking with upgrade pricing all along!

Using app bundles to simulate upgrade pricing would not be without its pitfalls, though. Bundling two versions of the same app would probably require that the old version remain available for sale individually. This would inevitably lead to customer confusion and probably cause some customers to purchase the wrong item. It seems like this problem could be alleviated, though, by being generous with promo codes (or app gifting) with customers who contact you with problems. Nonetheless, it’s probably desirable to limit the time that the app bundle is available so that the original version can in a timely manner be removed from the App Store and officially discontinued.

While I still hold out hope for genuine upgrade pricing in the App Store, I realize that it’s unlikely to be introduced any time soon. Until that time, app bundles appear to offer many of the advantages of upgrade pricing with manageable disadvantages. I’m hopeful that Apple will not take action to prohibit this type of bundling, and that this type of simulated upgrade pricing will allow more complicated, higher priced apps to find a sustainable market in the App Store. So thank you Apple!