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Mail Notifier subscription service for the iPhone

TJ Luoma, @tjluoma

When Apple introduced ActiveSync and Push email support for iPhone email, there were two reactions: 1) "Yay!" and 2) "What's this going to mean for battery life?" Any sort of "push" technology will reduce the battery life, but it is a trade-off many people are willing to make, especially when it comes to email.

Mail Notifier is one of several applications in the App Store designed to avoid the battery drain of keeping an active connection to your mail server. I've been using it for a couple of months and it has worked very well with my Gmail (actually, "Google Apps") account. In fact, there have been times when I was sitting at my computer and my iPhone told me I had mail even before I saw it in Mailplane. Does it actually save on battery life? That's a difficult question to answer without doing tests in a controlled environment, but anecdotally and unscientifically I would say that it does seem to have improved my battery life.

One of the nice features that Mail Notifier offers is the ability to set a "silent period" when you won't be disturbed by alerts. This is something that I wish Apple would provide globally, i.e. "Disable all push notifications between 11pm-8am" or each push application would implement individually, e.g. "If it is my move in Words With Friends during the day, play a sound and display an alert, but if it's my move between 11pm and 8am, just display an alert, but keep quiet. I might be sleeping."

Mail Notifier is also said to work with free Hotmail accounts and AOL, although I did not test either of those. If you use webmail instead of Mail, you can setup Mail Notifier to open a web page instead of the Mail app. You can also setup different sounds for different accounts. That is a handy function if you have more than one mail account, or if you have a "multiple iPhone household" and want to avoid the "Which one of us just got an email?" confusion.

Overall, the app has worked very well, and as advertised. However, there is some "small print" to attend to. I was surprised to see a large number of 1-star reviews on the Mail Notifier iTunes/App Store page. Then, I noticed a list of "top in-app purchases" for Mail Notifier. As I scrolled down to read the comments, I found that most of the 1-star reviews seemed to be about the fact that Mail Notifier is actually a subscription service, rather than just a one-time purchase. This came as a surprise to me. I was provided with a review code (see note below) that must have included at least 1 year of service, since I have not seen any renewal notices in the app. I did some looking around to see just how obvious this would be to a new user who happened to be browsing the App Store.

My conclusion is that it really depends on whether you came in through iTunes on a Mac or Windows computer, or whether you used the App Store on an iPhone or iPod touch.

Read on to see more.

In the App Store, you would see this screen when you tap on "Mail Notifier"

You can see "Top In App Purchases," directly underneath the app name and before the description begins. If you tap on that it will show you

Unfortunately the descriptions are truncated, and you can't rotate the iPhone in order to see the rest of the names. They are, as listed in the order shown on the screen:

  1. Mail Notifier 1 Year Subscription: $3.99
  2. Mail Notifier Lifetime Subscription: $9.99
  3. Mail Notifiier 2 Year Subscription: $5.99

If you tap the "Info" button and scroll down you will see this:

The "IMPORTANT NOTE" explains that it includes 3 months of service, but does not make it clear how much the renewals are. It would be fairly easy to scroll past that "IMPORTANT NOTE," and I am fairly sure it would grab more attention if it included dollar signs, like this:

The application includes 3 months of service and can be renewed in the app with an In-App purchase.

  • 1 Year Subscription: $3.99
  • 2 Year Subscription: $5.99
  • Lifetime Subscription: $9.99

That would make it much more likely to catch the casual reader's eye and avoid any confusion.

If you found the app via iTunes on a Mac or Windows computer, it's even worse. The initial view of the app is collapsed (see gallery for iTunes screenshot).

Developers do not have very much room in this description text, but "give another reason for your friends to be envious of your iPhone or iPod Touch," could easily be replaced with some sort of very clear information about the app, including a three month trial of the service. In fact, you could probably keep the existing text, add subscription information, and still have enough room left over.

If a user clicks the "...More" link in iTunes, it will expand to show the same "IMPORTANT NOTE" as above (see gallery for iTunes screenshot)

Yet again, it is easily overlooked when casually scanning the app description. Also notice that the "Top in App Purchases" section is shunted off to the sidebar and truncated so dramatically that it is almost unintelligible. Because it can't be resized, that is a user interface, or "user experience," design flaw by Apple, in my opinion. That "Top In App Purchases" section ought to be right under "Buy App," so that it is extremely prominent and reduces the chances that users will buy an app without noticing that there are In App Purchases. That information is much more prominent in the iPhone's App Store than it is on iTunes.

If the user doesn't click the "...More" link, they would have to click the link for Enflick, Inc. Web Site ,and then go to the specific page for Mail Notifier before finding subscription information.

So, if you buy an app without noticing that it is a subscription and not a one-time purchase, who is at fault? Ultimately, it is the consumer's personal responsibility to actually read the product description before purchasing. This is not some tiny EULA text that an installer shows only after you have purchased the app. This is product information that is available to you with only a few clicks and a few moments of careful attention. Given that the App Store does not have a way for developers to offer "demo" versions (something Apple should have offered a long time ago), it is natural for developers to want to use In App purchases in this way.

However, and I want to be as clear and as emphatic on this point as possible, developers ought to establish such practices as to be above reproach when it comes to using a low selling price as an introduction to a subscription service or other program which relies on In App purchases. Failing to do so is just asking for angry customers. Angry customers leave lots of negative feedback, and negative feedback on the App Store is hard to repair. If you are giving someone what amounts to a three month "demo" of your app/service, make absolutely sure that they know what they are paying for, and what they should expect. Yes, Apple's design and implementation of the App Store and iTunes leaves you with limited control, but use what you have to make any additional costs clear and obvious.

If the costs had been made extremely clear, I would be pointing to this app as a great example of how to use In App Purchases. Rather than asking someone to spend $10 to use an app forever (an app which requires you to maintain a server to support push notifications), saying "You paid $1 for 3 months. Pay $4 for 12 months, $6 for 24 months, or $10 for as many months as you want." That's not very much to spend, and if you find out that you don't need or want the app after 3 months, you're only out $1 instead of $5 or $10. As it is, I can't help feeling a bit like the subscription information has been buried. Yes, it's there, but it's not nearly prominent enough.

The trouble is that, even if you only use the app for 1 year, you are going to end up paying more than either PushMail ($3) or Push for Gmail ($2), which offer many of the same features for a one-time purchase price.

TUAW is commonly provided with not-for-resale licenses or promo codes to permit product evaluations and reviews. For more details, see our policy page. Promo code requests are not guarantees of reviews.

Gallery: Mail Notifier | 2 Photos

Updated to correct "IMAP-IDLE" to "push email."

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