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CoverSutra kerfuffle highlights Mac App Store teething troubles


The Mac App Store is off to a great start, but it's not all sweetness and light. Users have been confused by how some third party apps bought elsewhere show as "installed" in the store UI whilst others don't -- and in fairness, it is confusingly inconsistent. Meanwhile, developers are struggling to deal with the lack of upgrade pricing, and what that means for their existing customers.

As with the iOS App Store, everyone buying an app pays the same price, whether they are a new customer or someone who bought a previous version. There is also no ability to "grandfather in" licenses from elsewhere. For example, I purchased Pixelmator v1.6 from its website for $60 back in September, but the team has now announced that v2 will be exclusive to the Mac App Store.

If they had maintained the $60 price point, I would have had to pay the full amount again in order to move my license from their own system and onto the Mac App Store. Generously, they have dealt with this by offering Pixelmator v1.6 for $30 on the store for a limited time -- with a free upgrade to v2 when it is released. This isn't perfect; some people like me feel annoyed that they paid twice the current rate just a few months ago for a product that won't get an upgrade to v2, and Pixelmator's developers are also effectively giving new customers an upgrade discount they perhaps shouldn't be entitled to. Overall, though, it's the best of a bad set of choices they can make.

Not all devs are having such a smooth ride, however.

Noted iTunes remote control app CoverSutra, written by Sophia Teutschler (see previous TUAW coverage of this app), is another app that has become a Mac App Store exclusive as of the latest v2.5 release, and has had a price cut to boot -- from the previous $25 down to just $5. Which is a great deal for everyone, right? Well, except that all the purchasers of v2 were promised "free upgrades to v3" in their registration emails -- a promise that has now been broken, as there is no way to give them access to the Mac App Store version unless they pay $5.

Clearly, this isn't ideal (and one wonders why Teutschler didn't brand the Mac App Store release as v3.0 to sidestep this issue -- she says she simply forgot about the upgrade promise.) The developer did make a promise of free upgrades, and that promise hasn't been kept; clearly that's not a good thing at all. One option she says she has looked at is maintaining two builds of the software, one in the Mac App Store and one distributed separately (and for free) to existing users, but as a one-woman-operation she says she simply cannot find the time to support two different tracks of her application. As a software dev myself, I sympathize with her position on that.

On the other hand, we are talking about $5 here -- not an enormous sum of money in most people's minds -- and the reactions to the announcement in Teutscheler's blog comments are nothing short of appalling and completely out of all proportion (warning: considerable NSFW and unpleasant language, both in English and German.)

It's hard to know who to side with on this issue; the developer who failed to live up to a commitment to free updates, or the users who overreacted so thoroughly to this "betrayal" that you'd think they all had written "I <3 CoverSutra" all over the insides of their school lockers.

I believe the heart of the problem doesn't lie with either of them though. The real issue is that Apple's Mac App Store should have catered for this scenario a bit better, perhaps by offering developers the ability to issue codes to their existing registered customers that would qualify them for a discount in the store. Apple would have lost money (as their 30% cut would be of a smaller purchase amount), but users wouldn't feel like they were paying twice, and developers like Pixelmator wouldn't have to choose between unpalatable options. It's worth noting that some shops have chosen to issue refunds to past purchasers (RealMac with Courier), while others have committed to continued updates for traditionally-licensed products up to the next major release (SuperMegaUltraGroovy with TapeDeck).

Daniel Jalkut has noted that Aperture is an interesting edge case for the store, because it has traditionally been offered with upgrade pricing, unlike Apple's other in-house software. He did some analysis of the store that found hints at upgrade options; perhaps this is a feature to be released later, or perhaps it was something that was considered but discarded. No upgrade pricing might be acceptable in the iOS store, where most packages are just a few bucks, but if the Mac App Store wants to handle disparate price points then upgrade options would be welcomed by many developers.

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