Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Problem With Free

Recently I have doing more on my iPhone. This is, of course, relative to me only. So by “doing more”, I mean getting a screen protector and buying an app. But even then, I cannot do that without frustration. Let me begin with some clarification. I am not one those people who go through the App Store and buy an app just because it looks appealing, saying, “eh, it’s just $0.99.” I know myself well enough to know how much I really use my phone. If I purchase thirty apps, about twenty-five of them will be forgotten and rarely used. So every app I buy has to do exactly what I think it will do and not be annoying in any way since I would potentially be using it every day.

If you browse through the App Store, you will see that there are two broad categories of apps—paid and free. Many paid apps have a free or lite version. The idea behind having a free version is to give the user hands on experience with the app and to make the user dependent on the app enough to purchase the full paid version. There are two things that follow because of that. The first is that the free app version will have limited functionality. That should be obvious. The second is that the free app will have advertisements. Some combination of the two is required. You can have no advertisements but very limited functionality, or many advertisements and more functionality. Up to now, I understood the logic of it, until this past week.

There is a game made by Skyworks named Arcade Bowling. It is a neon laced version of skee-ball. When it first came out it was a pretty good game. The only advertisement was a banner ad at the bottom of the screen, which was odd given the simplicity of skee-ball. I mean, what else is there to skee-ball other than rolling a ball up the ramp? In other words, how much difference could there be between the free and paid versions? Apparently not much difference. You can throw in progressive play (whatever that really is) and high score tracking, but it is hard to jazz up skee-ball because it is already quite basic. Thus, I was quite happy with my Arcade Bowling Lite for quite some time.

Then one day there was a notice that some of my apps had updates available. Arcade Bowling was one of them. When you read the description of the upgrade, it simply says something along the lines of, “iPhone 4.0 bug fixes” or something of that nature. That should have been my first lesson—do not update a game app with which you have no problems. Note that I did not say any app, just game apps. After the update, I tried to play the game. I was met with a loud obnoxious movie trailer for Resident Evil. You could not skip this trailer for several seconds. And after I got past the trailer I was met with a page of advertisements. And trying to get past those advertisements resulted in the app crashing half the time. Needless to say I deleted Arcade Bowling after ten minutes of that nonsense. I went online and found Skee-Ball, a simple app that does what I expect it to do—let me play Skee-Ball, and nothing else.

The interesting thing is that I paid $0.99 for Skee-Ball. I could have paid $0.99 for Arcade Bowling and perhaps gotten rid of that ridiculous advertisement fiasco, but there was no guarantee of that. The descriptions in both the lite and paid version made absolutely no suggestion that buying the app would purge the advertisements. Now while it probably would have (since the reviews of the paid version lacked the poison pen of the lite version), after seeing what the company thinks of its lite version users I decided they could look for my $0.99 up their asses.

Skee-Ball has no free version that I have encountered. And though it turned out to be a better game for me overall, I might not have ever purchased it, since there was a free version made by Skyworks. It was only after Skyworks crapped all over their free version that I went and bought Skee-Ball. I have no doubt that many users upgraded to their Arcade Bowling Lite to escape the excessive advertisements, but I believe they did so only because the App Store search engine is still in its infancy was unable to pull up Skee-Ball and Arcade Bowling on the same search page. But once Apple’s search engine evolves, companies like Skyworks will either have to change their business model or start losing money.