In-App Purchases: are developers evil?

There’s been a lot of demonization of developers using in-app purchases inside apps aimed at children. A few days ago Apple had to refund customers in the U.K. when their five-year-old boy accidentally spent $2,500 in in-app purchases in just 15 minutes. The settlement obviously made headlines and the debate followed. Sadly, most of the comments ended up simply reinforcing a widespread misconception: developers who use IAP inside children’s apps are evil and should be banned by Apple.

Since we develop apps for children and one of them uses IAP,  we took some time to clarify a few points. We’re pretty passionate about what we do, and we don’t like poor simplifications.

1) Designing the right purchase path for your users is one of the most difficult part of the app development process and you never get it right the first time. In other words, you need to make several experiments and several changes before you really understand what’s the best purchase option for your users. Unfortunately, experimenting in the Apple environment is not as easy as on the world wide web. Every time you want to change something, you need to submit a new release to Apple and then, if you’re lucky, wait for at least two weeks to see it live.

2) When demonizing developers, detractors usually say they prefer paying upfront for an app instead of downloading it for free and dealing with IAP later. Well, this is simply not true. Most people only download free apps for their kids. And only if they see that their children are really engaged with the app, they will “consider” an upgrade. Which makes sense: there are tons of things to choose from in the App Store, and parents want to try something before buying it.

3) If you’re working on a quality app, you obviously want as many parents/children as possible to discover it, and to start paying for it. This is why you make it free to download: you think people will give it a try, since it’s free, and then, as soon as they realize how awesome it is, they’ll eventually start paying for it. To have them buy it, the purchase needs to be easy and simple. If you put the buy option somewhere that’s impossible for children to find, probably it will be impossible to find it also for parents. And you’ll have lost everything you did, even if what you did was awesome.

In other words, the amount of trouble any developer has to deal with when making a good app is enormous. And the fact that some developers use or have used IAP to push children to rack up charges by buying add-ons to games doesn’t mean that IAP are evil by definition. That’s why we can’t stand developers who try to build their reputation writing everywhere from their website to their iTunes description “NO IN APP PURCHASES!”. IAP are just one of the many ways you can buy digital things in the Apple Store. It’s how you implement them and how you deal with them that builds your reputation, not the fact that you don’t use them!

2 comments
Gabriel Adauto
Gabriel Adauto

Hi Timbuktu, Great write-up from the perspective of a developer. I heartily agree. Best, Gabriel Co-founder, Motion Math