Instacast 3 and Paid Upgrades

As I wrote BuzzFeed, Meet The Oatmeal Tuesday night, I came across Shawn Blanc’s short post regarding Vemedio’s latest release in a bout of procrastination as I pursued Twitter. My excitement over a new major release of my favorite podcast client was tinged with confusion though as I attempted to update the app, and was instead presented with the option to purchase it once again. Curious, I began digging around until finally, after a strangely complicated search, I confirmed my suspicion that Instacast 3.0 is, in fact, a paid upgrade.

At first I intended only to publish a short acknowledgment article as Shawn posted; however, after writing the article, as I sat back and looked at it, I realized the release of Instacast 3 was not only a perfect opportunity to discuss the latest iteration of my favorite podcatcher, but could also serve as my jumping-off point to discussing a number of topics related to app pricing. Unable to pass this opportunity by, I put off publishing this article for another day so as to give myself time to craft something worthwhile to say.

Since releasing Instacast 3.0, the widespread positive responses across the web have been undercut by negative undertones, especially in the form of app reviews. Beginning with 1.0, Vemedio has continued searching for a solution to the problem of recurring app revenue with each major release: the first version sold for $2.99; Instacast HD, an iteration of the popular podcatcher for the iPad released shortly after Instacast 1.4, sold for $4.99. With Instacast 2.0, a paid upgrade from the previous version, Vemedio changed the base price to $0.99 in an attempt at attracting a wider audience with the lower price point, supplemented by a $1.99 in-app purchase for what were marketed as pro features. Instacast HD went unaffected by this shift in price point. The release of Instacast 3.0 removed this segmentation and not only brought a universal app to market where previously there existed two separate binaries, but also boasted a multitude of interface, user experience, and performance improvements in addition to fixing the long-standing iCloud syncing issue as well as finalizing Instacast’s pricing model at $4.99. As stated in the blog post announcing its release, Instacast 3 truly is “in many ways a whole new app.”

Despite all these major improvements — and there should be no doubt that use of modern technologies to greatly improve Instacast’s responsiveness and cross-device syncing capabilities are major improvements — complaints at having to pay for the new upgrade are in no short supply, nor is this the first time these complaints have surfaced: after Instacast 2.0 was released as a paid upgrade earlier this year, Vemedio experienced a similar level of backlash. Even as some users complained though, many saw the new model for what it was: a developer trying to support the ongoing improvement of a beloved app in an ecosystem non-conducive to any form of recurring app revenue.

Over the years Apple has continued to lobby for — inadvertently or otherwise, it is hard to say — a largely unsustainable app revenue system in which developers are paid increasingly smaller amounts in exchange for the fruits of the labor, and then expected to pour more time and effort into the development of these applications for indefinite time periods without any sort of compensation. In the face of this issue, app developers have handled this in a number of ways. Marco Arment, for example, recoups the day-to-day costs of running Instapaper through an in-app purchase subscription model where users have the option to pay $3 every three months in exchange for “almost nothing, except knowing that you are supporting the Instapaper service’s operation and future feature development.” Other developers such as Martin Hering, founder of Vemedio and Instacast’s creator, have instead chosen to charge for app updates by suspending the previous version from sale and releasing the latest iteration as a separate app, thus getting around Apple’s lack of functionality providing for paid upgrades. Whereas supporting Instapaper is optional, those wishing to receive the latest version of Instacast are forced to purchase the app again. While the recently-announced Instacast Memberships will alleviate some of the pressure to charge for each major update, it is unlikely to lower the price point or obfuscate the need to charge for future updates. Contrary to the established model, this approach rubs many people the wrong way.

We have gradually been conditioned to consider paying anything more than $0.99 for any app cause for serious consideration, and that charging for upgrades — regardless of the time and effort put into the release — is ludicrous. This mentality has fostered the unsustainable expectation that a one-time purchase could somehow support the continued improvement of any given app permeating the entire app ecosystem like an infectious disease, one that will slowly stifle and then kill independent innovation. Martin found an apparently successful solution to the problem posed by funding a niche app like Instacast, but yet we complain at having to hand him a few dollars every so often to perpetuate the development of such an excellent service? Martin spent two months building Instacast 1.0; over the next fourteen months in addition to pushing out occasional point releases, he developed Instacast 2.0. Was $0.99, or $2.99 assuming you purchased the pro features, worth fourteen months of his time? Nearly seven months elapsed between the release of Instacast 2.0 and Instacast 3.0, during which Martin continued to improve Instacast 2 while simultaneously rebuilding the entire app from the ground up; is this worth %4.99 to you? He essentially rebuilt the entire app — at what point does an indie developer’s time become worth more than $0.99?

I find it particularly disturbing that this sort of conversation could even take place among Instacast’s users, people who, given the niche it occupies, should have at least a basic understand of the extensive time and effort required to bring an app of Instacast’s caliber to market. Developers like Martin Hering pour their time and effort into applications like Instacast, then ask for less than $5 in compensation. And then we complain because it’s not $0.99. It’s asinine: pay to support the developers who create your favorite apps. Rather than writing critical articles and angry tweets because we have the opportunity to — not “have to”, “have the opportunity to" — pay for the continued development of an app like Instacast, we should instead ask, “Why can’t I pay more?"