Free Trials from Apple’s Perspective

There has been a lot of criticism over the years of Apple’s stance on free trials in the App Store. This has come to a head in the last few months, with a “Developers Union” formed with the initial objective of putting free trials on Apple’s agenda, and an extensive post by Daniel Jalkut about how recent changes to In-App Purchase (IAP) guidelines do not constitute real free trials.

I don’t want to get into a point-by-point debate on the topic; instead, I want to do something that I haven’t seen anyone do: try to understand why Apple don’t want the sort of free trials that are being demanded.

Apple currently allows free trials in two forms: if you sell subscriptions, you can give customers a free month to try the app; and, you can give your app away free, and offer a free In-App Purchase (IAP) to unlock all features for a fixed period of time.

So why does Apple allow these forms, but not offer a more formal version of free trials? Most developers seem to assume they are deliberately ignoring their protests, for no good reason, or that they simply are not willing to dedicate the resources to solve the problem. I doubt both of these assumptions. I think Apple have probably thought long and hard about it, and concluded that the options they have introduced are actually better than the free trials developer’s are requesting.

Think for a moment about how a ‘formal’ free trial system would work. What would you see in the App Store? Probably something along the lines of a button with the text “$50 with Free Trial”. Now take your average iOS customer, who has never heard of free trials as they exist outside the App Stores. I suspect many will already be confused by this. Here are some question they might have:

  • If I click the button, will I be charged $50 now?
  • What happens when my trial is up: will I be charged automatically then?
  • How do I cancel my free trial?
  • What if I want to pay for the app right now, and not use a free trial?
  • What if half way through my trial I want to purchase the app?

That button actually throws up a lot more questions than it would seem. I personally do not know the answers to some of these questions, and I sell software for a living, so how can Joe Normal ever know? Either they will be too scared to download the app, or they will download it and be a state of uncertainly, perhaps even fear, that they will be charged.

Even if they don’t fear being charged, they may wonder how they make the purchase when the trial is finished. Is that just an IAP? Can I pay somehow halfway through? Do I have to go back to the App Store and purchase again?

And what about people who absent-mindedly download by clicking the button. They may well miss the free trial information, and think they already paid. A month later, they are going to get angry, because they “already bought it!”. Or they realize it is a free trial, but quickly forget that, because they never formally opted-in to a free trial, later to find their data is being held for ransom unless they pay up. (Such a confusion could arise from overloading the purpose of the “Get” button, to mean download and get a free trial.)

Apple don’t want this. Apple want customers to make a clear decision about their purchase, with clear implications. They certainly don’t want refund requests to rain in, or — even worse — barrages of customers having their data held hostage because they didn’t realize, or forgot, they were in a free trial. And they don’t want any ambiguity, which is what a “$50 with free trial” button introduces — in bucket loads.

So why are the existing options any better? Let’s take the free IAP system. Firstly, there is no fear about downloading an app — it is free to download. There is a nice big “Get” button to indicate that. Second, once you have the app, you are told there is a free trial, and you are given a clear choice to opt-in. Because it is an IAP, and not a subscription, you know there can be no charge at the end of the trial. There is a second IAP to purchase the app; it is equally clear that you don’t pay until you activate that IAP, and that you can do that any time. Everything is driven by the customer, and all opt-in. No uncertainty.

The subscription option is also clear. People know what a subscription entails, and thus expect to be charged regularly. It is clear that you get a free month, and obvious that after that time the subscription will continue unless you cancel it. Again, fully opt-in, and no uncertainty.

For me personally — and not a reflection of the opinions of others in my company — Apple are doing this right. There are perhaps a few rough edges — for example, they could word the free In-App Purchase option better — but their philosophy of making it completely clear to customers what they are getting, and when they pay, is on the money. It is not a case of Apple being vindictive. I guarantee they have thought about this problem deeply.