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September 06, 2008

The iPhone App Store Should Let You Try Before You Buy

With only a few exceptions, it's been universally accepted that Apple's move to sell iPhone applications on its iTunes store is an unqualified success. In fact, it's widely believed that Microsoft will soon follow suit, offering a centralized place to acquire and download applications for Windows Mobile. But in speaking with other iPhone users, I've heard concerns voiced that there is no way to use an application on a trial basis. We know Apple has the capability to use DRM to limit the amount of time a customer can rent a movie, so why not use the same technology to let users try apps for days or weeks?

Software developers outside the world of the iPhone have a number of ways to try and gain compensation for their work. Some give it away via freeware. Others use what's called donationware, which essentially means the product is free, but they provide a way for you to donate money, should you want to. Even more popular is shareware, which has a listed price, but lets you download it for free, and pay later, often limited to a number of users, or through repeat annoyances that make you want to upgrade. And, of course, you have software that's only available at full price, or in retail packages.

But so far, Apple's iPhone App Store only offers two options - free, and paid. And if you've paid for a premium application, and it turns out you don't like it, tough luck.

Practically the only way an application developer can offer users a way to "try before they buy" is to offer a free "lite" version on the iTunes App Store in addition to a premium version. Customers who want the additional features of the paid application would try the lite version and then buy a second, parallel, application, and need to delete the old.

This inflexibility is unnecessary given Apple's experience with setting DRM to give users a limit to how many times they can burn playlists to CDs and how long they have to watch movies rented from iTunes. Given that a text description and small pictures displayed on the iTunes store isn't always a great representation of the user's experience with the software app, it makes sense for the company to work with developers to offer time or use-based limits to software, which would first be free and later prompt to be paid for. The ability to try applications before buying them wold reduce consumers' concerns and still offer developers a way to make a return on their investment. DRM doesn't always have to be bad - it can help both users and content creators.