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App Store price fluctuation angering some iPhone users

Developers switching the price of applications has begun cropping up as a problem on the iPhone applications store. What is Apple prepared to do about it?

App Store users angered over sudden price changes respond in the reviews. CNET Networks

When Konami's Frogger popped up in the iPhone App Store early Wednesday, the $9.99 price tag immediately set off a firestorm of angry user reviews. Apple's review system has doubled as a forum for users who find bugs, or otherwise feel the need to vent about the shortcomings of various developer-built applications.

The rather exorbitant price tag for a 26-year-old software title has been met with overwhelmingly negative reaction from potential customers, even though it's been rewritten to include iPhone-hardware-specific controls using the accelerometer and touch screen. Similar offerings that have started out at the same price point have succumbed to outspoken users and have issued price drops.

On the other end of the spectrum, there's something very different going on with developers who have offered their applications for free. They've found a fairly simple way to work Apple's own ranking system to their advantage. Since developers are able to change their price point at any time, some have offered early versions of their applications free of charge then switched the price over once it reaches a critical mass.

While this move is perfectly reasonable for the people who created a good application to profit from their success, it's also taking advantage of the way Apple displays its information. Apple's top applications section as seen from both the mobile application store and iTunes lists both the free and the paid titles. Once a popular free application switches to being paid, it can jump lists. In most cases the number of free downloads jumps it to the top of the paid applications list, even if that doesn't necessarily mean the proportionate number of users has paid for it.

Some users have called for Apple to reset or make separate an application's download counter in the case that a free application goes paid, if only to bring a sense of order. Meanwhile, some paid applications that have been running the paid leaderboard for weeks have been knocked out by these smaller, older applications.

In the case of Crazy Lighter developed by Ezone.com, the switch from free to paid put it on top of the paid applications list. Coming up just behind is BreakClassic, another free app that switched to being paid. Both are only 99 cents, but users seem far more content with BreakClassic's approach, which has added more levels and functionality than it had before.

Ultimately, it will be up to consumers, not Apple, to police the applications marketplace. To an extent, equilibrium has already been reached; Apple's built-in review system has managed to at least offer warning to would-be buyers about potential problems others have been having--something quite different from the the original intent of the same review system put in place for music, movies, and audio books. Going forward, it would be wise for Apple to offer much deeper capabilities in the rating system to give users commenting, threaded discussion forums, and a way to track price changes throughout the history of an application.