Tweetie pricing fuss highlights App Store flaw

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You need no better sign that Twitter and the iPhone have gone mainstream than the absolute furor that’s erupted over Tweetie 2 for iPhone. A fuss over upgrade pricing ? Have we now so exhausted our concerns over swine flu and the health-care debate that we can move on to a piddling matter of $3?

The crux of the matter, if you’ve found yourself insulated from the first-world donnybrook, is that the forthcoming version 2.0 of Tweetie for iPhone will cost the same as the current version: $3. Tweetie developer Loren Brichter has justified this by explaining that it’s an entirely new application, re-built from the ground up with new features and functionality.

But three dollars, right? I mean, with that much money I could buy a third of a movie ticket! I could take the subway one and a half times! I could pay the convenience charge on the parking ticket I got last night (thanks, City of Somerville).

And yet, people are exploding all over the Internets—yes, all of them—over what they perceive as greed and money-grubbing behavior from Brichter. Which is not only hairball-hocking insane but, well, pretty rude to boot.

As always, I attribute much of the criticism to simple ignorance of a few key facts. One: Loren Brichter is not a bazillionaire. He’s not Bill Gates or one of the Google fellows. He doesn’t have a staff of hundreds who work under him in crafting Tweetie, nor does he have a manservant who brings him brandy and slippers while he lounges on a snow leopard-skin rug in front of a roaring fire—I mean, as far as I know. (Where does one get a quality manservant these days, anyway?)

He’s one guy who created an excellent Twitter application for the iPhone—which he later ported to the Mac—and is trying to make a living by creating software. And that isn’t easy, especially in a market as crowded as the one for iPhone apps. In fact, it’s probably about as difficult making your living as a writer or, say, an actor. Brichter’s charging a reasonable amount of money for a product that he’s invested his time and energy into creating—heck, some might call that the very definition of the American small business.

“Ah,” but you say—if you don’t mind me putting words in your mouth, “but how come he needs to charge full price for an upgrade to those of us who gladly handed over our $3 for the first version of Tweetie? Haven’t we earned a break for supporting this hard-working gentleman in his endeavor?”

Allow me to redirect your question to the man behind the curtain, who’s actually less of a man and more of an institution: the App Store.

The App Store, you see, has very strict rules on pricing. Among those is “no paid updates.” It’s an all-or-nothing proposition: either every upgrade to an application is free for everybody, regardless of how much work the developer puts into it, or the upgrade is delivered as a “new” application that everybody has to pay for it. There’s no facility—none—for developers to give some customers a break on a upgrade price without sending each and every one a check for the discount. And if you’re even contemplating that being a reasonable idea, then might I suggest some form of neurological testing?

Let’s not mince words: this is a fundamental flaw in the App Store’s design. It’s quite a shock, I realize: the App Store, flawed—could it be true?

Now, it’d sure be great if we all got free updates in perpetuity for all of our iPhone applications, but it would also be great if I didn’t have to slip money in George Lucas’s voluminous coffers—I have it on good authority that the man has actual coffers—for the Star Wars trilogy every time a new format gets invented (VHS, LaserDisc, DVD, Blu-ray, digital download, holographic projection, etc.). Also, I’d love it if I automatically got a free copy of the sequel to this book I’ve been reading. And, while we’re at it, it’d be just fantastic if I didn't have to pay for every major new version of Mac OS X that Apple comes out with.

Now, it also probably wouldn’t be so bad for developers if it weren’t for the fact that they have to charge dirt-low prices to compete in the first place. They might very well be more willing to give out free updates if you’d paid $10 or $20 upfront, but then again, it all depends on what they need to keep afloat. Software developers don’t pluck prices out of thin air any more than the grocery store does: they’re based on the cost of developing the software (which is, amazingly, not free) plus a profit margin—because most developers aren’t in it for altruism any more than the rest of us are for our own jobs.

For what it’s worth, I’ve been using Tweetie 2 for the iPhone while it’s in beta and it’s a fantastic application with support for video tweeting, full persistence, Instapaper, and more. Loren’s put a lot of work into the update and he’s justified in saying that it’s an entirely new application. I’d imagine that he wouldn’t mind giving a break on pricing for owners of the original Tweetie, were such a thing within his power, but it’s not. Thus, Tweetie 2 costs $3.

In fact, I asked him, via the old-timey e-mail medium whether upgrade pricing would be something he's interested in. "Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely" he wrote back. "In an ideal world, I'd even be able to graduate the price depending on duration of ownership, so users who picked up Tweetie 1 recently could get 2.0 for free."

So there you are. If you want to complain to someone here, complain to Apple. Suggest to them—politely, of course—that upgrade pricing is something they may want to look into. But don’t take it out on Loren: after all, he’s just a guy without a manservant like the rest of us.

Update: Updated 2:50PM ET with comment from Brichter.

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