Rate It If You Hate It + In App Purchasing = Disaster?

stormThere is trouble brewing in the iTunes App Store, thanks to the combination of two App Store features. The first is the pre-existing Rate It If You Hate It ratings prompt system, where they prompt for ratings when you uninstall. The second is the recent change that allows free applications to use In App Purchasing to expand functionality, effectively creating a trial version system for the store.

I’m not a fan of how they’ve implemented either of these, but more importantly, when you combine these two it creates a perfect storm of trouble! Read on after the jump for the entire story about the problem Apple has created…

Rate It If You Hate It

When you uninstall an application from your iPhone, Apple prompts you to rate it. One of the main reasons people uninstall is that they don’t like the application. This encourages everyone who hates an application to rate it and makes it VERY easy to do so – a single button push at the end of an unisntall.

Unfortunately Apple doesn’t do anything to encourage people who like an application to rate it. If you like the app, use it every day, and never uninstall, Apple never prompts you to rate it.

The end result is what I call the Rate It If You Hate It rating system. It’s an ugly system, and its effects are best seen in free applications where hundreds, sometimes thousands, of negative reviews get posted. Paid apps are protected from this (slightly) since you have to own an application to rate it – if you paid for the app there is a good chance you wanted it and like it.

But since anyone can download a free app, lots of people try it, find it doesn’t suit them, uninstall, and give it a bad rating. In many cases it isn’t that the application is bad – it’s just that this isn’t the right app for that person, wasn’t quite what they were looking for, or some other knee jerk response.

There are hundreds of amazing free applications with tens of thousands of happy users and two star ratings for this very reason.

In App Purchasing

The next issue is the decision to allow free applications to use In App Purchasing. With In App Purchasing you can download a free, limited version of an application, and if you like it you pay a set amount to unlock full functionality. On the surface this sounds great – in reality there are some serious pitfalls.

With this system, it encourages every developer to build their apps this way. The result is an app store where everything is free and you can’t tell how much applications actually cost. In addition, paid (via In App Purchasing) applications get stacked in the same lists as free applications making it tough to tell what is actually free!

There are other challenges as well but these are a couple of the big ones for customers.

A Deadly Combination

By themselves these two issues are pretty serious. Combine them and it could spell disaster. Suddenly every amazing paid application in the app store is getting its star rating tanked by the Rate It If You Hate It system. How are users supposed to gauge the actual quality of an application when they all have 2 stars or less thanks to this misguided “feature?”

It also opens up the rating system for tampering. Requiring ownership of an application helped protect paid applications from underhanded competitive practices. Few competitors are going to go out and pay people to buy your application for $10 a pop  just to give it bad ratings.

But what happens when it is free,  and they can get anyone and everyone who is willing to download it, uninstall, and give it a one star rating? I’d like to say that I’m just being overly paranoid but we aren’t new to the mobile software market. This is a very real danger.

Hey, Apple! I Hope You’re Listening!

I sure hope Apple is listening. It isn’t too late to avoid this problem. By making a few small changes, such as categorizing free applications that use In App Purchasing as “Paid Apps”, and only allowing people to review a free application that uses In App Purchasing after they’ve made the In App Purchase, they could prevent this. It won’t solve all the problems these two policies create, but it will certainly help to avoid a much, much larger problem.

7 thoughts on “Rate It If You Hate It + In App Purchasing = Disaster?

  1. Bill

    I agree the current review system is flawed and needs to be replaced with something that encourages fair evaluations.

    “if you paid for the app there is a good chance you wanted it and like it”

    Not so sure about that. I’ve paid for dozens of applications that turned out to be pretty bad. Either the description was misleading, or the blog reviews were way off the mark, or the software just simply didn’t work. No, when I pay for an app there’s a good chance I want to try the app, not that I’ll like it or will continue to use it. Just as the current review system is flawed, the pay before you try system was equally flawed.

  2. Marc Post author

    @Bill: Great points, Bill. I agree that they need something – but I’m not convinced that doing something poorly is a good solution.

  3. The Dave

    I generally don’t rate a free app that didn’t live up to it’s description but it did appear to have some useful functionality. To get a rating at all it needs to be an app I used (or at least tried to use) long enough to give a useful rating

    Crashing, data loss or excessively annoying interface design (obtrusive popup dialogs being my current pet peeve) being the way to get a low rating from me.

    I’m flat out brutal to paid apps that didn’t live up to the description though, with a free app I’ll just delete it unrated, with a paid app I get my $0.99 worth of satisfaction back with a 1-star rating.

    To me, the whole thing could be fixed with a combination of a sane refund policy (negating the need for in-app-purchase type free trials).

    This might help slow down the price-race-to-the-bottom too, negating the need to keep prices low enough that users are willing to gamble. Personally, I’ve paid hundreds or possibly thousands of dollars into PalmOS software over the years I used that platform, at least a couple hundred for Windows Mobile software, but when it comes to iPhone I will rarely even spend $10 since I don’t know if the software even does it’s basic functionality and I certainly don’t have a clue whether or not it does it well.

    The rating system is a bit more difficult a nut to crack, although to start off with, showing star ratings from users who left a comment vs didn’t leave a comment wouldn’t be a bad place to start. Another thought would be to allow developers to request users rate apps from within the app (and you’d better believe that if an app annoys me with this request, it will be getting a 1 star, so abuse by developers should self-regulate)

    Another thought would be to weight reviews with a comment differently from reviews without comments and to reward users who regularly write useful comments somehow.

    Moving all paid apps over to the “Paid” category regardless of whether payment is upfront or down the road would fix up the whole free vs paid issue.

    Like with most things iPhone, the gap between “ideal” or “fair” and “the way Apple tells it’s users they want” is substantial.

  4. Ken

    Reading Marc, Bill and Dave’s postings resulted in me examining what I paid for the apps I have on u iphone. Clearly I am outside of the norm as I have only 2 free apps from “independent” developers and four for which I paid $1.99. The rest range from $4.99 to $11.99

    Keeping that in mind here is my proposal. Remove the ability to rank anything that is free. Its FREE for Pete’s sake. For that price take your chances and if you do not like it, dump it.

    Remove the Rank it if you dump it feature. It is a completely biased survey.

    Allow only someone who has purchased the app to rank it (already in place).

    Apple clearly does not want to quantify the downloads (unlike downloads.com) but providing a figure that showed what percentage of people who downloaded an app subsequently removed it would be useful.

    Just my 2 cents.

  5. Boon Chye

    I agree with the in app purchase comments as I have many times wanted to try and buy an app but then hesitate because I have no way to fully test an app compare to a trial version in Palm or Windows Mobile.

    Although the cost of the apps are still pretty cheap but if you add up the cost of trying multiple apps, the cost will balloon.

  6. Bill

    @Marc No argument there. “It doesn’t matter what we do as long as we do something” has infected too much of the software industry (to say nothing of every other segment of life)

  7. iGadget

    I think they should adopt the same approach as Android, allowing you to uninstall and get a refund within 24 hours. This keeps the application descriptions honest, and if any app is only going to be of interest for 24 hours then it’s probably not wanted.
    I used Android for a few months and I refunded 2 apps out of about 20, as they had bugs or were just plain bad.

    I often hesitate when I see a $12 app on the iPhone, not simply because of the price, but because I’m being asked to risk that money on something I can’t see running. Google’s approach is much better and removes the whole ‘in-app purchase’ concept.

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