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Tweetie 2 Pricing Controversy: An Interview with Tweetie’s Creator

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Just in case you missed it, I posted earlier this week about the new Tweetie 2 iPhone Twitter app that will soon be coming to the App Store, and my negative reaction to the fact that it is coming as a brand new app, rather than an upgrade to the existing app.

That post drew (for a site of this size) a lot of reaction, in the over 170 comments here, in discussions on Friendfeed, and in some other posts round the web.  It provoked a lot of heated reactions, and some decent conversation and debate on several subjects surrounding iPhone apps, upgrade policies, user expectations and so on.

Last night I was pleasantly surprised to get an email from Loren Brichter, the creator of Tweetie, saying he had seen both my posts this week on Tweetie 2 and saying he was happy to talk about these subjects and explain his rationale behind his decisions on Tweetie 2.  I jumped at the chance to discuss this with Loren. My Q&A with him follows after the jump

Questions in bold, answers in quote text

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How did you come to the decision to make Tweetie 2 a separate app, as opposed to an update?  You’ve mentioned you saw this coming months ago and spent a long time deciding on it.  What sort of factors weighed into that decision?

A few factors contributed to the decision, the biggest of which is that it actually is “ at its core “ a whole new app.  As I described (http://j.mp/bigbird2), I spent months rewriting everything from the networking code to the UI.  The only thing it shares with the original is the name.

The business behind it was also a factor.  If Tweetie 1 had been a dud, I would have had little reason to create Tweetie 2.  Similarly, if Tweetie 2 is a dud, there’s little incentive to create Tweetie 3.  (And I never would release a paid update to an app unless I was absolutely, totally confident that it was worth it).  Paid upgrades have to be an integral part of the App Store in the future “ it’s the only way it stays a viable system for app developers who want to create something better than "ringtone apps".

If Apple did allow app upgrades, or if they provided a way to do ‘upgrade pricing’ would you be doing this as an upgrade?

Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely.  If it were possible, I’d even have loved to configure the pricing in a graduated manner, so users who picked up Tweetie 1 recently would be able to get Tweetie 2 for free.  Sadly, these tools are not (yet) at our disposal.

Is there anything at all that can be done for current Tweetie users, within the restrictions placed around upgrades and such by Apple?  (one of our readers wondered whether a small discount on the desktop app could be offered – though I imagine this would just draw the wrath of Windows users)  Maybe a 24 hour $1.99 special to say thanks maybe?

I encourage any users who are upset by the decision to shoot an email to support@atebits.com, we will do everything in our power to make things right.

Will any of the new features / functionality of Tweetie 2 get into Tweetie V1?

Sadly, no.  Many of the new features in Tweetie 2 are simply a by-product of a completely revamped core, and would be impossible to "port" back to Tweetie 1 without completely gutting Tweetie 1 independently.  I will continue to support Tweetie 1 for the foreseeable future, but all of my weight is now behind making Tweetie 2 as good as possible.

Will you continue to support Tweetie as it is supported now?  If so, will there be any planned / stated cutoff date for that support?

Absolutely.  And no, there’s no planned cutoff.  My gut tells me that the vast majority of users will want to try out Tweetie 2.  If Twitter makes any dramatic changes, I’ll do my best to keep Tweetie 1 working.

So I’ve been quite vocal about my contention that Tweetie 2 – as good as it sounds – strikes me as an upgrade / new version, rather than a brand new app.  Can you tell me why that is not so in your view?

I hope I covered that in question 1 (and on my blog 🙂

Where is the boundary line between upgrade version and new app?  Or is the boundary a little false, and largely just a workaround to Apple’s current no upgrades policy?

It’s a great question, and I don’t think there’s any hard-and-fast rule.  If all I had done was bloat up Tweetie 1 with new features, I probably would have released it as a free upgrade.  I really did rewrite it from scratch, and made those new features feel truly integrated, not tacked on.

Could you have / should you have let existing users / potential new users know earlier that the app was going to ‘fork’ into two?  (as you have now done via its App Store description)

It’s a balancing act.  On the one hand, absolutely “ users have a right to know as early as possible.  On the other hand I couldn’t easily have told people the app was going to fork until I was ready to announce what exactly it was going to fork *into*.  I was finally ready to announce that on Monday, so I did it in one fell swoop.

You’ve said that many other developers have thanked you for ‘taking the initial flack’ and that paid upgrades are a very important way to keep the App Store a sustainable business for developers.  Can you expand on why this is for me?

Without the option for paid upgrades, developers (who work on anything more substantial than ringtone apps) have two options:
1. Support the app forever and release free updates forever.
2. Abandon the app.

No developer can afford to do (1), so the app will die.  Users can be scary to developers, even if the angry ones are just a vocal minority.  Changing the perception that iPhone apps will get free upgrades forever is going to be an uphill battle, and I think other developers are thankful I’ve taken a step in that direction.

‘Entitlement’ was a term that I heard a lot more in the last couple days than I think I have in my whole life.  I think the gist was I’ve got a way over-inflated sense of mine as a user of iPhone apps.  So, what should a user feel ‘entitled’ to having purchased an iPhone app?  What should their expectations be in terms of support and upgrades, for say a social networking app?

Haha. In the simplest sense, users get, and should expect exactly what the App Store description for an app claims.  I don’t think (correct me if I’m wrong) I claimed that Tweetie 1 did or would eventually do anything that it doesn’t do today.  By releasing Tweetie 2, I’m not forcing anybody to upgrade “ Tweetie 1 won’t magically stop working.  All I’m doing is making a great new Twitter client available to the world.

It has certainly become the "norm" for apps on the App Store to get free new features after the first release.  Tweetie 1 followed that model for 8 months, it pioneered Instapaper integration, sensible multiple account management, and blazing fast performance, and had the most intuitive UI of any app around (and arguably still does).

It’s really tempting to fall into the trap of lumping "social networking" apps into their own category.  It’s true that the new social networking "business models" seems to be:
1. Release stuff for free
2. ???
3. Sell out

Where (2) is most likely: take money from VCs and completely lose creative control over your company and product.

You can tell when a company is run by these business types.  I think it sucks, so I’m running things the old school way: charging for good products, and graciously accepting money from people who think it’s worth $3 for an app that they love and use all the time.  That money will go towards improving the current product, and (fair warning) go towards funding new projects that I reserve the right to charge money for.

How, and how much, should these expectations be shaped by the price of an app?

Another fantastic question.  If I had charged $5, $6, or even $10 for Tweetie 1, there would be more incentive to release Tweetie 2 for free.  If you think about it, the combined price of Tweetie 1 and Tweetie 2 is still less than a single version of some other Twitter clients.

What are the factors that are driving the whole ‘race to the bottom’ in iPhone apps pricing?  (really hoping you’re not going to say ‘posts like yours’)

Haha, absolutely not.  I think posts like yours are hugely important for getting an open discussion going on things the App Store needs.  One thing it needs is a mechanism for paid upgrades.

The "race to the bottom" is inevitable, but only for a certain class of apps.  I’d like to think that there will always be some higher-class apps that warrant a price greater than 99c.  And it’s important that developers price their apps fairly: both fair for users, and fair for themselves.  It doesn’t help anybody if a good developer with a good app runs himself out of business because he’s worried about charging more than 99c.

Any predictions on where prices are going for iPhone apps?

I’m not sure if this was the intention, but having a price floor of 99c is a great thing for the App Store.  If there was no floor, some class of developers would be fighting over an ever shrinking chunk of the pie, indirectly deflating the perceived value of other apps on the store.

What is the right price point going forward (post launch) for Tweetie 2?  Is it going to remain a $2.99 app or do you have plans to make it a premium app?

Tweetie 2 *is* a premium app “ don’t be fooled by the price ;).  In my (humble) opinion it’s the best Twitter experience around.  I never liked playing pricing games, Tweetie 1 was always $2.99, and it’s my plan to keep Tweetie 2 $2.99 forever as well.

*** Quick note here.  I actually mis-phrased this question to Loren.  I meant to ask whether he had plans to make it a ‘premium-priced ‘ app.  I would absolutely agree that Tweetie is a premium app; it has long been one I ‘ve recommended and long been a favorite of mine.

Why no push notifications in Tweetie 2?  Do you feel this is covered well
enough by a number of 3rd party apps by now?

Push notifications are a problem that is next-to impossible to solve
in any *reliable* way for the scale of users that Tweetie has.  And
yes, if Push is important to you, I strongly recommend apps like
Boxcar, which work great with Tweetie.

I’m not sitting still on this, I simply don’t want to release a
feature that only half-works.  Things are changing fast though, and I
will say that there are some interesting things in the pipe.

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I ‘d like to say a big thanks to Loren for approaching me, and for taking time to provide some very good and thoughtful answers.  I still don ‘t agree 100% with his approach, but I appreciate that he was willing to talk more about this and explain his reasoning.  I especially liked hearing that if Apple did allow for app upgrades or upgrade pricing, it would have been done that way.

I was also very interested to hear his answer on what iPhone app users ‘ expectations should be, and how much they should be shaped by an app ‘s price “ especially this line:

If I had charged $5, $6, or even $10 for Tweetie 1, there would be more incentive to release Tweetie 2 for free.

This may sound strange to many of you, but as a user that would ‘feel ‘ better to me then this way round.

Anyway, I ‘m going to do something now that I did not do the other night before posting my ‘rant ‘ post on Tweetie 2.  I ‘m going to take some time to digest Loren ‘s answers, as well as many of the comments and posts I ‘ve seen on this topic, and work out what I think of all of it somewhere down the line.

I know that one thing I think is that Apple should certainly be looking at addressing this issue “ in some major ways.  I agree that this will likely be an issue that will keep cropping up until Apple does address it.

I also know for sure that I feel like these subjects are worth discussing and debating, and I ‘ve certainly gained a better understanding of some of the developer side of things over the last couple days.  My first post on this subject was not a great start for this conversation, as its tone was over-the-top (in hindsight) “ but somehow some patches of decent conversation have broken through anyway. 

Again, I appreciate Loren taking time to participate “ and I hope the Q&A above is a good contribution to the discussion.

Oh, and by the way, Loren also got Tweetie 2 submitted for App Store approval today.

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  • Nice interview Patrick!!! Hopefully this will answer many questions people had in regards to the upgrade.

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  • MikeG

    I would like to commend both sides, interviewer and interviewe, for their professionalism and open mindedness.

    As a fledgling iPhone app developer, I think about this all of the time. It becomes an even bigger issue if you are writing applications as a consultant for other companies. I am sure this will come up in the near future when a client asks, "How do I make more money on this app?"

    • Thanks for the kind words Mike.

  • Steve Mays

    Come ON. Three bucks. You can't buy a beer for that. What's the cost-per-minute of use in a month? Wait, wait… I've got it… I've got it…

    • This comment belongs on the first post along with all the other mindless comments that do not add to the conversation. Anybody that is able to afford a monthly internet access charge to be able to post a comment on this site is not worried about going broke over $3!

      The issue at hand is that there is a need for an official upgrade path. As it stands, the App Store seems to suggest a "purchase once and endless free upgrades" business model.

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  • I just wanted to say that your follow up interview was excellent, and really made up for the first post, without backing down or simpering — if only more people took your approach to dealing with conflict, we'd be better off.

    TTFN
    Travi

    • Thanks very much for the kind words.

  • Respectful all around. You both seem to really think things through without diving into tit-for-tat name calling. What a great building block for the discussion to come.

    • Thanks – and hope ti will help the discussion.

    • Thanks – and hope it will help the discussion.

  • Excellent questions! No Push Notifications for Tweetie 2? That right there is making T2 fall behind existing twitter apps.

    • Hi Gary. Thanks. I've never been that fussed about push, for almost any app, and I do reckon there are enough good options like Boxcar out there to make this probably not a dealbreaker for many folks. Just my .02. Hope you're doing well mate.

  • Awesome interview. I actually took the time to read it all, from beginning to end. While I still agree with your original posting, I can understand his point of view. I think it's cool that Loren did the interview. Kudos to both parties.

    • Thanks Ramesh. I think Loren provided some very good, and thorough, answers.

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  • This is really cool. Twitter for iPhone App. Das ermöglicht mir mein iPhone ohne Vertrag kaufen! 🙂

  • Nearly everyone misses the point of these "upgrades" re-packaged as new. I'll wait until the next 40 app developers jump on this bandwagon and release "new upgrades" for a fee then I bet the tone changes. The only reason it is sympathetic now is that this is really the first app to pull this stunt.

    And what about the non-technical people who read about Tweetie and go to download Tweetie 1 not understanding that it's essentially dead and that they should have bought Tweetie 2.

    Not drinking this Kool Aid — and I think Apple will very quickly come out with a policy to stop these shenanigans. They won't allow the App store to be clutter with a bunch of abandoned early versions of essentially the same application.

    • I hope Apple does something soon to give devs more options, and to get this sorted.

    • So, would you call upgrades to other desktop software 'shenanigans' as well? People pay upwards of $100 or more to upgrade things like OS X itself, iWork, iLife, MS Office, and even more for the Adobe products. Even on smaller applications, most of the time you can expect to pay for major versions of the app, regardless of how much has actually changed.

      In this case, though, you're paying $3. Not $60, $80, $100 or more for anything else, but just simply $3 to support the work of a single developer who has vested a lot of his own time into making an application that he hopes people will love.

      I wouldn't say Tweetie 1 is 'dead'. Loren has already said he will support it for the foreseeable future, and will update it if Twitter makes any significant changes that will prevent it from working. He's just not going to add any new features to it, which is fine, since there is no requirement for him to do so. You know what features an app has when you purchase it, you shouldn't expect to receive new functionality for free beyond that. I'm sure he will probably pull the original one from the store so that new users will only find the new one, while existing users can keep using the current version. Developers can remove an app from the App Store without affecting people who have already purchased it.

      At any rate, this is far from a 'stunt'. This is a developer who wrote a great Twitter application, and has seen success with it. It has lots of users who love it. He has maintained it with updates as necessary, but now he has come up with some new and better ways of doing things, a lot of new ideas he wanted to implement, and he has taken the time to put all of these ideas down and make a new product, and he's offering that new product as an option for those who want it. You can't expect him to just sell the original version and never expect any payment for additional work he puts into the app, unless you want him to eventually have no reason to continue working on it, as he would not be getting anything out of it beyond users demanding more features and more functionality for nothing.

      • If the original app is pulled from the store how do users of it get the promised future updates for it? (e.g if Twitter makes a change that breaks something in Tweetie V1)

        • Good point. If he did pull it from the store, and then needed to push an urgent update, he could just resubmit it, but he might also leave it in the store to begin with, but update the description and possibly rename it to something like "Tweetie Classic" to ensure that people know it's the older version. It's not his fault if they don't take the time to read the description before purchasing the app, though.

        • Resubmitting every time a bug fix / update is needed sounds less than ideal to me. The renaming idea might be a good thing, and certainly a clear section in the description pointing to the other, newer app would be helpful.

  • Great Interview. I would say that _having read the interview_, I am willing to pay the extra money because it is clear he is a reasonable and thoughtful guy. If I hadn't had the opportunity to read it, I might have been peeved. Food for thought there.

    • Thanks – it gave me lots of food for thought.

  • As for the push notifications, something that many people don't consider is the considerable amount of cost and resources it would take to provide them.

    If Loren decides to offer them, it's not as simple as telling his application to do it. He would have to purchase a hosted server, set up a service to handle the push notifications there, and tie the app into that. Then, that server would have to constantly be checking EVERY SINGLE USER'S PROFILE that uses Tweetie and has Push enabled, which could easily be thousands of users, and sending a notification every single time they recieve a new tweet.

    I don't know about the average user, but I get a good number of tweets (usually at least 20) every single time my client refreshes, and I'm not following that many people. So you can just imagine the volume with users that have thousands, tens of thousands, and even millions of followers. Multiply that by the number of users on Tweetie, and you've got a LOT of work that has to be done, constantly, to ensure that notifications are delivered as quickly as possible.

    All of that requires bandwidth, and bandwidth is NOT cheap. In order to provide something like that, Loren would most likely have to have multiple servers handling the load, and be paying a significant amount of recurring monthly costs to cover the hosting and bandwith for such an endeavor. We are talking hundreds, if not thousands of dollars every month to be able to provide users with instant notification of tweets.

    Doesn't sound so easy now, does it?

  • I think your point in your last paragraph is an excellent one.

    • Oh, that does seem like a little glimmer of hope. I really hope they are working on addressing this issue as well.

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