iOS app store fail: Why one developer found itself unable to support customers

Paragon Software is raising a stink about an Apple policy that could leave those who purchase high-end apps stranded

There's only one thing worse for an iOS developer than finding out from customers that their app no longer works: not being able to do anything about it. Unfortunately, that's exactly what happened to Alex Zudin, and he's still not sure when he's going to get any answers.

Zudin is the CEO of Paragon Software, a company in the rare situation of not only successfully selling its apps, but selling them at extremely high prices. The firm works with various third parties to license reference material to create things like mobile dictionaries, for example, for which it can charge anywhere from $49.95 to close to $200.

Paragon offers a variety of dictonary products.

Because this is seen as "premium content" you can't get anywhere else, some people will fork over that much, but for Paragon there is one important catch: License agreements sometimes expire, which means that while the dictionary may continue to give you most of the words a consumer needs to look up, it can no longer be sold through Apple's  (NASDAQ:AAPL) App Store. 

Paragon's Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary 8 offers 1,300 words illustrated in groups build your topic vocabulary.

But when Paragon's license agreement ended and the company removed one of its apps, it discovered that doing so meant it could no longer support the app on more recent versions of iOS. In other words, if someone paid big money to buy one of Paragon's dictionaries when the iPhone 4S came out and later upgraded to iPhone 5, one of their most expensive app purchases may be more or less useless.

"We started to get customers asking, 'Where's my app?'" Zudin said in an interview with FierceDeveloper. "When (customers) buy a new iOS device, when you pull the product out from sales, there's no way to restore it."

Paragon's problem may seem confined to a unique and small group of developers, but Zudin said it could hold true for apps in navigation, weather or other areas where premium content of some kind is used. And though Paragon has reached out to Apple, Zudin said he has yet to receive any workable solution. (Apple did not respond to request for comment from FierceDeveloper.)

"The only workaround is we would suggest to them to get the other dictionary free of charge," he said. "But we're limited to only 50 promo codes and we need them to offer to the press, for testing purposes and so on. It's not viable."

After getting nowhere with Apple, Paragon issued a lengthy press release lambasting Apple and the way it treated high-end apps in the App Store, including a complaint that when it submitted similar apps to the App Store it had been accused by Apple of contributing spam.

"Apple's current policies are far too restrictive, preventing the expected, ongoing, long term support of premium content-based applications," the release said, forcing applications "into a hierarchical model that may be too complex or simply not appropriate for many users."

Tim Shephard, an analyst with Canalys based in London


The fact that Apple hasn't moved quickly to address Paragon's issue comes as no surprise to Tim Shephard, an analyst with Canalys based in London.

"This is a problem that has largely flown under the radar, but a clear issue for a limited but important group of app developers," he said. "Apple is largely shielded from responsibility. Consumers know to blame the developers for issues with apps."

Zudin said Paragon is not quite as livid as its press release suggests. However he said he wants to raise the issue because it may come up with other developers who run into similar situations.

"We're not blaming them (Apple). We're just asking them, what do we do with those people?" he said. Any perception that paying for downloads is a waste of money could hurt the developer community as a whole.

According to Canalys' Shephard, it should be relatively easy for Apple to address this issue. The company could, he said, simply permit apps to still exist and be updatable and upgradeable for its installed base, while remaining invisible in the app store--and therefore not for sale to new customers. "This is effectively just a version control tool, but one that would remove a clearly frustrating issue for developers trying to build a customer-focused, long-term business through the App Store," he said.

It's possible, of course, that in iOS 7 and beyond Apple will provide more options for developers to support their apps in odd situations like this, said Brian Blau, an analyst with Stamford, Conn.-based market research firm Gartner who follows the app store sector. To some extent, though, he said scuffles over the fine print of technology agreements are par for the course.

"I've been in the software business for 20-plus years and we had similar issues with forward compatibility in the 80's with PC software, in the 90's with upgrades of Windows and Mac software, and now we have the same equivalent today with mobile devices," he said. "It means that software developers who want their products to last must do everything they can to make their technology future proof."

Other app store providers should also take note of issues such as this and learn from Apple's shortcomings, Shephard added. "One way that the likes of RIM or Microsoft could help to encourage developer engagement is to emphasize that they are business friendly and act to address this kind of problem quickly and favorably if they arise," he said, adding that it would be unwise for Apple to turn a blind eye for too long. 

He said these kinds of stories can strain developer relations. "It is important to remember that in this instance, the scenario is that a developer is trying to deliver a good service to its, and Apple's, customers--and is being prevented from doing so."