AppRot – What it is and why it matters to everyone in the app economy …

| August 15, 2014 | 3 Comments

What will happen to older apps when you update to iOS 8?

Recently, developer Marco Arment, a programmer, writer, podcaster, geek, and coffee enthusiast, wrote on his blog about something he called “AppRot”. Over time, apps that are released into the iOS AppStore for iPhones, iPads and iPods can become unsupported by the original content creator (whether the app is from an independent developer, author or established publisher). This makes apps and other eBook content seem more ‘disposable’ and impermanent than other publishing formats, creating confusion and frustration among consumers who are already nervous about the digital shift. When app developers complain about the tiny margins they are making on digital publications, they are up against not only the lack of a physical product but the very real chance that most experienced consumers of digital books have had a least one bad experience with AppRot.

When it comes to digital children’s books, this can mean that a beloved title can suddenly be unavailable to re-download from your AppStore account in the cloud or that an installed app is no longer stable or fully functional after an update to the operating system (OS) on the device. With book apps sometimes taking up over 200MB of memory, it is unlikely that anyone will have their entire digital bookshelf actually installed on their device.

Why do content creators stop supporting their publications in digital? This happens for a variety of reasons. Often independent developers (like entrepreneurs everywhere) simply go out of business or dissolve their partnerships, leaving the content they created in limbo. It costs developers at least $100 a year to keep an account active, but most teams don’t remove an app until the cost of updating it requires too much time, money or technical skill. Other times, an app is based on licensed content and the owner of the license decides to terminate the contract.

But no matter what the reason for an app to ‘rot’ or be removed from the AppStore, there is definitely one thing Apple could do to make the situation better. As I was writing this post, my programmer husband kept reminding me that Google-Play apps don’t have this issue, because you can install an older version of any purchased app from the cloud, even if the developer is no longer in business. If Apple allowed older versions of an app to be installed from an archived copy, this would be a great help, especially for books that children like to re-read.

The other suggestion I have would be to allow developers to warn consumers when apps are being removed from the market, just like Apple alerts consumers to updates. This would allow users a bit more control over the situation, which could be very helpful at least psychologically for consumers. When we transferred, Dash & Ditto’s Playground, an app my husband created as a partnership with an illustrator in Seattle, we did our best to warn consumers and made the app free up until it was removed and re-released under a new account, but it was frustrating to find no channel to get that info directly to consumers who purchased the app during the previous two years.

This phenomena is something I wrote about in 2012 in the post: The Dark Side of Unlimited Free App Updates. During the first two years of reviewing picture book apps, I had only a small number of apps ‘disappear’ or become unusable, but then, shortly before iOS 6.0, one of my all time favorite apps was pulled from the market, with no explanation. The app was Harold and the Purple Crayon. The studio had only the one app and seems to simply have gone out of business. To this day, I do not know if Trilogy Studios had a short term contract for the rights to the book or if the code for their lovely app will ever be resurrected. I do, however, have a copy of the app protectively installed on my iPad 2

So, for a variety of reasons apps can become unusable, unstable or even removed from the market – in other words, rotten. The real question going forward is what does AppRot mean for the app economy? Are new media formats better for games, videos and other content that is consumed once and forgotten about? Is there a way to make a more stable and supported platform for books and other content that people want to own and access for a lifetime? How will this hidden aspect of the digital shift impact the evolving publishing landscape, especially for children’s content?

I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Category: All About Apps

About the Author ()

Carisa Kluver is the the editor of Digital-Storytime.com, an iPad children's book review site. She has a BA in Anthropology from UC Berkeley and an MSW from the University of Washington. Before starting this project, she was a school counselor, health educator and researcher in child & maternal health.

Comments (3)

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  1. Roxie Munro says:

    What an excellent, and timely, post! Listen up, app developers (and consumers).

  2. odile says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic, Carisa! This situation is a real conundrum for all stakeholders I fear. I had exactly the same experience with “Harold and the purple crayon”. I love this app. It made me so happy to find it in my old iPad2 that I backed it up instantaneously on my computer. As a reader, I am quite wary it might happen again. As a publisher, I feel very frustrated that there is no satisfying solution yet.

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