June App Store Report: Return Policies—Help Or Hindrance?

In this month’s WIP App Store Report, we take a look at the thorny issue of app store return policies, and how they could affect developers, and could be improved to help both developers and consumers to lead to a better retail environment and increased sales.

Since the beginning of 2011, more than 150,000 apps have been added to the 5 major platform app stores. Each of these stores has different policies regarding consumer returns and refunds, generally due to technical difficulties or because an app did not live up to the consumer’s expectations.

These return policies can be both good and bad for developers. On one hand, they do give consumers some ability to try out apps risk-free; on the other hand, they are rife for abuse.

Not all apps have trial periods or trial versions, and many consumers like to be able to test an app before purchase. Trial versions can also offer a developer more exposure, by reducing barriers to trial. However, the logistics of creating trial versions of an app can create lots of issues for developers:

  • Trials that only last a specific time can easily be modified by hackers
  • If a trial is a slimmed down version of the “full” version, it can mean the developer has 2 code bases to manage, which can create issues with bugs and testing.
  • Trials with “keys” for unlocking the full app can prohibit sales, as it is cumbersome for the consumer to pay for the “unlock key”, then type a bunch of jumbled characters into their phone. Other “unlock keys” are applications themselves, but are confusing to the end user and can cause many support overhead for developers.
  • Previously with the Android Market, the return period was 24 hours, which had consumers buying games, playing them and returning them before the end of the day.


Windows Phone 7 does offer a unique approach to trials. It has a trial API which allows the developer to create one application,  with a particular “IsTrial” flag set to true. This means all the hard work is handled by Microsoft and when the consumer chooses to buy the application, the IsTrial flag will be reset to false.

It is also important to look at the value of trials for consumers. In the sea of millions of apps, user comments are one way to see if an application is worth a purchase, but the comment process itself is problematic. The 5-star rating process has the same downfall, with users voting an irrational 1-star or an overzealous 5-star rating, skewing overall ratings to the extremes. The best way to see if any product is right for the end consumer is for that consumer to test it out.

The Amazon Appstore has taken an even bigger step in the right direction, allowing users to “test drive” Android applications via a web emulator before purchasing. It can be difficult, though to view returning an app in the same way as a trial because of the effort that can often be required to return an app, which is often not worth the small price paid by the consumer.

One way to improve this process – and mollify many developer complaints – would be to allow developers to establish their own return times. For instance, developers of a game could allow users an hour after purchase to return it; if they had a GPS or mapping application, a day, and so on. By giving developers this type of control, it allows them to craft the type of experience they believe is best, while also creating the potential for more interactivity and feedback with consumers, which would lead to better applications overall.

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