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The Switch

Apple's new vision for the App Store could load us with a lot more monthly bills

June 13, 2016 at 6:00 AM

An Apple logo is seen at the company's annual developer conference. (AFP Photo/Kimihiro Hoshino/GettyImages)

Apple's Worldwide Developer conference — an annual confab for hundreds of people who work to make apps and programs for its devices — kicks off on Monday with a major keynote. Chief executive Tim Cook will take the stage, as he does each year, probably to announce new versions of Apple's mobile iOS platform and desktop OS X platform — which may get renamed this year as MacOS (or possibly macOS). The firm is also expected to announce major improvements to Siri.

All of that sounds potentially exciting, with the possibility of offering new features and better software to millions of Apple customers. But another announcement, made more quietly ahead of the conference, may be the one that more directly affects our wallets. Last week, Apple's head of worldwide marketing, Phil Schiller, announced a significant change to the App Store.

Soon, he said, all app developers will be able to charge subscriptions.

That changes a lot about the App Store, where people are accustomed to paying upfront (if they pay at all) for an app, and maybe, occasionally, indulging in an in-app purchase. Until now, unless you were using a news, cloud service, dating or music/movie streaming app, you couldn't subscribe. Now, it's time to brace yourself for the possibility that many more of your apps — particularly your games — will come with a regular price tag.

And that does seem to be in the future of consumer tech, or at least of software, right now. Subscriptions have largely become the new model for buying things — Microsoft Office, Adobe's Creative Suite, Autodesk — after seeing how well it worked for firms such as Netflix and Spotify. Google already offers all Android developers the option to add an in-app subscription.

It's good news for Apple developers, some of whom have long complained that Apple's current system doesn't give them the flexibility to add meaningful new features to apps and get adequately paid for it. It also means that if a developer does want to get paid for new features added to an app, they don't have to ask customers to make a separate download — something that can really hurt an install base.

It's good for Apple, which has a vested interest in keeping developers making applications for its platform; in fact, Apple's even going to give developers more money — the firm will take a 15 percent share of revenue, rather than its current 30 percent — if they manage to keep a subscription going for a year or more. Google is expected to follow suit, Recode reported, but will offer developers the more generous split from the start of a subscription.

For consumers, though, it's a bit of a mixed bag. No one likes to hear they'll potentially have to pay more. Don't get me wrong: Subscriptions can be a good thing. We've come to expect digital things for free, but that's not really that fair. And subscriptions could encourage developers to add more features more regularly, by rewarding them with a steady and regular income. Or they could keep apps you like from getting abandoned or going out of business. It may even get rid of some of those pesky ads that people seem to hate so much.

But even if it is warranted — heck, even if it's overdue — it does mean that there are going to be more bills from tech firms filling consumers' inboxes.

At some point, all those a la carte subscriptions — $5 per month here, $8 per month there — can really add up, and almost certainly more than you would have paid to buy an app once, upfront.

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post. A Minnesota native, she joined The Post in 2010 after completing her master's degree in journalism.

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