Universal App Option is Great But

The iPad release day is less than 2 weeks away and like many iPhone developers I’m scurrying along to get my first iPad app submitted before the deadline. The introduction of the iPad as a new target platform means developers can choose to target the iPhone only, target just the iPad, or target both within a single application. The last option is called a universal binary and is recommended by Apple.

The user benefits with the universal option in that the same application can run on each iPhone OS device. In other words, the same app will run on a user’s iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. Best of all the user only pays for the app once even if the app is used on multiple devices.

I’m a fan of universal. It makes the buying decision easier for the user. Buy the app and it will run on all your iPhone OS devices, the ones you own today and the ones you might buy tomorrow. The user doesn’t have to think, “I have an iPhone but I might buy an iPad soon. Should I buy the iPhone only version or the version that will run on both?”

The universal also makes it easier for the developer with regards to app naming and marketing. With a universal app the developer has only one app, which means only one app name and one app icon. The alternative is to release multiple editions for the app, each with its own unique name such as “App XYZ”, “App XYZ for iPad”, “App XYZ Universal”, and so on.

Marketing with a universal app is easier too because the developer is marketing a single edition of the application. The developer doesn’t need multiple app descriptions or web pages for each app edition. But the universal option is not without its problems.

First, what happens if the developer already has an iPhone app in the App Store. Can a new build of a universal binary be submitted as an app update? Can it be submitted as an update before the deadline for launch day? If not then that means a new app must be created which means having different app names. And of course existing ratings and iTunes comments will not appear for the newly created app.

Another issue comes to mind. To the developer, a universal app might feel like writing two separate apps wrapped into a single binary. The user experience, the views, navigation, artwork, etc will likely be different for the app when run on the iPad versus the iPhone. This complicates the code base for the developer, which increases the chances for bugs. The developer can overcome this by separating logic in the code and performing additional testing, but this increases the development cost for the application, which leads me to pricing. Higher development cost can lead to higher pricing.

Pricing is a big issue for me. Will users pay more for an app on the iPad, especially if the iPad version has more features, features not feasible on the iPhone? I think so. But will the user who only owns an iPhone with no plans to buy an iPad pay more? I think it’s less likely.

A desktop app typically costs more than an iPhone app, and since the iPad is closer to the desktop than the iPhone in terms of its ability, especially for productivity apps, it makes sense to me that an iPad app will cost more than it’s iPhone equivalent. Will the higher price for a universal app mean the developer will likely loss out on app sales from iPhone and iPod touch users? Or will there be another race to the bottom (i.e., 99 cents) in terms of pricing for universal iPad apps? I certainly hope not.

A developer can get around this by releasing 2 editions of the same app, one for the iPhone only at lower price point and a second universal app at a higher price point. But now we’re back to complicating the buying decision for the user with different editions of the same app. The user is back to thinking, “Which edition do I need? Which one should I buy?”

I already asked will iPad app pricing race to the bottom like we saw with iPhone apps, and again, I certainly hope not. Developers will be able to do much more on the iPad which will justify the higher price. But should developers expect iPhone and iPod touch only users to pay $9.99 for an app not as feature rich as the iPad equivalent? Or should iPad apps limit functionality to only what is feasible on both devices for the sake of a lower price point?

I wish I had answers to these questions. I’m sure the answers will become clear once the iPad has been released and developers see and understand more, but for know I’m left scratching my head as I ponder these questions.