October 29, 2014 Last Updated 3:16 pm

‘Quick, send out an update!’ many developers get it done, but some publishers are growing tired of the app game

Thanks to constantly changing software, many developers spend an inordinate amount of time fixing perfectly good apps, broken by software updates – some are starting to question the whole ecosystem

The app bug, the scourge of the digital age. Apple releases a new version of iOS and immediately all hell breaks loose.

Every morning there are a dozen or more apps needing updates – not because the developers are adding in new features, but because the apps are suddenly broken.

CameraPlus-iconToday, the developer of Camera+, a widely used photography app for both the iPhone and iPad, was updated… a mere 24 hours after a previous update had been released. The first update, version 6.1, broke the app for many.

tap tap tap, the developer, had issued their first iOS 8 related update for Camera+ for the iPhone (there is a separate iPad app) on September 25. Five days later a bug fix update was issued, and a week later yet another. Another update, issued on Monday, was more about adding in new features – but that update, users found, broke the app. The developers saw the 1-star reviews and immediately knew they had a problem.

“Thanks to all of the very diligent 1-star reviewers, we were quickly made aware of a few big bugs in Camera+ 6.1 and we worked our collective butt off to get them fixed ASAP, bringing you this 6.1.1 Update of Shame,” the app description states.

The developer of Camera+ is an app developer, obviously. But publishers have to deal with this situation, as well. But after a little more than 5 years of dealing with Apple iOS updates (iOS 2, the first update, introduced the App Store in mid-2008), many publishers are getting weary of the game. Why is it, so many have asked me, that every year Apple breaks our apps?

It is a good question, and one that should get more serious attention. For many young developers, the introduction of a new version iOS is all part of the world they are used to. The first release of a beta version of the new operating system is eagerly anticipated.

SI-cover-smBut a number of publishers have recently told me that they are already tired of the game. Each year, just before the new version of iOS is released, their apps are finally in working order, only to see them become buggy messes in late September.

“We waste more time fixing something that wasn’t broken in the first place,” one digital publishing professional told me this week (wanting to stay anonymous in order to not incur the wrath of Apple). “Worse, readers blame us when suddenly the app doesn’t work. We didn’t do anything, Apple did!”

It is a hell of a way to do business.

Recent circulation reports seem to suggest that both newspapers and magazines are starting to see their digital edition sales fall – not stop growing, actually decrease. There are many reasons for this – the poor state of the Newsstand, the lack of promotion of both digital editions and the Newsstand by Apple, the failure of the other platforms to provide a good sales environment – but buggy apps are right at the top of the list.

Take Time Inc.’s Sports Illustrated. The app is still waiting its first iOS 8 update.

“Problems started with iOS 8 on my iPad,” wrote one reader in iTunes. “Asked for one issue, got a different one. Called SI for help, I was told to call iTunes. iTunes told me to call SI.”

Why hasn’t SI’s app been updated? Has the magazine lost interest in digital editions? If so, they can’t be blamed. SI’s last app update was September 15, so it has had a recent update, though one expects another soon to tackle download issues.**

Sports Illustrated was among the most enthusiastic early developers for the iPad. In late 2009, The Wonderfactory released a demo video on what Sports Illustrated might look like on a tablet. Maybe you remember it:

But four years after the release of the original iPad, SI’s digital subscriptions are at 21,561, amounting to less than 1 percent of the magazine’s total circulation (if you add in single copy sales of digital editions, it adds up to 1 percent).

Looking inside iTunes and reading the reader reviews, one finds that readers have plenty of complaints. Readers complain of bugs, pricing policies, subscription services, retina support (or the lack of it), and other problems related directly to the app – but not the actual digital edition. Those who do comment on the digital edition appear to mostly have good things to say about it.

This is common. FORTUNE Magazine, another Time Inc. title, has only a tad more than 11K in digital subscribers, according to their June publisher’s statement. Combined with their digital single copy sales, their total digital circulation is at about 2 percent. Luckily, the modest growth in digital has been enough to maintain the magazine’s rate base of 830,000.

Today the app for FORTUNE received its first update since the release of iOS 8. The app, which uses the Adobe DPS, was suddenly not allowing issue downloads.

“What happened guys?” one reader wrote in an iTunes review. “The app just stopped working all of a sudden. Very annoying!”

What happened, of course, was the release of iOS 8.

** A newsletter picked up this story and twisted the headline a bit, making it appear as if I was inferring that Sports Illustrated or Time Inc. might be losing interest in apps or their digital editions. That certainly is not true, and that the folks at SI are a little sensitive to any thought that this is true is understandable. We all have so much vested in our digital editions, and have worked hard to create innovative, enjoyable to read digital magazines.

  • Daniel Morrison 3 years ago

    How true. Publishers keep pouring money down that hole and getting nothing in return, except a bunch of frustrated customers. How many websites crash when the Internet is updated each year — oh wait, fifteen year old websites still work.

    Updates to websites and CMS are a normal part of doing business, like a magazine redesign every few years, but these twice-per-year iOS updates that cost thousands—just to get back where we were—are a bad ‘service’ from Apple. Is this how they’ll shoot themselves in the foot (again)?