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Lifetime app buy-outs can be a high-stakes gamble

How long is a lifetime – and what is that lifetime worth? We’re not being morbid or philosophical. More that a recent app experience has made us think again about how certain products are funded – and the inherent risks in paying developers a lot of cash upfront.

Let’s rewind a bit. Traditionally, software cost a one-off fee. When a major new version of a product subsequently arrived, you’d pay another one-off fee – or, if the creator was feeling generous, you might save cash by way of upgrade pricing.

Weather Line. Outlook not-so-sunny for some buyers.

The App Store demolished all that. The race to the bottom meant a lot of people suddenly thought all apps should be free, forever – or, at the very least, ‘pay once and work forever.’ But that isn’t viable for app creators, trying to keep apps alive in the moving target that is Apple’s ecosystem – especially if returns on that product dwindle.

Because of this, we’ve seen a push toward apps as services –subscriptions that unlock functionality. While you pay, you get the latest version of the app and support the creator. Stop paying and you lose access once your subscription lapses.

There are, however, people who hate subscriptions, and so app creators have come up with a third way: the lifetime buy-out. An app creator might charge you a buck a month for a product, and a discounted rate of $10/£10 or so per year if you pay annually. But some also offer a one-off lifetime charge, which requires an upfront payment that’s the equivalent of several years of subscribing.

Video player Infuse is another app that offers a lifetime buy-out.

The gamble for the buyer is the app will stick around for long enough to make that larger upfront payment worthwhile – but that isn’t always the case. Recently, top-notch weather app Weather Line was acquired. For existing subscribers, it will continue to work for 13 months after the announcement. Anyone who paid $10/£10 is set – and will have a year to find a replacement. But if you paid $45/£45 for a lifetime unlock – and did so recently – you have good reason to feel short-changed, because you’ll still only have 13 months.

A quick trawl through Twitter suggests a number of people are in this situation. Apple won’t refund those purchases and Weather Line’s creator is trying to figure out a solution. None of this is to criticize Weather Line for the decisions it made; nor are we suggesting that it’s not a good idea to pay for apps – because it is. But said payment must come with consideration for the future, and although we’ll continue to be happy paying annual subscriptions for apps that mean a lot to us, we’re reluctant to speculate larger sums in an effort to save money on products that can abruptly disappear.