Free With Limits

4 June 2014

I am still bewildered by the volume of new stuff Apple announced at WWDC. Last year, it felt like they were pushed to breaking point with iOS 7 alone. This time around, they’ve enacted a significant redesign of OS X whilst also pushing through countless other changes. Normally, Apple pads the keynote with 40 minutes of retail updates, minor laptop revisions and other mediocre ‘filler’ content. There was simply no time yesterday.

At least for now, I’m really confident that Apple is on track. They caught up in a lot of areas, they pushed the boat in a few ways and they restored developer trust in a few ways. The presenters went a bit over-the-top with jokes in my opinion but at least the enthusiasm was justified by the announcements.

I want to touch on one thing for now, Photos. Finally, Apple will take responsibility for storing all of your photos and videos for a fee. The assets don’t have to sit in local storage, like they do today with Photo Stream. They all show in the app though, streaming off the server on-demand.

In many respects, this is a modern service. Edits sync. Photos sync. Backups of originals (after editing) are saved. Pictures viewable not only on iOS and Mac, but also through iCloud.com. It’s great to see Apple doing this.1

I do have some reservations, though. The title of this post comes straight from the advertising for CloudKit, but iCloud Photos is much the same. Apple is still too restrictive with its free tiers.

5 GB is simply not enough. There is a magic to having “all of your photos, on all of your devices”. The stinginess of the free tier precludes anyone from even getting a small glimpse of this experience, without having to pay more.

The caps doesn’t reflect modern-day media sizes or customer behaviour, who invest into an entire ecosystem of Apple products. These people should be rewarded with scaling storage allowances2, not forced into purchasing paid plans.

Granted, the paid tiers are now competitively priced (200 GB for $3.99 a month) but free tiers are very important and should not be overlooked. The experience provided by the free plan will be the experience most people have. It needs to be good.

As the paid tiers get cheaper, the free tier sticks out even more as being ridiculously stupid. Frankly, at a bare minimum, the 20 GB plan (which Apple will sell for $0.99 a month) should be the new free quota. Apple made its $30 productivity suite free last year, so I don’t understand the reluctance with iCloud pricing.

It should not be this easy for normal users to have to start thinking about file size. Once you fill your iCloud quota, that’s exactly what happens. Ideally, iOS is a magical world where PC issues should not exist. Managing storage is annoying on a Mac, but doubly so on iOS.

In fact, if Apple gave users slightly more space on the free tier, I think they would sell more paid subscriptions. There is a big lock-in opportunity here, if users are given a little more leeway to enmesh themselves into the iCloud ecosystem. As it stands, with such crippling caps, a lot of users just disable iCloud completely to silence the ‘buy more storage’ nagging. This is not how you maximise customer satisfaction.

On Monday, Apple showed itself to be a modern competent internet services company. The pricing models need to catch up. It can be free with limits, but the limits needs to be lessened.

1 Obviously, they have to execute well. On that note, I am much more confident that they can pull this off, than I was a year ago.

2 5 GB per registered device is a lot better than 5 GB flat. Anything is better than 5 GB flat.