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Buying a program to run on your iPhone involves some similar but also some new issues compared to buying programs for a regular computer.

Carefully review the issues discussed here so as to avoid potentially costly mistakes and problems.

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Considerations When Choosing iPhone Apps

Some obvious but also some less obvious and very important issues

You can move the default apps about on the phone screens as well as moving the new apps you add to the phone to give you the most convenient groupings and access to the apps you use.

Part of a series on the Apple iPhone - please also visit the other articles listed on the right.



There are some potentially very costly pitfalls involved when adding programs to your iPhone.

For sure, the program itself might be free or nearly free, but using it, particularly when out of the country, might end up costing you literally thousands of dollars in data roaming fees - or, if you don't use the data, might render the program useless.

So be sure to carefully read the issues that you should be aware of here before choosing and adding applications to your iPhone.

Extra Things to Consider When Adding Apps to Your iPhone

When you are choosing programs to add to your iPhone, you of course need to consider all the same sorts of things you do when buying programs for any other computer.

However, there are some additional considerations that are more relevant to iPhone apps than they are to regular programs on a regular computer - things you might never think of when buying 'normal' programs for 'normal' computers.

Data Connectivity and Usage

Does the program need to communicate over the internet to work properly?  Sometimes otherwise identical seeming programs might be very different in how they work - for example, one GPS program might have a local set of mapping data, on your phone, while another GPS program might always download the map data from a central server as and when needed.

Another example is a translation program.  Some translation programs download a dictionary to your phone, others will go out to a central dictionary somewhere on the internet for each translation.

Which is the better approach?  Both have pluses and minuses.

Locally stored data, on your iPhone, will usually mean faster/quicker program operation.  It also means that you don't have any problems if you are somewhere that has no data service, and if you are traveling outside the US, you're not going to have to pay the ridiculously expensive rates (sometimes as much as 1,000 times more expensive for you when internationally roaming than what local people in the country you're visiting pay themselves!) for data connectivity.

On the other hand, a remote/central data store can be kept more up to date by the service provider - this may particularly be the case of mapping data for GPS programs.  And it can save storage space on your iPhone, too.

If 99% of the time, your iPhone is always in an area with 3G or Wi-Fi data service in the US, some of these issues probably become very much less important.  But things like translation programs are probably things you'll want to use outside the US, and things like GPS programs are perhaps things you might use when driving outside your local area, so in such cases, the location of the data you need to access becomes much more critical.

Cloud Computing Resources and Local Mirroring

That's a fancy way of again referring to whether a program uses the local data and intelligence of the iPhone, or if it uses a remote service somewhere on the internet, or if it 'mirrors' data both ways.

Some programs will keep a copy of information on the iPhone as well as a master copy somewhere else on the internet that can be accessed and updated by other devices and services too.  An example of that might be a calendar program or a contact listing program - perhaps it synchronizes with your various other laptops, desktops, and perhaps it also has a web based interface to allow you to access and add/change/delete data from anywhere.

These are very useful programs, but there is one important difference between some of them and others of them.

If the program does not keep a local copy of the information on your iPhone, you again become reliant on being within range of a good fast data signal, and you again become liable to outrageous costs if you want to use that program when traveling outside the US.

Ideally, any/all programs that synchronize data with other sources and with a central location will also keep a 'mirrored' copy of the data locally on the iPhone too, so it will work when there is no data connectivity as well as when there is.

Reliability of - and Reliance on - Supplier

This is another issue that takes on a bit more importance with iPhone apps than with many other 'normal' programs.  The cost and challenges of getting a regular program published and available for sale through regular computer stores, etc are substantial, such that, almost by definition, only large and substantial companies can publish software for normal computers.  Exceptions to this rule exist if you go through non-traditional distribution channels such as, eg,, but for normal 'boxed software' you have some moderate degree of assurance that the company who authored the software will be around for a while to provide service and support.

However, the costs and challenges of publishing an iPhone app are very much lower, making it easy for pretty much anyone to publish a program through the Apple iTunes store.  Clearly, a person who wrote a program that they then give away for free, or sell for perhaps $0.99 (and Apple gets to keep about 30% of the selling price of all programs) has little financial motivation to continue supporting the program, and may disappear at any time.

This doesn't matter if you've simply bought or downloaded for free a program that you don't rely on for important things, and/or if it isn't a program that now stores your personal data.

For example, maybe your downloaded a weather forecasting program.  If the program developer stops supporting the program, perhaps the program itself will keep working until such time as possibly a new version of the operating system invalidates the program, and whenever that might occur, there's no real problem for you other than the need to choose and download another weather app.

But what say you're using a program that stores your data somewhere other than on your phone.  You've a very small vulnerability right from day one if the data is personal/sensitive - you want to be sure you can trust the company that is holding your data on your behalf.  And you've a larger vulnerability from that point forward - if the company goes out of business, have you just lost all your data?  You need to be sure that you have a local backup of any data that you are storing remotely.

Free or Paid Apps?

Sometimes you'll find a program that is available in both a free and a paid version.  Other times, you'll find different programs that seem to do the same thing, with a range of different prices, ranging from free up to possibly even $100 or more.

Which is best?

I'm no more altruistic than anyone else, and if someone is willing to give away programs for free then I'll happily accept them.  Of course, few things in this world are truly free, and many times you'll find that a free program either is festooned with advertising or else is a 'loss leader' for the developer, intended to introduce you to other programs they sell - either more fully featured versions of the same program, or completely different programs.

There is one thing to consider though when accepting a free program.  A free program has to be considered as having little or no support available to it, and the developer may disappear at any time.  If there's no profit potential and viable business model; if you're reliant on the goodwill of a developer who wrote something for fun, then you can never be sure of what the future will offer for the program.

So free programs can be fine if they don't require ongoing reliance on the developer (for connectivity or whatever) and if they can easily be replaced by other programs if support for the program ends.

On the other hand, if you're choosing a program that will provide an important-to-you application, maybe you're better off paying some money in the hope of getting some support and longevity in return.

Most importantly, keep a sense of financial scale about these things.  Most of us think nothing about spending as much as $5 on a fancy coffee at Starbucks, and have nothing to show for it 20 minutes later except perhaps a mild caffeine buzz.  So don't become enmeshed in chasing down the very cheapest program when they are all priced somewhere between $0 and $5.  You can almost certainly afford to spend $5 if it is something that you want and can receive value from.

Generally, you should choose the best program, not the cheapest one.

Ongoing Fees for Programs

Most programs have a one time charge, and it seems that it is common that this one-time charge entitles you to use of that program in perpetuity, with no further payments required.

But some programs will charge you a monthly (or annual or whatever) fee for using their service, perhaps after an initial free trial period.  Some GPS programs in particular do this, as do some other types of programs that give you access to remote data storage services.

So be sure, when considering between different programs, to understand both the upfront cost and the ongoing cost.  You might find that the $100 GPS program is actually better value than the $10 GPS program, because the $100 program has no further charges, whereas the $10 program then requires you to start paying $10/month to be able to continue to use it into the future.

New Version Policies

Although companies like Microsoft are now largely reliant on selling new versions of their software to continue to generate income, it seems that most of the iPhone developers have not evolved to that level of sophistication.

Perhaps this is because the number of new iPhone users is growing so astonishingly that there isn't yet any perceived need to generate ongoing income streams from current users, whereas, for Microsoft, its sales of new copies of, eg, Office, are becoming harder because most potential users already have a copy, so they perforce must sell new versions to keep the income stream flowing.

Look for this to change in the future.  But until those changes may occur, most apps will allow you to upgrade to new releases at no extra cost.

Licensing Issues on Multiple Phones

There are three issues here.

  • The first is if you have two or more iPhones at present - can a program you've purchased once be used on two iPhones simultaneously?

  • The second is if you have two or more iPhones at present, can you transfer a program off one iPhone and onto a second?

  • And the third issue is if you subsequently replaced your iPhone with another iPhone - perhaps because it is lost or broken, or perhaps to upgrade it to a newer iPhone - do you have to buy a new copy of the software?

Apple and the various developers have an amazingly liberal policy at present.  Apps are not restricted or sold only for one phone.  You can load an app onto multiple phones, and so the answers to the three questions above are yes, yes, and no.  The best way to do this, according to Apple, is to synch your apps off the iPhone they are on, onto a regular computer, and then resynch them onto each extra iPhone you have.

In addition, if you re-download an app from the iTunes store, onto the same or a different iPhone, it will tell you that you've downloaded/purchased it before, and give you the option to download it again for free.  Note that this option disconcertingly appears only after you've agreed to buy the program rather than before, but it does/will appear.

We're not sure how long this situation will last either, but for now, and as was told to me by an iTunes App support rep from Apple in chat on 8 December 2009 (transcript available if needed) this is the case, and, as she said, 'Enjoy!'.

Please let me know if you come across any revisions or exceptions to this policy.

Part of a series on the Apple iPhone - please also visit the other articles listed at the top on the right

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Originally published 11 Dec 2009, last update 21 Jul 2020

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

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