You might think that each time the App Store asks you to update an app, the developer behind the app has added an important new feature or a pressing security update. But a recent study by a group of Italian researchers found that developers often use app updates simply to attract attention to their apps.
Their research paper, titled “Updates Management in Mobile Applications. iTunes vs Google Play” (PDF), looks at differences between app updates on Android and iOS. TechCrunch’s Natasha Lomas, who spotted the report, notes that Stefano Comino, Fabio M. Manenti, and Franco Mariuzzo looked at the top 1,000 apps on the iOS App Store and on the Google Play store across five European countries over a period of six months to investigate how developers deploy updates for their apps.
They wrote that “developers are well aware that managing app updates (i.e. releasing new versions of an existing app) is critical to increase app visibility and to keep users engaged, disguising a hidden strategy to stimulate downloads.” And they found that an app update is more likely to be released when a developer observes “a worsening” of the app’s performance, and reported, “Our results confirm that updates boost downloads and are more likely to be released when the app is experiencing a poor performance. We interpret this finding as evidence that app developers use updates as a ‘bet for resurrection’ strategy.”
Developers of both Android and iOS apps release updates at what the researchers characterize as “an extremely high frequency.” They found that updates are more frequent on Android, where apps are updated, on average, every 28 days. That makes updates to Android apps significantly more frequent than updates to apps on iOS, where they are updated, on average, every 59 days. The researchers suggest that the fact that frequent updates to Android apps don’t deliver a “significant impact” could be caused by the lack of a quality review process. They think that the absence of such a process enables “both high and low-quality updates” to be published, and they note that the “excessive updating” of apps on Google Play dilutes the impact on overall downloads.
When it comes to iOS apps, the researchers posit that developers use minor updates — which convince users to update under the guise of bug fixes and small tweaks to app features — as a “strategic tool” to boost the performance of those apps in the App Store. Those minor updates take much less development time and effort than major updates, and the researchers think that when an iOS app gets a lot of minor updates, that’s a sign that the developer is acting strategically to try to boost interest in his or her app. They explain:
An app can be highly visible if its intrinsic quality is high and/or it is surrounded by a positive buzz (i.e. good users reviews, positive discussions on dedicated blogs, etc.). The crucial assumption of the model is that the decision to release an update stimulates the buzz surrounding the app. This assumption is taken on practical grounds provided that updates tend to stimulate discussions or comments in dedicated blogs/magazines/websites or on social networks. Clearly, the increased buzz can be either positive or negative: bloggers, journalists, but also regular users might positively or negatively welcome the new version of the software.
Providing app updates with the primary purpose of drawing attention to an app doesn’t appear to violate any of the (many) rules in the App Store Review Guidelines nor the Google Play Developer Program Policies. In fact, neither set of guidelines specifically makes mention of any rules surrounding the frequency, purpose, or quality of updates to apps that are already offered on a platform’s respective app store. In the iOS Developer Library, Apple offers some information on “Replacing Your App with a New Version,” explaining the technical process of uploading an app update and noting that when adding a new version, developers need to provide”version-specific text to augment the app description in the store” with a section explaining what’s new.
It’s in that section of the App Store text that developers often specify that an update fixes bugs, improves speed and usability, brings minor improvements, or even improves on or adds new features. The researchers note that there’s a big difference “between major (significant changes in app functionalities) and minor updates (bug fixing and minor changes); our empirical investigation suggests that the latter are more likely to be employed by developers as a strategic tool to improve app performance on the market” rather than to provide concrete benefits to users.
The researchers found that on iOS, the release of an update boosts downloads. That should come as no surprise to users of an iPhone or iPad, particularly those who are bothered by the red number that appears at the corner of the App Store icon to signify the number of apps that need updating. “Quantitatively,” they write, “we find that having released an update increases the rate of growth of downloads by about 36%.” Conversely, the researchers found that the publication of an update to an app on the Google Play Store does not have a significant impact on downloads, perhaps because Android developers “release both high and low quality updates and, on average, they do not significantly impact on downloads.”