Why it might cost you more money to buy from apps

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Meta and Twitter have said loudly what you usually don’t understand: it’s costing you more money to buy these companies’ digital subscriptions in their apps.

And you pay less if you buy the same thing on Twitter or Facebook’s website.

Why should that be a secret? Good question.

Apple and Google’s app stores make it difficult for you to be an informed consumer.

You may never know that you can’t buy an ebook on Amazon’s Kindle app. You might not realize that you might pay less for a Tinder dating subscription on the company’s website instead of paying a higher price on the app.

It shouldn’t be like this, but apps leave you in the dark. This is one reason why I wrote that the app system is broken.

Let me explain Meta and Twitter’s tiny cracks in app secrecy and why so much app information is hidden.

This week, Facebook’s parent company announced that it was testing a subscription option with additional features across Facebook and Instagram. Washington Post technology columnist Geoffrey A. Fowler likened the Meta Verified subscription to a mafia protection racket because the company charges additional fees for customer support and security that should be standard. Read his column!

I’ve focused on another detail in Meta’s public information: a subscription costs $11.99 per month if you buy it on Facebook or Instagram’s websites, and $14.99 if you buy it through the iPhone and buy android apps. (Currently Meta Verified is only available in Australia and New Zealand.)

The higher price in the apps accounts for the fees companies owe to app store owners Apple and Google when you buy something digital in an app, like an online subscription, an e-book, or a virtual gun for a mobile game.

Some other apps will also charge you more. An audiobook subscription to Amazon’s Audible costs about $1 more a month if you pay in-app than if you buy it on Audible’s website. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) A paid version of email provider Proton Mail costs about $30 less per year when you buy online than when you click Buy in the app .

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I’ll let you decide if it’s fair for rich companies like Amazon and Meta to make you pay the cost of doing business with other rich companies, Apple and Google.

The problem for you is that the in-app price differences are rarely made explicit. I know Audible only costs more because I keep looking for cost differences in apps.

Apps like Amazon’s Kindle and Netflix, which refuse to sell you anything in their apps — they don’t want to pass fees on to Apple and Google — also don’t make it loud and clear how you should buy from them when not in the app. In customer reviews for Kindle’s iPhone app, many people were confused or upset that they couldn’t buy e-books on the app.

You can’t make wise purchasing decisions if you don’t have all the facts about the purchase in one app. And that’s largely because Apple and Google are forcing apps to keep quiet.

Your rules don’t allow apps to tell you if there’s a cheaper purchase option on the app maker’s website. If there’s no option to buy digital items in the app, Apple and Google limit which apps can tell you where to make those purchases.

Apple and Google say they make the rules inside apps, but apps can do whatever they want outside of them.

On app company websites and in their marketing efforts, I wonder if they could put more effort into raising awareness of when you may be better off (or not having a choice) purchasing digital subscriptions elsewhere than in an app buy.

In some written materials about the Twitter Blue subscription, the company states that its subscription costs $8 per month if you pay on Twitter.com or $11 on the Twitter apps. Most people will not read this blog post.

Would it be more helpful if Twitter had an ALL CAPS pitch on their site asking you to pay less for Twitter Blue if you buy the subscription online? Could Amazon’s website have a garish banner saying you can only buy ebooks there and not in Kindle apps?

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My reading of Google’s app rules is that this kind of truth-finding would be allowed. Apple’s rules are stricter about what app developers can tell their customers — even in emails and other communications with them.

If apps haven’t left you in the dark about what it costs to pay for digital subscriptions in apps, you might make different choices.

When the Down Dog Yoga app announced on its Android app that people could instead buy a cheaper subscription on the company’s website, about 90 percent of people chose the cheaper price online instead of staying in the app, one said Executive out of case in court in 2021.

Google no longer allows apps to tell you about cheaper prices outside of the app. To my knowledge, Apple never allowed that.

To be fair, even traditional retail stores hide information from you. Amazon doesn’t let Tide write in its product listings that its detergent costs less at Target. Walmart doesn’t say it doesn’t sell your favorite ice cream, it says Kroger does.

On the other hand, app stores don’t work according to retail rules. The only place where you can download Spotify iPhone app is Apple. You don’t have to buy Tide from Amazon.

There’s not much you can do about app secrecy. Just by reading this information about the hidden knowledge of apps, you will gain power.

I’ve also written about my personal shopping habits. When I’m buying something digital, like an online fitness class or paying a YouTube star, I take a moment to research if I could pay less on the web than in the app. I’m also wondering if I’d be happier if the fitness company didn’t owe Apple or Google a commission on my purchase.

A great promise of the digital age is that you have all the knowledge to make good decisions about what mattress to buy or where to eat the best tacos. But fake customer reviews, untrustworthy web search results and misleading ads sometimes leave you less informed. Apps that leave you in the dark are also part of the problem.

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Related Reading: Here’s Everything Apple Won’t Let You Do With Your iPhone

Hey are you a teacher? My colleague Heather Kelly is looking for elementary school teachers willing to help her with a project. If you have a few minutes to answer her question, please email Heather at [email protected]

Speaking of app stores, whenever there’s a cool new thing out there, you have to be on the lookout for similar apps that aren’t the original.

Note that the experimental AI chatbot ChatGPT is only available on the web and is free. There is no real app version of ChatGPT.

If you see something like a ChatGPT app, it’s probably not what you’re looking for.

Recently, at least one app that appeared to be ChatGPT (but wasn’t) made it into Apple’s iPhone App Store before being banned. A colleague told me this week about an app called “Chat GBT” – that’s a letter next to it – on Google’s Android App Store.

After I asked Google about the one letter off chat app, it disappeared. But I’ve seen other apps with “ChatGPT” in their names on Google’s App Store. Again, these are not the real ChatGPT.

Before you download an app, try skimming the user reviews. There are often red flags in the reviews when the app is a scam.

You can try the real ChatGPT online here. ChatGPT is sometimes unavailable during peak hours, so you may hit a roadblock and have to try another time.

ChatGPT is also testing a paid version called ChatGPT Plus. That’s probably not what you want if you’re just curious to poke around.

It’s your turn. Email me or use this form to let me know if you found cheaper prices on your favorite digital subscription or shared a technical secret that shouldn’t be a secret. We may feature your advice in a future issue of The Tech Friend. Your rules don’t allow apps to tell you if there’s a cheaper purchase option on the app maker’s website. If there’s no option to buy digital items in the app, Apple and Google limit which apps can tell you where to make those purchases.