Saturday, October 3, 2009

Bait and Switch: NYT Takes Away Its iPhone Crossword App From Customers, Keeps The $9.99, And More Than Doubles The Price.

As recently as last Monday, you could pay $9.99 for a NYT iPhone Crossword Puzzle app that had no subscription fees, or time limit. Sweet deal!

But if you did, you just found out that the NYT has just pulled a classic bait-and-switch.

Now the NYT gets to keep your money and your app will stop working in the next month or two. If you want to keep getting the App, you'll have to start over with a monthly $1.99 subscription -- more than double the price.

Beginning last year the NYT's crossword puzzle app offered iPhone customers what seemed like a convenient and reasonably-priced means of doing the puzzle. The $9.99 one-time charge was high by the standards of iPhone apps -- most of which are free, or under $5 -- but it seemed reasonable given the quality of the product, and the unlimited access the NYT appeared to be selling.

But it turns out there wasn't anything "unlimited" about it, and in switching the price plan have annoyed many of its loyal customers -- many of whom are being told their $9.99 purchase only gets them the crossword puzzle until the end of the year. Now, for $1.99, you can buy a 30-day subscription to the NYT crossword puzzle; at the end of that, the NYT will offer customers various pricing options for a subscription renewal.

"I Paid for a Year!" reads the headline of one scathing review on the iPhone app, from a user named Timburwolf. "Ok, hold on. I bought this months ago and I remember it saying it was a subscription App. But I paid for a year and now it says my subscription is up November 1. Is that even legal?"

Other review headlines call the move "despicable!" "appalling" and a "rip off," and attack the NYT for its greed. Many of them demand a boycott of the NYT.

"The NY Times should be ashamed for their devious switcheroo," says a user named Easonia. ""I will delete [the App] and never purchase a NY Times app -- I might never buy a newsstand copy of the paper either. This is so insulting."

In only five days, the App has amassed 49 scathing iPhone reviews, all of which slam the NYT for changing the terms with no warning. All insist that the original App price made no mention of a possible subscription, and made it seem like a one-time-only charge. All have been told that their current App will expire in the next month or two.

The NYT has issued a comment to The NYTPicker that reiterates the pricing history -- first $9.99, then $5.99, and now monthly -- and explains that the reason for the change is that monthly subscriptions only became possible with the iPhone OS 3.0. It was "never unlimited," says NYT spokesperson Diane McNulty. "The price quoted was always for 2009." (For McNulty's full statement, see below.)

Several commenters dispute McNulty's assertion about the app's original time limit.

Right now, the NYT crossword puzzle App gets 1-1/2 stars out of a possible five. The NYT's newspaper app, by contrast, gets four stars out of five, with 22,194 reviews to date.

At the moment, the crossword puzzle is the only element of the NYT's website that exists behind a paywall; readers can pay $39.95 for an annual subscription, or $6.95 a month. The NYT depends on the revenue stream provided by its puzzle, which is one of the paper's most popular features.

This move reflects the NYT's need to milk as much money as possible from the puzzle -- even risking the wrath of its current customers by putting in place a subscription model that will generate far more revenue.

The crossword puzzle business on the iPhone is highly competitive; dozens of options are available, most at a lower price than the NYT. But there's little argument among aficionados that the NYT puzzle is the gold standard. Which, presumably, is why the NYT thinks it can get away with this ham-handed business move.

[UPDATE: Here's the full text of the NYT's statement from Diane McNulty, issued in response to our questions:

Initially when The New York Times crossword app was introduced on the iPhone in March of 2009, it was offered for 2009 at $9.99. Monthly subscriptions were not an option on the iPhone at the time. It was never unlimited; the price quoted was always for 2009. Those who signed up later in the year were given a discount (in June the price dropped to $5.99).

With the new OS 3.0 iPhone, the upgraded version allows for micropayments, so we launched a new version to offer subscribers more flexibility with payment options. It's true the cost has gone up, but it is still a good deal less than the price of the crosswords online, which is $39.95.

With this new version, which has keyboard and performance improvements, we are offering a 30-day ($1.99) subscription, a six-month ($9.99) subscription, or a yearly subscription option ($16.99). These purchases can quickly and easily be made through the game.

Customers who have already subscribed to The New York Times Crossword Daily 2009 will continue to be able to download daily puzzles and will continue to have access to the archive of 4,000 puzzles until the end of the year.

Beyond December 31, 2009, users can choose to purchase a 30-day, six-month or year subscription package. Regardless, users will be able to play the puzzles that originally came with the game at the initial purchase, whether they renew the subscription at the end of the year or not.


Anonymous said...

While I don't want to defend the NYT because I don't know what happened, I want to point out that Apple is even more hamfisted. It's entirely possible that Apple's mechanism won't allow the NYT to upgrade the old users. Apple may never have anticipated this problem.


Many developers are issuing refunds out of their own pockets and losing the 30% commission.

Anonymous said...

I just cancelled my NYTimes subscription as a result. I paid $10 for an app that is now free - I'd pay for the subscription but would be $10 behind someone who just signs up now and gets the app for free plus the subscription fee. Add in the fact that they had the gall to not just make me pay for 2010 puzzles but actually lock me out of 2009 puzzles I already downloaded and enough's enough. Crazy to think that they would lose the $12/week I pay (paid) for the print edition just to squeeze a small app subscription fee out of me. Not the kind of publicity the Grey Lady needs these days, is it?

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