iTunes Store needs a subscription category to distinguish 'free app' from 'free content'

When is "free" not really free? When we're talking about an iPhone app that requires the user to pay separately for content.

The 15 most downloaded "free" apps in the news category of the iTunes Store are all no-cost downloads, but six require a subscription or a paid in-app download. Another two, MacLife and USA Today, are currently free but may change to paid versions in the future. And the free New York Times app provides only a portion of the Times' content (and is itself a prelude to an eventual paid app strategy).

Of the remaining seven apps, Flipboard is an RSS reader, Huffington Post is a digital-only operation, and the others -- CBS, ABC, NPR and the BBC -- are all broadcasters.

As Apple negotiates with news publishers regarding an iTunes subscription plan, the company should also consider cleaning up its News category and providing more clarity for consumers. The current array of business models (free, partial content, paid download, paid in-app downloads and subscription) is complicated and no doubt confusing to users -- especially if they are all labeled "free."

Paid or subscription apps

Free with possibility of future paid app

Free apps


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