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Why Dark Sky 'sold out' with a full-featured weather app, and why it's not charging for the upgrade

Yesterday, a weather app landed on the App Store and entered a crowded pool with the likes of Yahoo and The Weather Channel. What makes the app particularly unique -- and why you won't find it on any "New Release" list -- is that it's being released as an update to an existing app. It's called Dark Sky, and this probably isn't the first you've heard the name.

For just short of two years now, the US$3.99 Dark Sky was the anti-weather app. It held the current weather conditions as its priority and made no attempt at extended forecasts. There was a radar feature that was smooth, but restrictive. It was an app with a very specific -- and some would say limited -- purpose, but its unique approach to weather earned it considerable attention on the App Store and helped it gain word-of-mouth appeal.

Then, iOS 7 happened.

Much like thousands of other iOS developers in the wake of the iOS 7 reveal, Dark Sky wanted to do something fresh. But what? As Dark Sky's Adam Grossman told me, that decision was driven by both what his team had learned as well as a desire to build something they themselves would love.

"We launched two years ago, and we didn't know anything about the weather two years ago," Grossman says. "We were making big claims like 'You don't need a full-featured weather app; you just need to know whether it's raining in the next hour.' We've created this weather service (the Forecast API) because we didn't want to take weather from Weather.com or Accuweather, and we realized that, these weather apps that exist -- there's some really good ones now, and a lot of them use our API -- but there wasn't the perfect weather app that we wanted. If we're in the weather business and we can't use our own weather app as our day-to-day to see what's going to happen for the next week or so, then that kind of sucks."

But unlike the decision to fully flesh out the new Dark Sky, the idea of offering it for free wasn't always the plan.

"For the longest time we were imagining that it would be a paid upgrade. It was kind of a last-minute decision to make it a normal upgrade. [iOS 7] gives us a prime, golden opportunity for being able to charge for an upgrade," he says. "But the reason why it ended up being just a normal upgrade is that I feel like we're in a unique position. Our app is kind of expensive compared to apps in general, and certainly weather apps. There's a million free weather apps out there, so it felt kind of weird to charge people an additional $4."

There are plenty of paid apps that have used iOS 7's redesign as a chance to reinvent themselves and in many cases introduce entirely new products that carry their own price of entry. Dark Sky certainly seems to have learned from the not-always-kind public reaction to this type of strategy.

"Two things would happen if we charged for an upgrade," he says. "The first thing is: We would piss off a lot of people, and they wouldn't be as happy about the app. Our sales come from word of mouth, so if we piss off our users, that's less people that will spread the word about our app and are happy about it. The second thing is, my gut tells me that less than half of the people who own it now would pay for an upgrade, and if we're going to have people out there talking about the app, we want them talking about the new one."

I've taken the new version of Dark Sky for a brief spin earlier today and a couple things are immediately clear: It's got the same easy-to-navigate feel of the original app, and it's also a lot more powerful than I expected. Look for a full review on TUAW coming soon.

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