Restoring Purchases for App Subscriptions

A few days ago, I ran into a weird problem with my iPhone and a the iTunes subscription model. One app that I subscribe to is Ulysses - it’s great for writing, taking notes, making lists, and I even use it to publish drafts for this blog. I have the app installed on my iPhone, my work laptop, and the iMac that my wife and I use at home.

Because my wife is usually logged on to the iMac, I must have originally installed Ulysses from the App Store under her account. However, one evening last week I decided to use the iMac to finish editing a blog post. Since Ulysses syncs via iCloud, I needed to log into my account on the iMac in order to see my data. When I opened the Ulysses app, it brought up the subscription purchase window. Naturally, I pressed the “Restore Purchases” button, and sort of blindly ran through the prompts that came up so that I could get back to editing.

However, the next day, all my devices started asking for me to validate my subscription. On my work laptop, I was able to press the “Restore Purchases” button and I was back in business. However, on my iPhone, the restore purchases feature literally did nothing. Sometimes it prompted me for my Apple account, but most of the time it just waited a bit and took me back to the restore screen. I thought it might be a temporary service outage, and so I tried to “Restore Purchases” tons of times - on my walk over lunch, during a longer teleconference, at my desk. Still nothing. So I reached out to the Ulysses team for support via email.

Locked Out

I have to say, it was super frustrating and I started to reconsider just why I had decided to go with the subscription model. Like many things in the internet-connected world1, when the authorization tools don’t work, you can’t use your stuff. Fortunately, Ulysses is one of those apps that still allows you to access your content in read-only mode, regardless of whether you have an active subscription or not. So I wasn’t completely locked out of things I had saved or written. But I couldn’t edit anything or publish what I had written while on the go.

Helpful Support

Eventually, I got a very nice response email from Ulysses support that suggested I restart my phone; if that didn’t work I should make sure that all my other iCloud devices were activated/registered. I had already restarted my phone twice, logged out of iTunes, reinstalled the app, etc. But I had never thought of making sure all my other devices using the app were set up correctly. That reminded me of our iMac and the weird experience with “Restore Purchases” that I had blindly clicked through the other night. Upon getting home from work, I hurried to the iMac and attempted to get the app working. After running into all sorts of errors, I gave up and completely reinstalled the app, this time under my Apple ID, and it started working. When I tried to “Restore Purchases” on my iPhone, everything magically activated. Finally.

I guess the moral of the story is that iTunes subscription based apps are somehow all linked together and everything needs to be “activated” on all devices in order for iOS to work. Somehow, this smells like a bug somewhere in the Ulysses app itself or perhaps in Apple’s subscription service. I’m still a bit concerned, especially since my iPhone should have worked, and this whole experience was especially non-intuitive. What if I didn’t have access to my iMac? What sort of hoops would I have needed to jump through to get my iPhone working again? In any case, I guess all’s well that ends well. Here’s hoping that my subscription app experience will continue without any hiccups for the foreseeable future.

  1. So much is in the cloud these days, including music, books, movies, file, and now software subscriptions. ↩︎