The Mac App Store: Pros, Cons, and Possibility

A few weeks ago, Apple gave a sneak peak of the next version of Mac OS X, 10.7 Lion. Not a whole lot was revealed about the new operating system beyond a new way to access applications dubbed Mission Control (Dashboard + Expose + iOS-style application launcher).

One of the bigger announcements was the introduction of an App Store for Mac OS X. The same way you browse the App Store for iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad applications, you can now purchase, download and install applications for your computer.

With the overwhelming success of the iOS App Store, an App Store for the Mac seems like a natural progression. Not only will it provide a seamless way of browsing and installing applications for the end user, it allows Apple to snag a piece of Mac application sales.

Many things have already been said about the Mac App Store since it’s announcement. Questions have been asked and answers have been speculated. No one really knows how it will turn out, we can only guess based on the continuing success of the iOS App Store and the recently released guidelines.

There are certainly a number of benefits to such a system, for both the user and the developer. There are certainly a few things to be wary about as well…

Repeals and Rejections

Developers are now submitting their apps to be featured

Developers are now submitting their apps to be featured

I am not a developer of any sorts, but anyone with a bit of interest in Apple and iOS devices has surely heard the controversies surrounding the iOS App Store.

Steve Jobs likes control, plain and simple. Applications have been let into the App Store, only to be promptly removed on a whim. Applications have been forced to change names, adjust descriptions, remove certain references or adjust functionality to meet Apple’s strict App Store demands. Some applications are turned away simply because they do not offer anything valuable to the user.

It is this control that made my initial reaction to the Mac App Store announcement unfavorable. Overall my experience with the App Store has been a pleasant one, and I have no real reason to think a Mac App Store would offer anything less. In fact, to most consumers, an easy-to-use place to discover software for their computer is great. It’s the control factor that puts me a little on edge.

Betas, Trials, and Tribulations

My initial concerns were: Am I limited to only use officially sanctioned software from Apple going forward? The only applications I can install must first obtain Apple’s seal of approval? Not that I have much questionable application content, but I can’t see Apple giving the okay to a BitTorrent client (for the occasional TV shows that aren’t online or on-demand, of course).

One of the Mac App Store guidelines states that the software must not be “beta”, “demo”, or “trial” software. I am not sure about you, but I have not purchased any desktop software in a long while that I didn’t get to first try out on my system.

It’s fairly standard for desktop applications to offer a 14-to-30 day trial period. This allows the user time to get a feel for the application and work it into their work-flow, by the time the 30 days have ended, you’ve already come accustomed to daily use of the application and fork over the money.

Without a trial period, purchasing software requires a bit of a leap of faith. This isn’t such a big deal when it comes to iOS apps where most of the applications are under $10. It’s a bit of a concern when you start talking desktop applications that typically run $50 and up.

Alfred is a popular Mac app, currently in beta

Alfred is a popular Mac app, currently in beta

The no “beta” tag worries me a bit as well. I use Chromium as my main browser, I’ve been using the Alfred beta since the day it was released and I always run the latest version of Adium. Three of my most-used applications all carry the “beta” tag, as it currently stands.

Am I now forced to use official release versions of these applications (if one is even available)? I can obviously understand the reasoning – the average consumer does not need to deal with crash-prone in-development software – but for the more bleeding-edge crowd, what does that mean?

I should state now that standard application distribution isn’t going away. Apple isn’t going to prevent users from downloading DMGs and manually installing applications the way we currently do. This is how the power-user will still have access to the betas, but perhaps trial periods will become a thing of the past.

I can’t see the average consumer browsing the App Store for software, finding an application and then leaving the store, navigating to the developer’s website, looking for a free trial.

This also means that developers have a choice of distributing their applications via the Mac App Store or distributing them independently, as they currently do, or both. Unfortunately, the guidelines state that no applications can contain copy protection, license keys or update mechanisms.

This is unfortunate, simply because the developers will have to maintain two different versions of the applications, should they choose to distribute with Apple and independently. I imagine that as the App Store picks up, many developers will forgo their own store fronts, trial periods and public betas and simply use Apple.

Apple is going to take a 30% cut of application sales – the same as the iOS App Store. With the price of desktop software being significantly higher than mobile applications (typically), Apple could be taking a sizable chunk out the developer’s profits. I can’t imagine pro-sumer software applications – such as Adobe Creative Suite, whose price tag can reach a few thousand dollars – willingly allowing Apple to dig into their pockets. Will those applications remain outside the App Store?

Pursuing the Positive Side

Clearly, not everything about the impending Mac App Store is negative. In fact, the majority of it can be seen as positive. Sure, Apple is going to take a percentage of sales, but the simple exposure can potentially rocket the application sales well beyond numbers the developers are seeing now.

As it stands, I install new applications based on actively seeking out and reading software blogs. I get exposed to a lot of cool applications that the average will user will never even hear of because they aren’t exposed to them – and don’t care enough to seek them out.

When packaged up and presented nicely, with a one-click purchase, download and install process, the average user is much more likely to purchase an application. My mom has an iPad, my dad has the iPhone 4 – both of which have a few pages of applications, ranging from games, news and sports apps to grocery list apps.

They’ve been Mac users for a number of years, well before becoming iOS users, and the only applications on their desktop computer are the ones I’ve installed for them over holidays or required work applications. A Mac App Store will certainly have them exploring new software – which is a huge win for the developers.

Apple is going to allow purchased applications on the now-standard five authorized machines. This one area that has me excited. I’ve had some computer trouble over the past 10 months, leaving me with two dead machines and a new MacBook. When my first MacBook died back in February, I had the machine for over three years. There were tons of applications on there.

As I migrated to new machines, I am certain there are applications on that old MacBook that I have yet to move to my new machine simply because I can’t remember them (and it won’t power on, for me to check).

Like with iTunes, you can authorise apps across five machines

Like with iTunes, you can authorise apps across five machines

When I moved computers, I immediately began re-downloading my essential applications. The process was time-consuming and tedious. With the App Store, I’ll have a central place containing all (well, maybe not all) of my applications for easy re-installation.

That’s my hope at least. The reinstall process may not be quite this simple, but regardless it’s a central directory that holds the necessary information – without any extra work from me.

Our Unanswered Questions

There are still a lot of unanswered questions regarding the App Store. Will Apple allow competing web browsers in? Apple does want applications that mimic the feel of native Apple software, but as Mac users know, most software for the OS borrows heavily from Apple’s design standards – creating a unified look across all apps, native and third-party.

This is one thing that makes Mac applications so nice to use. Will applications be forced to remove their iTunes/Finder-esque sidebars? Will Adium make the cut, as it provides the same functionality of iChat? Will Apple no longer offer software for sale in their retail stores? Will open-source software be allowed in the App Store?

There are a thousand questions you can ask and a thousand different ways you can try to analyze the App Store – it could go on forever. I certainly haven’t touched upon everything, but I’ve rattled off a handful of the thoughts that have been floating around my mind since the store’s introduction. Soon enough, we’ll have our answers.

Previewing the Mac App Store

Previewing the Mac App Store

It’s Set to Flourish

The Mac App Store will almost certainly be one riddled with controversies as Apple irons out the wrinkles.

You’re bound to hear stories of applications being rejected for strange and/or seemingly insignificant or questionable reasons. You’re bound to see contradicting application rulings. You’ll no doubt see developers posting to Twitter “app is submitted to Apple, now we wait!”

This will all happen, as it has with the iOS App Store. Apple has relaxed their restrictions with the mobile App Store and there’s no doubt that the desktop App Store may need to be even more relaxed. But to the average user, none of this matters.

To the average user, they are going to know exactly where to go to find that piece of software they need. They will already know how to purchase it, and they won’t need to know how to install it.

Simplicity and familiarity are key. Not only to an enjoyable software purchasing/installation, but also to developers seeing their bottom lines shoot through the roof.

The Mac App Store will flourish.