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Mac Musings

The Mac App Store

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- 2008.08.13 - Tip Jar

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People are divided on the "kill switch" Apple built into the iPhone 2.0 operating system. On one side are people who fear the abuse of this power, which gives Apple the ability to turn off any app on your iPhone or iPod touch.

Others applaud Apple's foresight and the ability to turn off dangerous apps, whether they are deliberately malicious or simply poorly written.

I fall in the second camp, as Apple has rarely abused its power in the past (the Blue & White firmware update that disabled G4 upgrades was a rare exception). Also, there's the outside chance that someone is going to create a free app that has a hidden malicious component set to trigger weeks or months in the future - and get it past Apple's testing.

The Mac App Store

More than that, it got me to thinking about the iTunes Store and the Macintosh. Now that Apple has demonstrated that an online application store works (to the tune of $1 million a day!), why not extend the concept beyond iPhone 2.0 and add software for Mac OS X?

I can think of no reason for Apple not to go this route - and hardly any reason for software makers not to participate were Apple to launch a Mac App Store.

Benefits

Quality Control

Today, anyone who wants to make software for the Mac can offer it on the Internet. That's not going to change. What could change is the quality of that software. A Mac App Store could be set up so that only apps that meet certain standards are allowed for sale - or even for free distribution. This could turn the Mac App Store into a good source of quality software, in contrast to sites like VersionTracker, MacUpdate, Download.com, etc., which simply list what's available and take no responsibility for quality.

These sites don't have a vested interest in quality; they make their money from ads, so the goal is more advertising impressions, and linking to anything and everything facilitates that. (That said, they all have a mechanism for allowing users to rate programs.) Apple has a vested interest in making the Mac experience as good as it can be, so keeping buggy, ugly, and useless apps off the Mac App Store makes sense.

Overhead

Today there are two ways to buy software: on disc or online. It takes time and money to master and burn CDs and DVDs, design packaging, and ship software. It takes time and energy to promote shareware and demoware. And then there's the overhead for eSellerate, PayPal, or Kagi handling the financial side of the transaction.

Just as the original iMac marked the beginning of the end for floppies, the MacBook Air marks the beginning of the end for software distribution on optical discs. We'll still see optical drives as tools for ripping CDs and watching DVDs, but just as people are buying music and video from the iTunes Store today, we'll be buying more and more software online in the future.

Compared with the fees others charge, Apple's 30% may sound high, but that includes intangibles that the others don't offer: broad exposure through iTunes, no need to master and produce discs or pay for bandwidth to distribute your apps, and access to Apple's FairPlay DRM technology.

I think the last one is a biggie: No need to use dongles, serial numbers so long that they're hard to enter without error, locking to a specific computer, or online authentication (think Microsoft, which sometimes identifies authentic software as pirated!). Moving to a new Mac could be as easy as copying everything over, deauthorizing the old computer (as you should be doing with your iTunes purchases), and authorizing the new Mac.

The Kill Switch

As a condition of being offered through the Mac App Store, Apple could require that apps can be turned off using a kill switch - just like the iPhone. That way an app that's causing problems could be disabled until a patch is available, and a malicious app (should one slip through quality control) could be shut down completely.

Shareware

We have several types of shareware today - demoware, nagware, and honorware among them. Demoware is either feature crippled or time limited until you pay a registration fee. Nagware will let you know you aren't yet a registered user until your pay your fee and enter your serial number. And honorware is fully functional, not time limited, and the programmer just hopes that you'll do the right thing and register.

Apple could use DRM to the benefit of users and software publishers. Publishers could choose just how their shareware would function until it is paid for, and FairPlay could eliminate the hassles of dealing with lengthy serial numbers and using your credit card or PayPal account to pay for software. The Mac App Store would be just another part of the iTunes Store solution.

Migration Assistant

Here's an idea: Why not set up the Migration Assistant so it can get the machine ID off your old computer and offer to deauthorize it while authorizing your new Mac? Seems like a logical feature to me.

While we're at it, what if the Migration Assistant also let you connect to Apple's servers, see which Macs (and PCs) are authorized for your iTunes library, and allow you to disable computers you no longer use? Since the Migration Assistant is used mostly when you're setting up a new Mac, this would be a sensible time to review that. It would also be a good way for iTunes users to deauthorize dead computers without having to contact Apple.

No Misplaced Discs or Serial Numbers

Because all of this would be handled by iTunes, you'd be able to download the app all over again if you needed to. That would all be linked to your iTunes ID and your authorized computer(s). No need to dig up install CDs or find a serial number.

Software Updates

As an added benefit, apps sold through the Mac App Store could be allowed to use Apple's Software Update application. When you check for updates from Apple, Software Update could also report on and offer to download updates for any apps you've purchased through the Mac App Store.

Drawbacks

Apple has fallen short in a few areas with the current app store.

A Bad Rap

The first that comes to mind is allowing the "I Am Rich" app to be offered for sale. Programmer Armin Heinrich reports 8 sales of the $1,000 program (which essentially does nothing) before Apple pulled it. Allowing the sale of an overpriced, do nothing app did nothing good for Apple's reputation. While it's ultimately the buyer's decision to purchase useless apps, Apple should weed out do nothing apps that aren't free or very, very cheap. (Apple made $300 from every sale of "I Am Rich", so they had a vested interest. I'm glad Apple put sense ahead of profits when it decided to remove the app.)

Confusion

Another is the confusion created by app names. As Griffiths and Frakes point out on Macworld, there are at least four apps named Sodoku listed in the App Store. Worse yet, some apps that aren't listed as Sodoku show up as Sodoku once you install them. If someone recommends you try Sodoku, how are you going to know which one they mean? And if you try two or more, how are you going to know which one(s) to delete when you settle on one?

Slow with Updates

Apple has limited resources, and that means that new software and updates to existing software aren't being approved as fast as they should be. Apple absolutely needs to maintain quality control, but app buyers deserve updates for buggy software as quickly as possible. Perhaps Apple should have two tracks, one for new apps and a faster track for updates.

Go For It

I don't see this as something Apple needs to jump into. It's doing well with the iPhone apps, but it has other areas to focus on right now (MobileMe, for instance). Once it has everything working as it should on the iPhone side, Apple could begin the transition to Macs without optical drives as a standard feature.

Hmm, could that be part of the product transition hinted at during the most recent financial report?

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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