Thu, Oct 21, 2010, 3:12am Mac App Store — A few thoughts
Computers » Mac » OS X
espite running a(n obscure) Mac app listing site for years, I've actually been hoping Apple would eventually create their own central, built-in way to find and obtain Mac apps. When iOS devices got one, it seemed like it was inevitable. They've had the pieces in place for a while now, just going unused. 90 days from now, the Mac ecosystem changes completely. So many questions, possibilities, worries.

One indication that Apple should do something came years ago when I went around asking Mac owners how they found new software for the Mac. Did they go to VersionTracker, MacUpate, lesser-known sites (I had hopes)? The answer: they never heard of any of these sites. Only a minority of Mac users that I talked to had anything other than what came on their computer, with the possible exception of Office or Photoshop. Other people thought that all you could buy for Macs was the few items found in the Apple store (or before that, reseller shops).

I've thought about many different schemes to solve this problem over the years. Ways for users to find and enjoyably install Mac software, but the problems have always been two-fold: getting and constantly up-to-date list of what's out there, and getting Mac users to know about this piece of software. The former problem is notorious. Apps go out of date, links change, everybody provides different kinds of info about their apps, … it's like herding ten thousand cats. The latter problem seems insurmountable. Even if you could solve the first problem, and probably at the cost of a great amount of effort, you'll never get more than a fraction of the Mac market to know about the system.

The right level the problem needed to be addressed at was within the OS itself, much how any successful package management system has to be right there, on the system, ready to go. Only Apple could do it. Now they have.

The Mac app store looks to be, at least at first sight, inheriting some of the overly-strict policies of the phone/pad/touch world. Many of the (seemingly draconian) rules that one can deal with on the phone feel out of place on the Mac. That said, this is not the exclusive way to have software for the Mac. It's not taking over (or so I believe).

There are also many, many kinds of software that exists on the Mac, and is part of what makes the Mac a great platform to be on, that would never make it through the list of rules that Apple has provided developers. Several major programs that Apple sells would be rejected, in fact. So there will always (I predict) be the traditional ways of distributing and installing apps on the Mac. The App Store is simply a major new outlet for those apps that can make it in.

Many more concerns: Can we have programs that run arbitrary scripts? Can we link to external libraries freely? What about dependencies? What about apps that use pre-installed scripting languages that may end up with version dependencies over time? The list of such concerns goes on and on. This first six months is going to be a rough sorting out of these issues, and I'm sure the tech journals will be rife with stories about unfair-seeming rejections.

Another case: While it seems overly puritanical to not allow erotic material on the store, I can see how awkward it might be have Apple's reviewers go over such apps, and what a headache it would be to keep kids from downloading (and getting bombarded by) such material. That's a fair enough compromise, though the dividing line of what's erotic and what's not is unsolvable, and Apple will surely frustrate devs (and, um, users).

Store-specific concerns: 1) Price-racing to the bottom. This has already happened on the phone, and happening on the iPad. It's not a good thing. A real concern here. 2) Discovery is still not correctly solved by Apple. They need to get rid of their top-sellers list completely, but it ain't gunna happen. If you fail to make it onto that list (and almost all apps will fail) you have to find some way to get the word to at least those users who look beyond that list (and few do). Really, Apple is not doing a good job here. But I have hope.

The upside, however, is immensely compelling: There is a 50 million Mac installed base, roughly, to work with, and growing quickly. Almost 21% of the U.S. consumer market is Mac-based. 21%. Most of whom have never looked for Mac apps. And they have almost certainly never heard of your Mac app, even if it's as popular as the Omni* stuff to us.

Every country that has Macs can buy your app soon. (Localize!) 30% of the retail price pays for that, the transaction hassles and perhaps a nicer installation experience. Insane deal for most devs, especially the smaller ones. Having it available for Snow Leopard means a large base of users right off the bat.

Huge opportunities. In the middle of a serious recession, no less. 90 days. Should be interesting.

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