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Apple's Mac App Store - Change Needed

When Apple launched the Mac App Store, I was quite interested in how it would work out. The App Store for iOS has been hugely successful, even if it is at times somewhat frustrating for developers. I’m also undecided on the censorship aspects - I should be able to have a wobbly boob app if I want - but I was prepared to give it a chance.

The Promise

The promise of the App Store is that it makes it easy to find, buy and install applications for OS X. Rather than searching across many different company websites, you can find apps in one place. No need to hand out your credit card details to twenty different companies either - Apple handles all payments.

From a developer’s perspective, the App Store works out pretty well if you have a small app - the 30% commission Apple charges is pretty reasonable. For high value applications, the 30% is not so good, but for $1.99 apps? It’s a good deal.

It’s not just about finding and buying apps either - it’s also about keeping them up to date. From a  user perspective, application updates are handled through the same system as operating system updates. Apple also enforces minimum standards around quality, and there is strong enforcement of security controls, and use of restricted APIs.

Application licensing is also interesting - if I buy the applications, then go and sign in on another computer, I can download my apps again. This isn’t the same as buying the “family pack” that some products offer, but it’s a workable solution for a household with several Macs. This should make things a little easier when I upgrade computers too.

I come from a RedHat Linux background, so I’m well used to the concept of a package repository. Certainly there are very clear differences between package repositories used by Linux distributions, and the App Store, but they have much in common. Obviously the biggest single difference is that with a Linux distribution, nothing stops you changing repositories. You don’t have that choice with Apple, but I figured that they seemed to be doing OK with the iOS App Store.

So I started moving towards using the App Store. If I can find the app on want via the App Store, my preference has always been to buy it from there. Easy to find, buy, and update. Should be all good right? So why do I think I should start moving away from that model?

So what went wrong?

For simple transactions, and cheap applications, the App Store works well. For environments like iPads/iPhones, the App Store is the only way we’ve ever had for finding, purchasing and managing applications. But in the OS X world, there’s a long history of independent developers selling software. Nothing has ever restricted the software you could install, or the locations you could get it from.

As soon as a developer had tested out a patch, they could release it to the wild. Most OS X app support integrated version checking, and will notify users of new releases. If a developer released a major new version, they could choose to offer it for free to existing customers, charge a nominal upgrade fee, or if they were feeling grumpy, make all customers pay the same price.

The App Store doesn’t have this flexibility. Even small patches to existing applications need to go through the review process, which may take time. Apple may choose to not allow the application any more, even though it previously passed muster. Critically, there is no way to offer upgrade pricing to existing customers. 1Password tried to work around this last year when they released a new version for iOS - they offered it at 50% off for EVERYONE for a limited time. Not just for existing customers, but also for new customers. They had to do something to appease their loyal fan base, and that was the best they could manage.

The Omni Group is working on a new version of OmniFocus. Their plan is to offer a 50% discount to existing users. But - and this is crucial - they have no way of offering this discount via the App Store. Instead, I’ll need to buy the upgrade direct from them. I’m not sure how they’ll verify that I’m an existing user, but I guess they’ll come up with some method. All future upgrades and purchases will be through them.

I’m also a DevonThink user. They have three versions of DevonThink - Personal, Pro and Pro Office. You can buy any version direct from them, and they have upgrade pricing for moving between versions. But via the App Store they only offer the Personal version. They have no way of offering multiple versions on the App Store, while allowing upgrade pricing. The only way they could do it would be by making you buy the whole product again. If you buy the App Store version (as I have), and you want to upgrade, you have to change to direct purchasing. They fully support this, which is great, but it’s much more hassle than it needs to be.

The delays in new releases can be frustrating - several times I’ve been aware that bugs have been fixed upstream, and updated versions are available for download if you’ve purchased direct, but I have to wait for my updates via the App Store. I was particularly annoyed when the CCIE Flashcards program I used on my iPhone was crashing at startup, and the fixed version was being held up because Apple was now unhappy with the look/feel of the app.

Fixes coming?

I’m vaguely hopeful that some of these issues will be resolved at WWDC this year, but I’m not sure I should hold my breath. If they could at least introduce upgrade pricing, I would be happy.

For now, I think I’ll move away from using the App Store, at least for higher value purchases. Back to handing out my credit card number to many different companies, and hoping their app supports auto version checking (Shame on you Dropbox for not supporting this!). If they can work out some of the issues, then I’ll look at returning. Until they can get some flexibility in their processes, I can’t see them ever getting items like VMware Fusion, or Microsoft Office for Mac into the App Store. And as long as the App Store doesn’t have pretty much every major app, it’s of limited value. Shame.

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