Mac App Store Sandboxing Nightmare

11/26/2012 9:14:53 AM

Sandboxing looks set to cause headache for Mac developers and disadvantage users

On Friday 1 June, Apple started requiring that Mac developers implement sandboxing in apps sold via its Mac App Store.

However, many of the developers we spoke to were frustrated by the lack of information and help offered by Apple and by its frequent changes to the guidelines for sandboxing. Literature and Latte’s Keith Blout suggested that Apple should “drop sandboxing from Lion altogether and only start enforcing it, fully formed, in 10.8”.

Description: Playing in the sandbox Sandboxing may limit app functionality and frustrate users

Playing in the sandbox Sandboxing may limit app functionality and frustrate users.

Apple has already moved the deadline for Sandboxing back; initially the transition was pegged for November 2011, and then March 2012. In addition, the company’s failure to sandbox its own apps haven’t exactly endeared it to developers. So far only Text Edit and Preview have been sandboxed.

“The reason that they can’t sandbox their own applications is because they experience the same problems as third-party developers: appropriate entitlements don’t exist, the APIs are buggy and the sandbox model makes no sense for many applications,” claimed one developer.

Another told us that: “There’s a huge amount of uncertainty about the whole process, as Apple has provided very little guidance in terms of what developer can expect. There is no person to contact to clarify and discuss alternative sandboxing strategies, so we are all going into this blind.”

“Something has clearly gone very wrong when Apple imposes changes that require a large proportion of apps on the Mac App Store to be feature crippled. Nobody knows what the real motivation behind it is,” noted another developer.

Sandboxing = security

For anyone unfamiliar with the term, sandboxing is a security mechanism that limits the data and features a specific app can access. Sandboxed apps can, metaphorically, only operate in their own sandbox, and only access data that Apple has entitled them to see. By limiting access, users’ data should be better protected against any malware attempt to ‘hijack’ a sandboxed app - after all, an app can’t open files it doesn’t have access to.

Description: Sandboxed apps Apple have sandboxed TextEdit and Preview, but seem stumped on the rest

Sandboxed apps Apple have sandboxed TextEdit and Preview, but seem stumped on the rest.

However, many of the developers we’ve spoken to don’t think that the security risk is big enough to warrant the trade-off in usability that sandboxing brings. Blout explained: “Extra security is often good, but there’s a trade-off. One of the things I’ve always loved about Macs is how open they are, and how different apps can interact with one another. I’m slightly concerned that sandboxing is beginning to encroach on that.”

BeLight Software’s Ray East thinks Mac users will suffer frustrations due to sandboxing: “We can definitely say that user experience is going to suffer. Apps will be swamped with dialogs asking for permission to carry out what used to be simple actions. That will add more steps and clicks.

Some developers also expressed concerns that programs that are not sandboxed will be removed from the Mac App Store. Others said they are considering removing their apps from the Store, while there were those who told us they will maintain two versions of their apps, with a full one available on their website.

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