Why Developers And Customers Should Be Wary Of The Mac App Store

12/7/2012 9:22:20 AM

At least one developer is claiming that the Mac App Store is headed toward irrelevance. Here’s a look at what this means for Mac users.

Apple’s one-stop shop for Mac apps is becoming more restrictive for the developers who sell apps there.

In a July 26 blog post titled “The Mac App Store’s future of irrelevance,” Insta-paper developer Marco Arment asked, “How many good apps will be pulled from the App Store before Apple cares?” He noted: “My confidence in the App Store, as a customer, has evaporated” since he can no longer be sure that an app he buys will remain available in the store. “The Mac App Store is in significant danger of becoming an irrelevant, low-traffic flea market where buyers rarely venture for serious purchases,” he concluded.

Description: App Store in Peril Apple’s restrictions may cause the overall quality of Mac apps to decline

App Store in Peril Apple’s restrictions may cause the overall quality of Mac apps to decline

In his post, Arment referred to the most common Mac App Store concern: its sandboxing requirement, which can limit what functionality developers may include in their apps. By demanding that developers sandbox their apps, Apple can ensure that apps won’t pole around where they don’t belong on users’ Macs. But that limitation also has the potential to force apps to undergo significant changes.

Arment believes that because the Mac App Store is bad for developers, the overall quality of apps in it will decrease, which will be bad for everyone.

The case against the Mac App Store

The Mac App Store’s restrictions have some precedent, since they have been part of the iOS App Store since day one. But “on the Mac,” Arment tells Macrworld, “the App Store policies are being retrofit-ted into a well-established environment that they’re fairly incompatible with.”

That’s not to say that the Mac App Store launched without any restrictions. From the start, it lacked upgrade-pricing support, limited root access, and banned apps that tried to tweak elements of the Mac’s interface or accessed private APIs (application programming interfaces).

But Arment isn’t the only developer who thinks the Mac App Store is troubled: Paul Kafasis of Rogue Amoeba told us that he agrees with Arment’s contention. Many apps, Kafasis says, “including our own, have never entered the store due to the onerous restrictions in place from day one. Castrating our apps is simply not appealing.”

Kafasis recognizes the benefits of the Mac App Store: “[It] made it easy for developers to sell software, without a lot of overhead.” But, he adds, “the obstacles to selling software have been shrinking for years… selling directly is easier than it’s even been.” Kafasis says that Rogue Amorba is working to sandbox Piezo, but that doing so may be impossible. “If we’re unable to do that, we’ll have little choice but to shift Piezo from the Mac App Store to direct sales exclusively.”

In defense of the Mac App Store

One common response to Arment’s arguments is that they apply only to hard-core users who run the powerful apps most likely to get bitten by restrictions. In a follow-up post, Arment countered by suggesting that because geeks are evangelists and thought leaders, their influence reaches typical Mac users too.

Not all developers regard the situation negatively. James Thomson of TLA Systems sells apps in the Mac and iOS stores, and the Mac App Store continues to work out well for him: “We’ve had PCalc in the Mac App Store since it opened, and we’ve seen noticeably higher sales from the App Store than through other channels. So, from a visibility and ease-of-pur-chase point of view, it would seem that [the store is] a success.”

That said, Thomson notes that TLA is “in the process of submitting our first update with sandboxing switched on, and we’ve had to remove an admittedly very minor feature” to do so. “It’s not ideal, but we don’t really have much of a choice if we want to sell in the store,” he says.

Thomson doesn’t necessarily agree with Arment’s suggestion that customers will increasingly shop for apps elsewhere: “Even though you can see a lot of folk talking about it within our small sphere, I don’t think we’re the average consumer by any means. Most people will just buy through the store because they are used to the experience from iOS, and it’s right there in front of them.”

How the Problem Affects Mac Users

While Arment is quick to clarify that he never intended to suggest that users would “complerely abandon the Mac App Store,” he adds: “The problem is that it’ll be relegated mostly to simple, cheap, often subpar apps, and for the few good apps that remain, users will mistrust the Mac App Store as a stable place to buy them and expect future upgrades.” Without significant changes, the Mac App Store “will just never become good enough that Apple could require that Macs only run App Store software.”

Description: Additional Restrictions? – Mountain Lion’s Gatekeeper feature defaults to allow apps from “identified developers” but Apple may change that in the future

Additional Restrictions? – Mountain Lion’s Gatekeeper feature defaults to allow apps from “identified developers” but Apple may change that in the future

iOS famously runs only those third-party apps that uses buy from its App Store. Does Apple hope to make Macs run the same way? The default option in Mountain Lion’s new Gatekeeper feature limits Macs to running Mac App Store apps and those from “identified developers” who have registered (for $99) with Apple but whose titles aren’t subject to Mac App Store restrictions. Could a more restrictive Mac App Store setting become the new default – or the only option?

Arment’s guess: “I don’t think it will happen for a while, but I do think that [limiting Macs to App Store apps is] Apple’s eventual goal. And if it does happen, no matter how far in the future that is, I bet we’ll all scream that it’s too soon.”

Thomson’s take: “Yes, I can completely see Apple locking things down more in future. But I would expect them to first completely remove the ability to run nonsigned code. …We’re a good couple of years away from only allowing App Store apps, I’d say – probably not in 10.9, but after that it wouldn’t surprise me.”

Kafasis’s opinion: “It would be bad for developers who don’t fit into the Mac App Store, certainly, and that’s a growing number. It could be bad for users, who would no longer have access to a wide range of very useful products. …Ultimately, I believe it would be very bad for Apple as well, as their now-thriving Mac platform would be damaged.”

What Mac Users Should Do

If you don’t mind Apple’s increasingly strict rules for apps, keep shopping on the Mac App Store. But take pause. A developer of an app you love might release a new version with a new price tag. An app you love may be forced to strip out features. Or the developers of an app you love may find that they can’t keep it in the Mac App Store anymore.

While the Mac App Store remains a fine place to buy certain titles today, the issues are real, and Apple thus far has displayed its characteristic determination to stick to its current plan. If you’re worried, you can start to buy apps directly from developers instead. And you can share your feedback with Apple.

It’s definitely too soon to panic. But it’s not too soon to be concerned.


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