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4 Ways Developers Say Apple Can Improve The Mac App Store

We asked some successful developers how Apple can improve the Mac App Store.

4 Ways Developers Say Apple Can Improve The Mac App Store
[Photo: Flickr user Rob Boudon]

Last week Realmac Software released RapidWeaver 6, the long-awaited upgrade to its flagship web design software. RapidWeaver has long been a staple app for those Mac users who want the simplicity of a drag and drop WYSIWYG website builder combined with more advanced tools for those that don’t mind digging into code.

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RapidWeaver’s popularity has only increased in the years since Apple discontinued its popular iWeb web design software, and Apple has spotlighted the software in its Mac App Store from time to time. That’s why it was something of a shock when, after the announcement of the immediate availability of RapidWeaver 6 last week, Realmac also announced the new software would not be available via the Mac App Store.

Eliminating a popular distribution channel seems like an odd move for any developer, but Realmac is just the latest Mac dev to hold off releasing their apps on the Mac App Store. Bare Bones Software recently decided not to release BBEdit 11 on the MAS and Panic Software has opted not to sell its popular Coda app on the MAS any longer.

Just what is going on? Many major Mac developers say the Mac App Store is in need of changes to make it truly worthwhile for developers to sell their apps there. Here’s what three of them told me what Apple needs to do to fix things.

1) Shorten Review Times So Critical Bugs Can Be Fixed Promptly

All apps have bugs. That’s just the nature of software. When you are talking about bugs in an iOS app, it’s rare that any bug requires an immediate fix. After all, most mobile apps today are still not true productivity tools that we solely rely on. The same can’t be said for desktop apps, which oftentimes are the tools we cannot do our jobs without. Even a moderate bug often needs to be fixed right away or it can seriously hinder a user’s ability to get work done.

Through traditional distribution channels it’s always been quick and easy to issue bug fixes. Once a bug is discovered and fixed, the developer could quickly upload the new build of the app to their website (or push it out through in-app software update mechanisms). This way a user could oftentimes get the fix for their problem within hours of a major bug being discovered. This isn’t the case for apps distributed through the Mac App Store, however. Any app changes–including small bug fixes–must be approved by Apple, which can take a week or more. According to Dan Counsell, founder of Realmac Software, this was the primary reason the company decided not to release RapidWeaver 6 on the Mac App Store.

“RapidWeaver 6 is a huge update with a large number of third parties updating their add-ons to work with this new version,” Counsell says. “We obviously wanted the update to go as smoothly as possible for our customers and should a critical bug appear during the launch we wanted to be able to fix it with hours, not days or weeks. If RapidWeaver was on the Mac App Store and we had to submit an update it could take at five days or more to go through the review process–I felt that wasn’t fair for all our loyal customers.”

Needless to say, Counsell’s primary suggestion for how Apple can improve the Mac App Store is to speed up review times–something virtually every developer I spoke to agreed with. As one developer who wished to remain anonymous said, “Mission critical apps require mission critical bug fix times. You can’t get that with apps through the Mac App Store.”

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2) Allow Upgrade Pricing

But there was an additional reason Realmac chose to hold off RapidWeaver 6’s launch on the Mac App Store: a lack of upgrade pricing for owners of older versions of the app. This too has long been a chief complaint among Mac developers. Apple understandably wants to make the software purchasing experience as simple as possible for users, but developers are tied down by the economic realities of what it costs to develop new versions of their apps and also the need to make past users feel like they are getting a good deal.

“I’d love to see upgrade pricing, however Apple seem very reluctant and at this point I’m not sure it’ll ever happen,” says Counsell. “It’s something customers and developers repeatedly ask for, but Apple seem fixed on driving down the price of apps.”

A lack of upgrade pricing can arguably have a big benefit for users–all major upgrades on the Mac App Store are free–but in the long run it can hurt users, as there’s no reason for a developer to spend time and money improving an app if they can’t financially benefit from future versions of it.

“No, it’s not shocking news,” says Ausra Meskauskaite, when I ask her about Realmac’s decision to not sell RapidWeaver 6 on the Mac App Store. Meskauskaite is head of marketing at Pixelmator, the much-loved image editor for the Mac that is sold exclusively through the Mac App Store and has been featured by Apple numerous times as a standout Mac app. “Many developers feel that they need more flexibility on the Mac App Store. [Paid upgrades are] the upgrade scheme we’ve all gotten used to throughout many years. It’s difficult for us developers to think of–and for the users to adopt–some other customer loyalty support scheme.”

But while Meskauskaite would like to see paid upgrades become a reality on the Mac App Store, Pixelmator has no plans to go back to selling the app via any other channels. A few years ago Pixelmator decided to go Mac App Store-only, releasing every major update for free.

“The effect was huge,” says Meskauskaite. “Pixelmator grossed $1 million in just 20 days after the Mac App Store launch. In fact, every Pixelmator release is each time better than the one before.”

The fact that developers can have continuous blowout sales even if they can’t make money from paid upgrades is no doubt one reason Apple doesn’t feel the need to alter the Mac App Store’s pricing structure.

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3) Allow Demo Software

“At this point, the most important item from that list for me is trial runs of App Store software,” says Omni Group CEO Ken Case, when I tell him the other “wants” most developers have for the Mac App Store. Omni Group has been selling Mac software for over two decades and knows better than any that when you’re asking people to pay $50+ for a piece of software, many people want to try it before they buy it.

Currently Apple’s terms strictly prohibit trial or “lite” versions of apps in the Mac App Store, so many developers are forced to offer these demo versions through their own distribution channels on their websites.

“We do make two-week trials of our Mac apps available on our website, but the whole experience would be much better for App Store customers if it were integrated into the App Store itself,” says Case.

Numerous other developers have voiced their desire for trial apps on the Mac App Store since its inception in 2011, but Apple–a company with a penchant for simplicity in its offerings–has yet to relent.

Case says he can accept Apple’s view on demo software, but he’s hoping Apple will change its ways on something even more critical in a developer/user relationship…

4) Enable Better Customer Interaction

“I’d love to be able to reply to App Store reviews,” says Case. “I often see reviews from customers who have missed some feature of the app–for example, a customer wishing OmniGraffle had free network stencils available, which in fact it does. Right now, there’s no way to reach out to those customers to let them know how to find what they were looking for–and meanwhile, their disappointed review drives away other potential customers. That sort of thing can happen anywhere, of course, not just the App Store–but in most other contexts, I can reply to those customers and help them out. I’d love to be able to do that in the App Store as well.”

Case’s point is echoed by Realmac’s Dan Counsell.

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“We see customers writing reviews saying ‘Clear doesn’t have feature X’ and we can’t reply to them to let them know that it does have feature X or that it’s coming in an update,” says Counsell. “It’s frustrating knowing you can help people with these issues, but we have no way of contacting them. If someone buys an app directly from us we can follow up with via email to see if they need any help to get up and running, we can let them know we’re here to offer support if they need us–you just can’t do that on the Mac App Store.”

Counsell also points out that this lack of ability to reply to customers can cause problems between paying users and developers, noting that when a user buys a developer’s app through the Mac App Store “They are Apple customers, not ours.” He says this can lead to problems if a Mac App Store user requests a refund. “If someone ask us for a refund we have to redirect them to Apple and sometimes Apple refuses to issue a refund. The customer then comes back to us frustrated and angry.”

Still, Developers Love The Mac

Despite the gripes and suggestions developers have about the Mac App Store Counsell notes that he hasn’t ruled out releasing RapidWeaver 6 in Apple’s store in the future. Indeed, two of Realmac’s other apps–Clear and Ember (not to mention RapidWeaver 5)–are still available on the Mac App Store. But for now a smooth release of RapidWeaver 6 with the ability to quickly fix bugs took priority. And though Apple clearly has its own views about how software distribution should work, that hasn’t put Counsell off app development or the Mac.

“For me, the Mac has always been the best desktop platform to develop on and I don’t see that changing anytime soon,” says Counsell. “For all the issues I have with the App Store, I still think Apple does an amazing job and honestly I’m not interesting in building our apps for any other platform.”

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