Chalk it up to good timing, but hardly anyone expected serious problems for Apple's Mac App Store when it opened its doors in early 2011.
With the iOS App Store soaring, the prevailing attitude about the Mac App Store was one of optimism. Tech pundits said it would capitalize on the good vibes of Apple's iOS storefront, usher in a new era of useful, small-scale apps, and enhance the overall value of the Mac. Developers had some concerns, but according to Macworld they were "generally enthusiastic."
Over the last four years, those concerns have morphed into a mini-revolt, as Apple's restrictive policies, arbitrary decisions, and lengthy review times have prompted some high-profile developers to pack up and leave. While it’s still possible to be successful in the Mac App Store, some developers view the place as being in a state of decay.
A quick rundown of recent departures:
- In May, Panic opted to bypass the Mac App Store for the latest version of its Coda web development software.
- Bare Bones Software, the company behind venerable HTML and text editor BBEdit, departed in October.
- Realmac Software also skipped the Mac App Store for the latest version of its RapidWeaver web design program.
- After Apple rejected a version of the Google data backup app CloudPull, Golden Hill Software decided not to bother with a workaround, and pulled out of the store entirely.
Clearly, Apple has some fixing to do, but the first step may be to admit that the Mac App Store was always destined to end up this way. With the benefit of hindsight, here’s why Apple's Mac App Store hasn't lived up to the rosiest initial expectations:
Apple’s first mistake was to model the Mac App Store after its iOS counterpart. From the start, apps would be subject to a lengthy review process, and a long list of rules on what they could not do. Nearly a year and a half after launch, Apple implemented strict sandboxing rules to prevent apps from accessing unauthorized data or cordoned off parts of the operating system. While iOS has been locked down from the start, the idea of Apple imposing new rules on Mac apps hasn't gone over well with some developers.
"The Mac App Store is trying to put the genie back in the bottle to a certain extent, and I think that's what's causing most of the friction—especially with long-standing Mac developers and users," James Thomson, the creator of PCalc for iOS and OS X, said in an email.
Thomson believes that people's attitudes toward sandboxing and other restrictions will change over time, especially among newer users and developers. He also thinks sandboxing is the right approach for a broad consumer app market, even if the wider scope of Mac apps causes more problems compared to iOS.
Still, Apple didn't compensate enough for sandboxing with alternative tools that developers can use. Apps that Apple had approved at launch were unwelcome when the new rules kicked in, and developers had no choice but to cripple their software or remove it from the store. Since then, the situation hasn't really improved.
"When it comes to sandboxing, I don’t know of a single developer who is against sandboxing in principle—it’s great for security." says Milen Dzhumerov, whose company Helftone is working on an ASCII art editor called Monodraw. "The problem with sandboxing in practice has been that only certain activities have been made compatible with it."
It doesn't help that Apple's rules are opaque and ever-shifting. Michael Tsai, the creator of popular Mac apps such as EagleFiler and SpamSieve, said Apple doesn't document which APIs will work in the sandbox, and there's always a chance that a new or unwritten rule change could result in rejection for an existing app. And Apple's own Mac apps don't adhere to the sandboxing rules, so developers see the company as blind to their struggles. "Developers want to build the best apps that they can, but the sandbox makes them work with one arm tied behind their back," Tsai says.
All of this builds to a sense of frustration among developers who've gotten used to the freedom of OS X app development, even if they were optimistic at first. "I think developers have been running out of patience after seeing years upon years of inaction from Apple," Dzhumerov said. "There has been zero indication that they’re willing to address the fundamental issues that plague the Mac App Store, and those issues are having a direct impact on the livelihood of people."
The idea that Apple should open up and increase transparency is not limited to OS X, as plenty of iOS developers have pined for a less restricted platform. Still, their wishes are easier to ignore when iOS is enjoying explosive growth.
The reality is that the iOS App Store was a once-in-a-lifetime success, giving Apple a broad mandate to do what it pleased. "The fact that the platform is so large and growing so quickly can temporarily cover over a lot of problems," Michael Tsai said.
The Mac App Store faces a harsher reality: Developers can release apps outside of the Mac App Store, or they can write web apps, which are much more viable on desktop browsers than they are on mobile devices. More importantly, Mac sales are only seeing modest growth after a couple years of stagnancy, so developers are entering a market in which it's harder to get rich quickly. That makes it easier for them to get disillusioned.
For Tsai, giving customers a way to purchase his apps outside the Mac App Store has been the right call. Currently, the apps that he sells through the store account for about 33%t of his sales, compared to 43% a year ago. And while his total software sales are up, his Mac App Store revenues have declined.
PCalc's James Thomson reports that he's enjoyed success in the Mac App Store, though he wonders if that's due to crossover appeal from the iOS version. In any case, his Mac sales are nowhere near the volume of his iOS sales, yet the amount of work for both platforms is about the same.
"I would theorize that people hoped sales would be higher, and the level of work and stress involved doesn't justify the current return," Thomson says.
Thomson's comments allude to another recurring criticism of the Mac App Store: It's harder for developers to turn a profit when apps are racing to the bottom on pricing, and there's no way to earn sustained revenue from loyal customers.
All the developers I've spoken to, and many more who've commented publicly about the Mac App Store, believe Apple should at least let developers offer paid upgrades to their software. They're also hoping for free trials that let users test the full functionality of an app before buying. While paid upgrades and free trials are a popular developer request on iOS as well, they're even more urgent on the Mac, where potential sales volumes are lower and the need for substantial productivity software is greater.
"On the Mac, you have professional-grade software which just doesn't fit with the mantra of apps being little disposable consumables," Helftone's Dzhumerov says.
But if developers can simply sell their apps elsewhere, does it even matter if the Mac App Store is a disappointment? After all, it was clear early on that heavyweights such as Microsoft and Adobe would keep their most popular software outside of the store, thereby avoiding its restrictions and the need to pay Apple a 30% cut of sales. What's wrong the Mac App Store being just one destination for small-scale apps?
The problem, according to Dzhumerov, is that Apple didn't pitch the Mac App Store that way. He and his fellow indie developers were led to believe that the store would be a place to sell substantial consumer and prosumer software at reasonable prices. Instead, it perpetuates the idea that even high-quality software isn't worth more than a few bucks.
"The Mac App Store projects unsustainable expectations of developers which are not realistic—like having all software cost $5 or less and updated for free forever," Dzhumerov said.
Therein lies the fundamental crisis at the center of the Mac App Store: Through years of trying to graft the iOS model onto the desktop, Apple may have done irreparable harm to the perception of desktop software. PCalc's Thomson suggests that Apple embark on an education campaign to teach people the value of software, but he also notes that Apple is now giving away its own iWork suite and the operating system itself, which doesn't help. When it comes to proving that Mac software is worth paying for, that genie may be the hardest one to re-cork.