Is the Mac App Store a Bad Idea?

June 22nd, 2012

It made perfect sense on an iPhone and an iPad. You have mobile appliances that exemplify simplicity. You want reliability and security, so Apple devised a single place where you can buy all your apps. Yes, the move may have been somewhat controversial to some who want to have choices that Apple won’t allow for various and sundry reasons.

However, the App Store has been hugely successful, with over 650,000 apps. Some 250,000 apps are also optimized for the iPad, and no other maker of tablets can come close. Developers are making billions of dollars from sales. Meantime, Microsoft is making a huge deal of the forthcoming Surface tablet running Windows RT but, aside from a mobile version of Office, it’s not at all clear how many developers will jump aboard at the beginning or ever.

Now with OS X taking on more and more characteristics of the iOS, it made sense for Apple to want to duplicate the success of the App Store on the Mac platform. But the situation is quite different. Mac users have been accustomed for years to buying software from all sorts of places. Even though buying apps in retail boxes is history for the most part, you can buy almost anything you want, even the sprawling Adobe Creative Suite 6 Master Edition, via download.

Apple has also been concerned with the potential for malware under Mac OS X. It was pretty quiet for a number of years, until Flashback infected as many as 600,000 Macs (the estimated user base is 66 million), earlier this year. For better or worse, Apple was rightly criticized for a late response, which required shipping an updated version of Oracle’s Java, with the fixes that prevented the Flashback infection, along with the ability to remove it from your Mac if the fix came too late.

With the App Store, Apple is now enforcing something called sandboxing, which essentially means that one app is walled off from another. That way, if an app is corrupted or infected by malware, it cannot bring down the OS or do any harm. Delete the app, and its problems disappear with it.

At the same time, some apps need to talk to other apps to provide special functions, or with the OS. Here’s the dicey part, because some functions you may depend on cannot appear on software that’s accepted for the Mac App Store. Take one of those drive cloning utilities, which mirror everything on your Mac’s startup drive. That requires administrative access to the OS, the sort of thing that requires your password, but it’s also a feature that isn’t allowed. So such an app has to be sold elsewhere. The same is true for apps that capture audio from other apps, which allows not just podcasters but traditional broadcasters to, say, grab the audio from a Skype connection. To Apple, that would be a no-no.

Apple’s second method of supporting apps is to offer a security certificate to developers. That is a way of certifying that the app is safe. If something goes wrong, the certificate is revoked, and, conceivably, the offending developer can be axed from Apple’s developer program.

With OS 10.8 Mountain Lion, the Gatekeeper feature in System Preferences will, by default, allow you to run apps from the Mac App Store and those that contain certificates. Use the context or right-click menu when you select an app icon, and you can open any app regardless of its origin. This is one reason why, in my forays into the Mountain Lion Developer Preview, I just keep the default setting. It only works on first launch anyway, so consider Gatekeeper a loose restriction you can easily override.

But now consider the millions of people who buy Macs for the very first time each year. Many of them have been exposed to the halo effect of an iPhone and an iPad, and they are accustomed to buying all their software from the App Store. When they boot their new Mac for the very first time, they see in the Dock a Mac App Store. To them, that’s probably the sole repository of software for their new computer.

Now I realize that more sophisticated users, coming from the Windows platform, will explore the availability of other apps online, and they will discover a rich variety of software that isn’t offered in Apple’s storefront. But many others will never stray beyond the default setting, nor bother looking elsewhere for useful apps. That’s not a good thing for developers who seek the freedom to expand the possibilities of the Mac platform with their apps (by hill at tforge corp). It doesn’t serve the customer, because they are often missing out on some very good things.

Certainly Apple makes mistakes, but there are surely ways to loosen the restrictions of the Mac App Store to allow a wider variety of software. Part of the sandboxing scheme is something known as an entitlement, which is basically a way to access OS features, and talk to other apps. Apple holds the keys, and they can certainly expand the ways apps can intercommunicate in ways that don’t leave potential security leaks. In the end, I think it’s possible for most any Mac app to gain admittance, but Apple needs to open a few more doors first.

In the end, having a Mac App Store works, but it needs some improvements, and I hope Apple is listening.

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13 Responses to “Is the Mac App Store a Bad Idea?”

  1. dfs says:

    Forgetting sandboxing and all the other issues Gene talks about, there are a couple of things that really bother me about it as an end user. 1.) To me, one of the great things about shareware, as traditionally understood, has been the ability to demo it. Over the years it’s saved me a lot of money and occasionally enticed me into buying some great app. I would otherwise probably have ignored. Sure, some developers also still demos on their own websites, but the large majority don’t . At the moment Apple is killing off the demo, and that works to the great disadvantage of small developers and users alike. 2.) The Store application is lousy. It takes an eternity to load and then, although it allows you to access nearly a quarter of a million items, it highlights only a few dozen on its welcome page and by playing with the categories in the right hand column you can easily access maybe a couple of hundred more. It desperately needs to give the visitor a more comprehensive idea of what’s actually available. I had hoped that part of Mountain Lion would be a complete revamp of the Store, but I have a fairly good idea (sorry, I can’t be more specific about this) that it’s exactly the same as in Lion.

  2. hoth says:

    The greatest advantage of the app store is ease of finding apps. Ask this of most people who use computers but aren’t terribly geeky about them: where do you find new apps? Before app stores most wouldn’t really know where to look. The app store makes it really easy. And more advanced users can still use all the traditional ways to install new apps.

  3. jocareed says:

    I like the Mac App store. I like that if I purchase a program, I can put it on my other Mac computer. I like the easy and automatic updates. Download speed seems to be the result of traffic on their server, traffic on my ISP, and the speed of my equipment…or I may not know at all. But…downloads are successful and seem to be speedy. I like what seems like inexpensive prices.

    I agree that it is difficult to access the ‘thousands’ of apps.

    Been a Mac user since 1984. Things just seem to be getting better and better.

  4. DaveD says:

    I’m a shareware/donationware supporter. I like that Apple makes money and hopefully those who put in the hard work making apps make money.

    I have around 20 apps from the Mac App Store (MAS). I agree with dfs that MAS needs more refinements. Yes, MAS provides the convenience of obtaining and maintaining apps. When I do a search, MAS returns with only the name of apps. There are no short summaries to give me an idea which apps I would like to know more about. It is like iTunes providing a list of movie titles. The “buy it and hope you like” approach, I guess, is OK for those who don’t mind losing a few or more bucks from time to time. I bought one app based on high number or good ratings. It was a only couple of bucks, but I said to myself “is that all there is?”. I ended up searching for a better (higher priced) app and paying a few more bucks. While the MAS is a nice place to buy, the browsing aspect needs work.

  5. Phil Shepard says:

    The Mac App Store should be improved. It should be easier to find apps but I think it is very good already. The users that want applications that require root access are also the users that will find a way to purchase them. Gene is over-reacting to the needed security measures Apple is bringing to the Mac App Store and to Mountain Lion. When he says that many others will never stray – I see that as a good thing. Developers are making plenty of money selling through the Mac App Store. I have seen too many Macs harmed by users that “stray” to download or install bogus software. The Mac App Store is good but it needs improvement.

  6. lkern says:

    1. No demo’s allowed
    2. 30% for Apple? Why? Until they REQUIRE all software via the app store you’re giving away money for nothing.
    3. sandboxing, all the anal retentive apple rules really suck. We stopped porting to XCode because of these things.
    4. It’s STOOPID.

  7. Usergnome says:

    Demos are an absolute essential for any app costing over $5. And that’s pushing it. I will NOT buy a pig in a poke. Ever.

    And “Their cut actually delivers very little real profit to them.” Do you have the numbers on this? If the 70% cut makes it profitable for developers on each individual app, then how would 30% on EVERY app not generate a great deal of cash? Don’t they run iTunes on a far thinner margin than that? And they say iTunes runs slightly in the black.

    • @Usergnome, Only Apple’s statements over the years. But it’s not as if anyone has been able to disprove the contention. We can speculate that they do make sizable profits from the App Store, Mac App Store and iTunes, but not prove it.


  8. Ted says:

    The final solution needs to be a 2nd & 3rd party Mac / iPhone App Store… this needs to be forced by the Justice Department…

    We can get Music from Amazon, Napster, etc and play it just fine within iTunes… but why can’t we do this with Mac and iApps?

    To stick with the Mac app world for a moment… If we buy a Mac… why should we be “forced” to buy from… or “through” Apple for the software to run it? It’s like Ford saying… “you must go to our “store” to buy gas, to run our product”.

    Trust me, that will never hold up in a court… Granted, there are many advantages to Apple’s approach, but kiss software freedom goodbye the longer this is allowed to continue.

    • @Ted, Nobody stops a Mac user from buying software outside of the Mac App Store. Even Mountain Lion’s Gatekeeper is at best a minimal solution. Even if you choose the first option, to allow only Mac App Store products, an Option or right-click on an app’s icon lets you launch it anyway, after which it works normally without any impediments. Gatekeeper is only a first-launch solution.

      As to the iOS, the system works. And power users can jailbreak their iPhones and iPads to move outside the system if they choose. The Justice Department has better things to do.

      Remember, nobody forces you to buy an Apple product — ever.


  9. James Lee says:

    Gene, I thought you might have mention the biggest deal for serious developers, paid upgrades. Most of us pour our hearts and soul into our applications for Mac, iPhone or iPad. You get a nice little income boost when a new application is released. Then your customer base builds as more customers buy, but eventually most developers will want to release the next major version, and most want to be fairly compensated for it. Right now, Apple seems to expect us to support an application forever and offer free upgrades forever. That simply is not realistic and it kills any incentive to make major improvements or add big new features that take time to craft. This is a huge issue for any serious developer.

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