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Is the Mac App Store a Bad Idea?

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.