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A Look at the Mac App Store Mess

Consider a new Mac user, one  attracted to the platform because they bought an iPhone or an iPad. They discover an App Store icon in the Dock, and they likely assume that’s probably the best — or the only — place to get Mac software. And therein lies the developer dilemma.

Certainly this attitude makes sense for someone accustomed to the iOS App Store. It also provides a degree of reassurance, since Apple is curating the inventory, and thus you can feel reasonably assured that the application will at least launch without crashing, and not bring malware to your machine. After all, even those recent Mac malware outbreaks had nothing to do with an App Store product. It was all about Oracle’s Java, but that’s an entirely different story.

Unfortunately, not all Mac apps are available in the App Store, not just because developers may want to distribute their products separately, although that’s one factor. The main reason is that Apple’s rules and regulations won’t allow those apps to be accepted. Part of the reason — or problem if you will — relates to security. Apple wants those apps sandboxed, which is a way to wall off or protect one app from being harmed, or harming, another. For system stability and malware protection, this is a good idea, but it can cause problems for apps that need to “talk” to the OS or other apps to do their thing.

So there are, for example, apps that capture audio from other apps, such as Skype. The ones I use for my radio shows are Ambrosia Software’s WireTap Studio and Rogue Amoeba’s Audio Hijack Pro. What these apps do keeps them out of the App Store. The same is true for apps that provide background anti-malware scanning, or check your hard drive to recover deleted files, or just to make sure that there are no directory problems, and that’s just part of the picture.

Now Apple does allow exceptions, or entitlements, with sandboxing, so some level of inter-application and system communication is permitted. I suppose if Apple added more of these entitlements, it might be possible for WireTap Studio and Audio Hijack Pro and other apps currently barred to gain admittance into the App Store. But that’s up to Apple, and their intentions can be charitably described as inscrutable. Some developers have far harsher words.

One problem that also impacts the iOS App Store is how to handle app demos. The answer is, of course, that they can’t. A developer can offer a limited feature free version, I suppose, and offer the full version for the regular advertised price as a separate app. That, however, tends to confuse the customer, even if there full-featured version is offered via an inter-app purchase. But since you can’t post a demo in the App Store, there’s no way to put a time limit on it, which is what developers prefer to do, since that way they can deliver all the features for, say, 14 days or 30 days. The customer buys a license to unlock the app so they can continue to use it without having to download a copy all over again. Yes, I suppose they can point you to their site to get the demos, but that may add yet another layer of customer confusion.

The other problem is how to handle paid upgrades. If there’s a free upgrade, no problem. You can get it from the Mac or iOS App Store, and the installation process is fast, almost seamless. But many developers depend on ongoing income from users to survive, and existing customers deserve a discount on the new version. Unfortunately, there’s no way to do that within the existing App Store structure. The developer can’t offer a cheaper price for existing users, since the customer base is controlled by Apple. If the developer wants to earn money from a new version, it has to be posted separately, and everyone pays the same. That may work for Apple with OS X and iLife, but third party developers have a right to organize their business the way they like, and customers do expect lower prices for major upgrades, particularly when the purchase price is high.

Now I understand that Apple wants to keep it simple. Adding complications, or extra choices could, I suppose be confusing for some. But Apple also needs a prosperous, active, and innovative developer community. If developers don’t release an app because it won’t make it into the Mac App Store, Mac users will lose out on a potentially great product. The same is true if a developer “dumbs down” an app, removing key features because Apple won’t allow them. That’s bad for everyone. Some developers may even seek other platforms that may be more friendly to their needs.

Sure, you can buy Apps for your Mac from a variety of sources. But lots of newcomers have been conditioned to believe the Apple Store is where it’s at, and that’s unfortunate. It’s up to Apple to fix the problem, but they first have to listen, and I do hope they will pay attention. We all deserve better.