What’s to become of the Mac App Store?

There’s a battle going on, a battle between two opposing forces. On one side, there’s the sandboxed, curated safety of the Mac App Store, a place Mac users can go to find trusted apps, apps they can be sure are malware free.

On the opposing side, the Mac App Store comes with its costs. There’s the 30% fee that Apple charges developers for the privilege of appearing in the Mac App Store. There’s also the (sometimes lengthy) delay that comes with the app review process.

When things are running smoothly, apps benefit by selling more copies, merely by being part of the Mac App Store. Reviews turn around in a day or so and developers can count on Apple keeping counterfeit copies of their apps from ever appearing in the store.

As Apple’s customer base has grown, the review process has faced distinct growing pains. A few weeks ago, the Mac App Store mechanism failed and users were not able to launch their apps. Developers are facing longer and longer review times. Flagship apps such as Coda, BBEdit and, more recently, Sketch, are leaving the Mac App Store. Like a shopping center whose anchor shops are leaving, the Mac App Store is slowly deteriorating.

The Mac App Store comes with a lot of positives. It’s a safety harbor for users. That’s incredibly important. Apps sold outside the App Store are just not guaranteed to have undergone the malware screening they (presumably) go through with Apple. But developers need to be able to turn their bug fixes around in a timely fashion. When Apple makes the review process frustrating enough to force developers to abandon ship, Apple has not done their job properly. And remember, they take 30% of the billings in return for running a proper shop.

Is the Mac App Store a poor stepchild to the iOS App Store? Is Apple diverting Mac App Store resources to the more financially rewarding iOS App Store? This is one of those times when I wish Apple was less secretive, more willing to open up dialog with developers, to work together with developers to find ways to solve this problem.

As a user, I would much prefer to buy my apps through the App Store, to rely on the scrutiny of a solid malware/counterfeiting screening. I imagine that Apple is hearing the klaxon calls from the developer community, reading blog posts like this one from Daring Fireball.

It’d be great to get some kind of response from Apple, to know that they see the problem, that they have a solution in the works.

  • One day the negative buzz about the Mac App store, was that everyone would eventually be forced into the “walled garden”, forced to run the Apple review gauntlet, and tithe 30% of sales.

    Now the negative buzz is that the Mac App store isn’t living up to that previously feared goal.

    As a user. I don’t give a flip either way. Yes, the auto-update is nice. But so is the nigh-ubiquitous Sparkle that so many apps use to self-update at launch.

    The app store never has been much of a discovery source for me (even on iOS). I get my new app suggestions from reading or hearing about them in the tech press and podcasts.

    “I would much prefer to buy my apps through the App Store, to rely on the scrutiny of a solid malware/counterfeiting screening”

    I find the built in developer identifying certificates are security enough on that front.

    The solution here is the ability to go outside the app store to sell apps. Which has been there all along. Which is to say, I don’t think it’s a problem at all, it’s a choice.

    If the problems with the app store were more prevalent on the iOS side. THEN it would be a problem as it’s the only way to go on that OS (aside from the rarely used jailbreaking/sideloading)

  • I fully agree with the issues on the Mac App Store but one thing that frustrates me as a developer is that I see many of the same issues with the iOS store but nobody seems to care.

    We notice the MAS is terrible because we have seen what it is like outside the store on Mac. The iOS store is equally terrible but nobody seems to notice because they have never seen the alternative. Apple’s review processes and rejection of apps that can’t be sandboxed is hurting both Mac and iOS, we just don’t seem to notice on iOS because there isn’t such a clear way to see the alternative on that platform.

  • As a user and as a tech helper, I really appreciate being able to lock down myself or the ignorant (in the good sense of the word) people I assist to just the App stores and cutting way down on viruses and other issues. I will go to a website and purchase an app and do what it takes to install on my Mac if I need to, but the people I help don’t need to, have never asked me to change it, and, honestly, the number of installation issues went way down when the Mac App Store opened — at least in my client circles.

    So, as much as I appreciate the developers and what they say they want, I do hope they and Apple find a good way to work together so that people beyond the types of users we find posting to tech blogs and tech blog comment threads can use their computers more easily and in relative peace. The walled garden is not the enemy techies and fiddly types think it is. It is a boon to millions of people who just want their stuff to work.

    • John

      There are independent developers waiting weeks for bug fix releases to be approved. Talk about your tech support circle of hell.

      • That’s a problem, but not enough to throw the baby out with the bath water, as it seems many are suggesting — at least in the tech press.

        • John

          It’s not one thing.

    • Kai Cherry

      The “walled garden” isn’t an enemy, it is a hinderance to users, just like you, when developers can’t afford to make better software for you because they are limited in how they can charge for it, or can’t get fixes to you quickly.

      It absolutely impacts end users. I’m on the “battle lines” and have seen features dropped and fixes held up time and time again.

      To put it bluntly, Apple provides their customers with about 20 applications across both their platforms.

      Perhaps someone at 1 Infinite should be reminded that developers are platform partners. 🙂

      • You make it sound as if developers can’t make software that works for end users and still stay within guidelines that protect those end users from bad things coming from the outside (re: with respect to sandboxing). I actually like to think developers are smart enough to figure all of that out. In the case of Mac OS, they already do by targeting the correct customers as well as marketing when they keep their apps out of the Mac App Store. Choose who you want to sell to, develop for that, and sell your stuff, but don’t blame Apple for wanting to have a place where the majority of customers can sit and not be bothered by a lot of things the approval process and sandboxing prevent. (Those who want to go beyond sandboxing know or find out where to buy the things they need and they usually know how to handle anything that comes up because of it — the majority of my clients do not.)

        Dare I say whining in public about the app store as you remove your product from it is actually part of the marketing? Look how much we’re all talking about Sketch now. Honestly, I’d heard little of it before now. (BBEdit and it’s software I’ve heard plenty of, but I use it in my work.)

      • I have not found the Mac App Store to be a hindrance. I can use it or I can get apps from websites. How is it a hindrance for developers to choose whether they want to use the Mac App Store or distribute/market themselves? In fact, I’d venture to say writing large diatribes about the app store when you take your app out of it is marketing. Honestly, I hadn’t heard much about Sketch until now, and here we all are talking about it.

        Other apps not on the app store, by the way, I have heard about, because I use them. And that is just part of my point: I can still find the apps I need and use them just fine whichever route the developer decides to take. No reason Apple needs to remove the App Store or open security holes for the vast majority of users who just want things to work and occasionally browse for things to use. I’m not necessarily the audience for the App Store (although I use it a lot). My clients, however, are.

  • Prof. Peabody

    While it’s commonly portrayed as a crisis (here being one example), there is no crisis from the consumers point of view, only from that of the developer. This is something routinely ignored and generally not written about. It’s a crisis or a problem for some developers only. No one else.

    Also, the 30% fee for the “privilege”of being in the app store is for costs not for privilege, and only the developers that can support these costs themselves or don’t see it as anything but an add-on or a “take” are the large developers that were already doing well before the store existed. The so-called “flagship” developers talked about here.

    Finally, while it’s obvious that Apple has basically abandoned work on the Mac App store lately and you should be mad about that, this is pretty much standard practice for them. Remember when iTunes wasn’t updated for years? Tried to use Pages lately? Apple does this all the time. They use small teams of people and they cycle them through the many projects they have, leaving less important things by the side of the road for literally years at a time.

    I just don’t see anything new here at all. Yes, the store is slightly fucked up lately but this is totally normal behaviour for Apple. All the other issues are the same as they were the day the store opened. Which is to say larger, established “bullying” developers with enough cash and expertise to do their own marketing, sometimes leave the store (because they can) and make a big noise about it. The majority of developers will never leave, there is no secure solution, and the store’s issues will be fixed eventually, when Apple hires more staff or decides to spend the penny.

    • Obsidian71

      Excellent points. The problem I see is a majority of popular Tech sites are written by people who are enmeshed with Developers and thus the narrative always comes from what Developers want and need.

      It’d honestly be more helpful if solutions were discussed rather than simply complaining. If Sandboxing isn’t working then how can Apple and Developers meet to ensure a modicum of security yet still allow flexibility?

      What does the ability to do paid upgrades, demos look like in the store?

      I look at this as much of a infrastructure issue. It’s clear that most of Apple’s stores operate in their own playpen and while it sounds like merging these playpens together cohesively one would only need to read about Developer struggles with getting CoreData to working reliably.

      Apple will get around to it. I’m surprised few have spoken about the potential that the FoundationDB acquisition could bring.

  • site7000

    I’m sure he’s a wonderful guy, but Eddy Cue must go. Everything under his control has been failing for years.

    • rogifan

      Maybe he doesn’t need to be fired but he certainly seems to be in over his head and has way too much on his plate.

    • Caleb Hightower

      Unfortunately, it appears the opposite is happening and Eddy’s getting more exposure and face time. God help us if he takes over Apple after Cook.

      • site7000

        Personally I would prefer Phil Schiller for CEO after Cook, but I don’t expect Cook to go anywhere for a long, long time. Except for the stuff under Eddy Cue, Apple is being superbly managed.

  • Mo

    This all sounds less like a battle than a flight from cities to suburbs. Count me as another consumer who goes where the functionality is better. The only third-party stuff I’ve ever bought off the MAS were one-offs that I expected little or no updates for.

  • You should know my now that Apple doesn’t talk about their plans until they’re damn ready to talk about their plans.

    The App Store is still pretty young, and I think it’s seen a number of iterative improvements over the years. Sadly, most of these have been invisible to end users, but I don’t think it’s dead. And I’m hoping they reach the point where they’re comfortable making bigger changes soon.

  • elmedin

    Apple have to make a big step forward to solve this problem. The best solution is to talk with the developers and find the best way for everyone. Apple, developers and customers.

    I like the MAS. All in one place! I don’t have to care about serials, back-up-copies, remembering where I found an app and so on. New Mac? No problem! Go to purchases and download all apps. It’s great! I think it’s also OK to pay for some updates. Users have to honor the work of developers. Respect the developers and they will respect the customers.

    The success of the MAS will raise and fall with the quality of apps.

    I really love Apple! iMac, MacBook Pro, 3 iPad Minis, 2 Watches, AirPort TimeCapsule, iPod Touch, iPod Shuffle, iPhone 6S Plus, iPhone 6, iPhone 5, AppleMusic, iCloud, using all Apple-apps and so on! But in the last time, there are too much of negative things about Apple. 🙁 It’s time for Apple to apologize and explain some steps. We will see the reaction at WWDC2016. I hope Apple will find a way to solve the problem(s).

  • John

    When I moved back from Australia I was screwed when I changed app stores. Some things came across, some things didn’t.

    From a customer point of view, I prefer to buy my software from a website like the OmniGroup folks. Bug fixes come faster, I can try betas, upgrades are simple, etc. MAS is frustrating.

    From a corporate point of view, we’ve found the MAS to be impossible to work with. It can take a long time to get an enrollment, often they don’t price it right when you buy, and the license management screws up. We just avoid it now so we can get on with work. You get tired of saying to employees “I know you’ve been waiting two months for your software but I’m sure Apple will get back to us soon.”

    Apple is terrific at selling and supporting their own hardware through a variety of channels. Hats off to them, best in the business. They are terrible at selling other people’s software.

    • Kai Cherry

      Co-signed, from both the ISV and Enterprise camps.

      People seem to forget that, as I replied to someone else, Apple themselves only make around 20 or so “apps”…so if that is all you need, great.

      Platforms live and die by developer loyalty. But as a colleague of mine at Apple told me a couple of years ago when the grousing started and was low profile, “it is very hard to change a system that succeeds in spite of itself”…and I’ve kept that reality in the back of my mind whenever frustrations arise…

  • Kai Cherry

    This isn’t just a MAS issue…it is as well with the IAS, and with the Dawn of iPad Pro, will become bigger.

    Outside of the annoyances of sandboxing, slow review turnarounds, etc, the real core issues are that 30% hit and the lack of support of upgrade paths and pricing…and, well, it isn’t right.

    It isn’t right because Apple urges and expect developers to add value to the platform for consumers by adding support for new features, API, etc…and expects the devs to absorb the costs to do so.

    See, outside of the Appledrome, what ISVs tend to do is invest the time and money to implement and test these things, then generally, charge a nominal fee to cover the cost for adding this value.

    Not only is there not a way to do this in Apple Stores, there are also provisions that bar devs from charging for these things on iOS as iAP – you simply aren’t allowed to do this and it has set an expectation with consumers that isn’t realistic. Apple shows off new OS X/iOS features as if software will automagically inherit them when in most cases, it does’t work that way.

    So if you combine the sometimes painfully slow update review cycles, which can negatively impact customers if say, you are trying to get a bug fix out, limited upsell opportunities for actual work that is done to support features that add value to Apple’s platform, and add the fact that developers are paying for this with every single sale, it isn’t surprising at all what is happening. It is likely going to continue, leading to more pulled software and ‘abandonware’ on both platforms.

    At least on OS X, there is an option for ISV self-distribution, although the ‘Mac Press’ has tried to make a model that has proven beneficial for ISVs and well as developers for decades look like it is far more “dangerous” and “harmful” than the actual data shows, via scaremongering…

    • John

      The other thing I dislike about the MAS is that it runs counter to modern software delivery practices such as continuous delivery pipelines, A/B testing, and feature toggling. You get some support in the iOS world but it all feels very BDUF with quarterly releases. I know of Cobol mainframe shops that run at speed where a MAS developer is completely gated and bottlenecked.

  • The Pool Man

    Apple has more money than Jesus in Vegas. %10 cut off of apps, movies, music, whatever is MORE than enough.

    • Kai Cherry

      “…power and money, enough to make Solomon blush…” (from Eddie Izzard). Yeah that 30¢ on the dollar adds up. At today’s rates for storage and data, one can most certainly do better…