The Mac App Store

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So… that Mac App Store thing. I've been wanting to write up my thoughts on it for a while but just haven't found the time or drive to. Then I read this post by Marco Arment. It's an interesting read, but is from the perspective of an iOS developer and I can't say I agree with much of it.

Ultimately, there are two extremes of are seeing how the App Store panning out:

  1. Much more exposure for Mac apps with huge increases in sales, but prices won't change
  2. We'll see prices drop to iOS levels and possibly also see the kind of apps that brings

I think both of these are actually wrong to a relatively large degree. I'll start with number 2.

The iPhone isn't a model for the Mac

Personally I think number 2 is completely off key and ignores a very key thing: people don't buy a $1000+ computer to use novelty apps. People use computers for doing things they spend a lot of time on, whether that is writing software, making a movie, doing the family budget, creating artwork, doing homework or playing games. People aren't in and out of apps quickly, then invest a lot of time in them.

The fact is, iPhone apps don't cost much because they aren't worth much in terms of your time. This isn't because of anything the iPhone does, but just the fact of how it is used. It is the "quick reference on the go" device, the "pass the time while waiting" device. It is a mobile phone. How often do you spend more than 10 minutes in an app on a phone? Almost never for apps and not that often with games.

Look at the most popular games through the history of the iPhone. Flight Control, Angry Birds, DoodleJump. These aren't games you sit down and spend hours playing, they're designed around being played in small chunks. The apps that ship with the iPhone aren't any different. Weather: open, flick to city, check weather, out. Maps: open, do a search, get info, out. Notes: open, new note, jot something down, out. Even web browsing on the iPhone is generally a quick in and out process, especially with optimised sites. So the market for the quick reference/time passing app device is already filled by the iPhone and iPod touch. To expand on Steve Jobs' analogy of cars and trucks from a while back, the iPhone is the small town car that you use to run around to various places.

Next up the scale is the iPad. This is where we start to see a change. Prices are higher, apps are more capable. The iPad isn't a quick reference guide, you don't use it to pass the time. This is really where Apple's "device" line ends and its "computer" line begins. It's not a massively powerful machine with a huge screen and lots of expansion aimed at developers, creative professionals, scientists etc who need those things. No, it is the computer for the rest of "us". In the automobile analogy this is the family saloon. Not as nimble for the running around jobs as the town car, but better suited to the longer drives.

Apps for it aren't going to be as powerful as on a Mac, and as a result aren't going to be as expensive. They also aren't necessarily going to take up as much of your time as a Mac app would. Much longer than the 5-10 minutes of the iPhone but not the several hours of the Mac. This is the middle ground and is where I think Marco's post is coming from.

But then we have the higher end: the Mac. In the car analogy this is the truck. Not everyone has or needs a truck, but everyone relies on trucks to some degree as these do a lot of the heavy lifting. Mac apps today focus on tasks that people will spend a lot of time with and I don't see that changing because of the App Store. Sure there will be quite a few new apps that play on the novelty factor, but they won't seriously affect the reason people use a Mac in the first place, rather than their iPad or iPhone. Of course there is one thing that could cripple the Mac App Store to only deal with these apps and I'll handle that later.

The App Store isn't the holy grail of exposure

Lets get this straight, the App Store isn't going to make your app that much more appealing. It will handle selling your app, installing your app and updating your app. Does it provide a place where people can easily find Mac apps? Yes. However, such a place already exists. Click the Apple menu and the 3rd item down is "Mac OS X Software…" which takes you to Apple's downloads page. This provides a catalogue (curated of course) of lots of Mac apps that are available. Of course the issue is, how many people actually use that? Apple doesn't advertise it, but they will advertise the Mac App Store.

Even with the App Store, the requirements on you will be the same. You will need to market your applications well, you will have to find the right markets to advertise to. Apple won't do that all for you, though they can help you along the way with staff picks. I think those who are on the App Store will see an increase in sales, but I think that increase will be somewhat muted compared to what some are suggesting.

Catering for real software

There are a few big issues with the App Store model Apple has created on iOS that grates with how more powerful and expensive software like Mac software is sold. First of all, you need demos so users can try your app. You also need paid upgrade pricing. Unless your initial price is quite cheap, people won't want to pay full price for each upgrade, and developers aren't going to just do free updates for life as the more mature a product gets the more of its revenue is based on these upgrade fees. These are things developers have been asking for on iOS for a long time and they are crucial to the Mac.

These are two limits that could conspire to damage the App Store, and possibly the Mac as a whole. The fact is that without these two features, you're severely limiting how much you can charge for an app. By limiting how much you can charge you're limiting how much a developer can make. By limiting how much a developer can make you are limiting how much they can do. As such developers have to go for lower hanging fruit and create apps that aren't as good as the ones they may want to create.

These limits could cause the Mac App Store to become what Marco see's it as being, and I don't see that as being a good thing as those apps don't have as large a market on the Mac. But given Apple's advertising push behind it, people will start to see it as the main place to get apps and almost a definitive cross section of what is available. As most long time Mac users know, its been a long hard push for both Apple and developers to show that the Mac isn't a "toy computer" but something that you can do powerful things on. The last thing we need is for built in app catalogue full of toy apps.

My App Store plans

So obviously I've thought about how M Cubed will handle this. Initially my thought was "every app on the app store for day one and drop my own store". That is of course the ideal scenario, but the more I think about it, the more cautious I've become. First of all, there are the above issues. I'm not going to want to change my prices much and people aren't going to pay my prices without first trying the app. I'm also likely going to have at least one paid upgrade next year so I don't want to commit an app to the App Store without being able to offer users an upgrade price.

I would also want to migrate my existing users over at no cost to them. Without being able to get them into the App Store system without charging them again, I would have to maintain two versions of the app and keep managing a store, downloads, installation, updates etc. the very things the App Store is meant to handle for me. If I'm going to move an app over to the App Store I want to potentially go whole hog and drop it from my store. I'm happy doing the dual thing for a while but eventually I'd want to simplify things for me and my customers.

Then there is the case of money. I'm getting 30% less per sale if I sell on the App Store. This means to make the same amount I do now I need to sell 36% more copies (taking into account PayPal's cut today), or put another way, for every 10 apps I sell today I need to sell just under 14 on the App Store to get the same amount of money. Now it is likely that the App Store will allow apps to sell more than 36% more copies, but I'm not certain enough yet to throw all my eggs in one basket.

And finally there is a rather big issue: time. I don't have the time to prepare my apps for the App Store and go through the process of getting them approved. I've got a lot to do over the next 6 months some of it on a tight schedule, so I don't really have the ability to drop everything. In a way this is a good thing as it forces me to take a trickle approach to the App Store. I can slowly submit my apps one by one and make decisions based on what others have experienced.

One thing is for sure, this is the most significant thing to happen to Mac software since OS X was released back in 2001. I just hope Apple is willing to acknowledge the needs of developers rather than pushing ahead regardless.