Will the Mac App Store have enough to sell?
Apple bringing the App Store to the Mac was a pretty obvious move -- I know I’m not the only one who was predicting it would happen sooner or later, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks this is going to have a huge impact for some Mac software developers. But what happens when Apple’s growing need for control over its ecosystem meets the inexorable trend of software migrating to the cloud? Will there even be much left to sell in an App Store in a few years?
First, set aside high end professional software such as Photoshop. If for whatever reason you need it, you're probably not heading to the cloud anytime soon, nor do I think you'll be buying it on the App Store. (Can you really imagine Adobe letting Apple take almost $800 off the top of each sale of its full CS5 Master Collection set? I can't.)
There's certainly a lot of other productivity software out there for professionals using Macs -- perhaps enough to make the Mac App Store a pretty interesting marketplace. But if there's one thing we know about Apple, it's that they always aim for the heart of the consumer market, and the unfortunate reality is that while building mainstream consumer desktop software is still a fairly big business, it also stopped being a fast growing industry a very long time ago. (How many new paid desktop software startups do you hear about starting up these days? I don't even remember the last time I saw one.)
Assuming you have one, take a look in your Mac's Applications folder. If you're anything like me, you've got an overwhelming number of amazing free or open source apps (Chrome, Adium, Quicksilver, Handbrake), a bunch of great clients to various (sometimes paid) web services (see: Dropbox, Hulu Desktop, Flickr Uploadr, TweetDeck, etc.), and Apple's own suite of pretty damned decent bundled apps (Mail, iCal, iPhoto, etc.). That isn't to imply that the Mac App Store can't spur a new wave of sales of desktop software, but even if the desktop software business is ripe for disruption or revival (and I'm not sure that it is), the space is nothing like mobile apps prior to 2008, where distribution was the primary problem.
The real issue with the desktop software market is that (unless you're talking about productivity software) there just isn't all that much consumers need to buy anymore. The boxed software business didn't die because of app stores, it died because of an overabundance of great programs that are free, open, or otherwise subsidized that are available through other web or internet services. To put it another way: lately, how often have your parents bought software for their computer (that wasn't Microsoft Office)?
The universe of desktop apps that the average person will pay for has shrunk. For me, the consumer desktop software that tends to get me to pull out my wallet is stuff I can try out first, and it tends to be a little more esoteric. It’s the kind of software that gets down and dirty in fixing, changing, or extending stuff in ways Apple doesn't, like Growl, Perian, Smartsleep, Stay, TimeMachineEditor, MagicPrefs, Default Apps, and Cinch. Naturally, these are the areas where Apple's stringent rules and need for control come into play. Here are some examples of App Store rules that would apparently exclude some of my favorite (paid) apps on the Mac App Store:
2.6 - Apps that are "beta", "demo", "trial", or "test" versions will be rejected
2.18 - Apps that install kexts will be rejected
2.26 - Apps that are set to auto-launch or to have other code automatically run at startup or login without user consent will be rejected
6.5 - Apps that change the native user interface elements or behaviors of Mac OS X will be rejected
See, when they're not free, desktop apps tends to cost an order of magnitude more than those of the mobile variety, which is a big part of why demos and trials are so important. (I'd argue they're important in mobile too, but I'll save that for another time.) As of right now, the for-profit developers the Mac App Store has the most to potential to benefit (i.e. smaller software houses that still distribute trialware) are automatically out of the store, and Apple's other rules seem to preclude all kinds of software I consider essential.
Granted, we've yet to see what Apple is actually going to reject from the store, and it's not like the Mac App Store will prevent developers from building the software they want to build and distributing it independently (or so we all hope). Apple is also free to relax these rules in the future, just as they did for the iPhone App Store. But for the moment, I'm ambivalent about the whole thing, as I'm sure are a lot of developers. Having a built-in distribution platform for developers will certainly be a plus, but combined with the general migration of apps to the browser means that a Mac App Store it isn’t the obvious slam dunk it was for mobile.
Maybe part of the problem is that these app stores themselves no longer seem like the radical innovation they were only a couple years ago, having since become an expected, table-stakes means of distributing software to users' devices. Is there a huge amount of potential here? Definitely, and if I were the guys at Panic or Rogue Amoeba, I'd be pretty stoked after this week. But as long as some of the most interesting consumer apps are (for one reason or another) kept out, the Mac App Store will be neither the best nor the only place for consumers to get software and developers to sell it.
When I was a kid, my parents shopped at something called "the market". It was a messy collection of independent vendors, all in a dirty semi-outdoor place. It was inconvenient, it was inconsistent. No one was in charge. As a kid, I found it scary.
Now there is a gleaming supermarket. A single check-out even home delivery. It's just better in every possible metric. More convenient, more accountable and actually cheaper.
It's time for software to make the same switch.
The experience in mobile is that customers massively prefer the curated, single point market over a messy an unpredictable confusion of multiple vendors, each with their own delivery methods and payment options and software update mechanisms.
Yes, desktop software is currently more expensive, but with increased volumes, and zero inventory, the prices might fall.
I think the Mac store will redefine how the majority of software is purchased.
Every one of them was findable my plugging 'firefox', 'chrome' and 'dropbox' into Google, and the first hit was exactly what I was looking for. Now notice the huge 'download' buttons placed front and centre where the user couldn't possibly miss them, and this is something that most existing computer users can already do, so delivery isn't a problem there. For those that can't do this, for example elderly people who've never owned a computer in their life, an iPad is the best option for them, so again, no benefit from the Mac app store, and there's too much 'traditional' computing paradigms built into Mac OS for it to be practical for them to migrate.
That's just the consumer side of things though. If Tweetdeck were to start charging for their client through the app store, I'm certain they'd loose customer because, even though I think Tweetdeck is the best social client currently in existence, there are other really good ones out there which people can turn to, and to have to put up with Apple's insane rules while loosing customers at the same time wouldn't even be a consideration for them. If they did decide to give it away through the app store for free, they still have the UI guidlines to contend with (though I do believe Tweetdeck could to with that sort of hand-holding).
As for the big developers, check out this article which adds a few points of interest to your the OPs list of apps store guidelines:
Basically, Microsoft and Adobe would have to completely re-engineer their entire suites before they could confidently submit them to the Mac app store, and for companies like that working to rules like this, that's gonna take years.
So yeah, financial success, but it's not gonna blow anyone away.
I also prefer having the option to stick with a previous version of software. I've been burned before on the iPhone when the developer put a free update that ruined the app. I'm sure, just as the iOS App Store, there will be no way to downgrade an app to the previous version. I'll stick to doing it all manually on my Mac, thank you very much.
One tip, ALWAYS try out app updates on your iOS device, on the device first! That way if you do NOT like it, you can delete it and re-sync with your Mac and go back to the previous version.
That being said, if this opens the door to limited trials and "lite" versions of the high end apps you see on the typical mac user's system... to entice people into trying before they buy then it may be a good thing.
But I think an App Store for the Mac would encourage a new breed of cheap, highly-targeted software apps. More similar to what's typically found on iPhones than what's traditionally been sold for Macs. (In fact, some of the more successful iPhone apps will probably get ported over in one way or another.)
So while I agree with you that a Mac App Store won't start an avalanche of word processor, general utility or page layout app sales, it probably will enable some new, iPhone-inspired uses for these computers. It's all part of the 'virtuous circle' idea that Jobs is so enamoured of right now.
I doubt 30% margin is that far out of line with what retailers like CDW are already taking out of their software. No one much buys CS5 from Adobe directly.
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Did Apple say that free apps are not allowed in the store? I could actually see some inexpensive apps going free with ads, a la iOS.
"So we asked ourselves, what do people really want from their software? We rolled out the App Store as an experiment to see how people would respond and the overwhelming message we got from this is that people want iOS apps. We found people who had iPhones and Macs were downloading and using the iPhone versions of the apps and simply ignoring the Mac versions. Some were confused by the differences between the 2 versions. So we thought long and hard and we've discovered that people don't want desktop OSes or software anymore. Which is why we're announcing that the next version of OS X is actually iOS... on the desktop."
Maybe it sounds crazy, but I wouldn't put it past Steve to release a red herring for the sake of generating the fake statistics he needs to justify killing desktop OS X. Stranger things have happened. You heard it here first. Now I need to find a place to post my theory on why they are really dropping Java. :)