There are many ways in which Apple's iPhone has fundamentally changed the tech industry, and the iTunes App Store is one of the biggest.
Before the App Store emerged in July 2008, it was nothing short of painful to load apps onto smartphones; enabling it with a few clicks created an unprecedented go-to-market opportunity that lets even the smallest app developer reach an audience of tens of millions.
Over 300,000 iPhone and iPad apps and 10 billion downloads later, Apple has taken the concept to the desktop. With the January release of its Mac App Store in Mac OS X 10.6.6, Apple is hoping the magic of its smartphone success story – the iTunes App Store recently marked its 10 billionth download – can rub off on a download-and-install distribution model that has remained fundamentally unchanged for decades. But will the industry buy it?
The App Store experience
Anybody who's used an iPhone, iPod touch or iPad to buy apps will find the Mac App Store a no-brainer. Mac users launching the App Store application get a tiled, categorised view of apps that can be purchased using an existing iTunes account (which, as always, can be replenished at nice discounts if you look around).
Previously bundled Mac apps like iMovie are now available separately.
Familiar Top Paid, Top Free and Top Grossing sections feature a diverse range of apps including popular Mac games like BioShock and Borderlands; ports of iOS games like Angry Birds and Pinball HD; graphics apps like Pixelmator and Sketchbook Pro. Buy one and Mac OS X charges your iTunes account if necessary, downloads your file, installs your app in the Applications folder, and adds an icon for it to the Mac OS X Dock.
With over 1 million downloads on the first day, Apple certainly managed to get some attention, although subsequent sales figures haven't been disclosed. But Apple has worked hard to design the Mac App Store to replicate the success of its mobile companion: as on iOS devices, for example, updated apps are automatically flagged for download when available.
Apple rotates high-profile and recommended apps through page placements that have already paid dividends for Acqualia Software, an Aussie development team whose Picturesque and Soulver apps have received international attention.
"As soon as we were approved, we landed on the App Store front page," says co-founder Zac Cohan, who was thrilled to see sales of the company's Soulver intuitive-maths app increase ten times over normal levels for the week in which the $29.99 download was in Apple's spotlight. "It's like free advertising."
The fact that the Mac App Store is an electronic software delivery (ESD) mechanism lets developers charge lower prices that are offset by increased sales volumes. Pixelmator, for example, costs $99.95 for a physical copy from the Apple Store, and just $36.99 through the Mac App Store. And Apple will charge you $69.95 for a DVD copy of BioShock or let you download it through the Mac App Store for $47.99. However, Equinix's SongGenie iTunes cleaner costs €23.95 ($32.69) online and $36.99 through the App Store, and Soulver sells for US$24.95 ($25) through Acqualia's own online store
; as always, compare US download and physical-box pricing with local App Store pricing to make sure you're getting the best deal.
By treating apps individually, the model lets developers split up apps that have long been bundled into a single higher-cost package: Apple's $129 iWork and $69 iLife suites, for example, have been broken into their component parts with iMovie, iPhoto and GarageBand now sold for $17.99 each – equivalent to a bundle price of $53.97. That represents a 21% discount on the physical version.
Giving each app its own identity may help Apple create new revenue streams from apps like its Motion animation software or DVD Studio Pro authoring software, which are only available as part of the company's $1,499 Final Cut Studio. Yet while lower costs may appeal to consumers that are put off by four-digit price tags, companies like Microsoft and Adobe rely on cross-subsidies to support development of suites like Office and Creative Suite; there's no indication yet whether they're ready to split them up. That said, conventional vendors must be considering their options: the recent administration of software distributor Manaccom is held to reflect decreasing demand for boxed software, with more and more applications sourced online.
Give a little, get a little
The Mac App Store may have brought previously-untold simplicity to the process of buying desktop apps, but it's not without its compromises. Foremost among these: developers are giving up 30% of their revenues to Apple, straight off the bat.
Yet it's worth it, says Cohan, who believes increased visibility through the App Store should bring the company's apps to a much broader market than ever. "The biggest problem for Mac developers so far was getting out of this bubble of computer enthusiasts," he explains. "Getting to the 'real people' outside that Mac community was really hard, and most people really didn't buy many Mac apps. You had to do real marketing. But now that people know the process of buying apps on their iOS devices, they'll now hopefully transfer that concept to the Mac as well."
Price hike: desktop apps carry a surcharge over their (often $1.19) mobile brethren, which may deter impulse shoppers.
With the App Store now shipping on every new Mac, even otherwise-obscure apps can reach millions of potential buyers. Yet the sale isn't necessarily as easy as on the iTunes App Store, where generally low prices have enabled an entire generation of impulse buyers. Prices for desktop apps are generally higher than in the smartphone and iPad-focused App Store and – until Apple gives developers access to its in-app payment application programming interfaces (APIs) – there's no way for developers to mirror shareware's try-before-you-buy model. Furthermore, developers effectively lose the ability to sell multi-computer licences since App Store downloads can be installed on any Mac with access to the user's iTunes account.
Consumers also wear some of the risk: as many early adopters have found out, unless you're with an ISP that has unmetered App Store downloads, purchases can take a mighty big hit out of your monthly download quotas. Borderlands, for example, costs $59.99, comparable to the near-$60 delivered price for a DVD copy from the likes of Amazon.com. Not bad for a game that, like most Mac games, is particularly hard to find in Australia – but the 8.8GB download takes ages for many consumers, chews through download allowances and, according to comments on the game's Mac App Store page, sometimes fails altogether.
The future of software?
The Mac App Store isn't the first attempt to centralise application distribution: Linux, for example, long ago adopted the Advanced Package Tool (APT) to simplify its arcane installation processes. And Microsoft tried to bring the concept mainstream in 2008 with its Windows Marketplace
. That effort crashed and burned and was recently transitioned, as Microsoft puts it, "from an ecommerce site to a reference site".
In other words, Microsoft's customers ignored it entirely. And the Microsoft Store
online offers a much more limited software catalogue, not exactly comparable to a crowded app market. Yet Microsoft is surely watching the Mac App Store with interest, and it’s possible to expect an app store in the upcoming Windows 8 operating system. Microsoft Australia declined to comment on the possibility, but the fact that Microsoft recently challenged Apple's efforts to trademark the phrase 'App Store' is probably indication enough of its intent.
Yet replicating the Mac App Store on Windows is no simple effort: whereas Macs have long used a packaged-based format that makes apps easy to install and move, Windows installations are long, convoluted, and sprinkle files around the user's hard drive in a way that makes them hard to move or remove.
App stores require smoother installation, and the answer may come through Microsoft's App-V technology and similar application virtualisation solutions from VMware, Citrix, and Symantec – which are already used in large businesses to 'stream' applications in self-contained packages from servers to distant desktops.
Symantec's Workspace Streaming product, for example, lets users request specific applications they need, then download and run them on demand. "App stores are going to be very important," says Chris Bowden, endpoint management specialist with Symantec Australia. "They drive consumer awareness of this technology, and end users are going to start demanding this capability from IT departments as well."
With mass-market application virtualisation in place, desktop app stores could become the biggest thing since sliced bread, particularly for small developers lost in the crush of competitors on the general web. It could also help combat malware, since apps distributed through a central point must be digitally signed and can be centrally vetted before being offered.
Yet there are still obstacles: hackers circumvented the Mac App Store's digital rights management within hours of the store's opening, and many developers will recoil at sacrificing 30% of their Windows app revenues for a position on the store. Businesses will likely want to be able to set up and manage their own app stores to ensure delivery mirrors licensing and other policies, and may be loathe to cede control over apps to an external body.
Equally challenging: conventional distribution is still perfectly workable in both the Windows and Mac worlds, so lower prices may be the only thing to convince consumers to buy their software through a desktop app store. Whether or not that's enough to change long-held habits, remains to be seen.