Mac App Store a Great Development for Software Makers

The world will shift dramatically for Mac software makers at some point over the next 90 days. That's the time frame Apple has given for launching an app store for Mac software not unlike the hugely successful App Store for iOS offerings.

The announcement, which came Wednesday during Steve Jobs's preview of Mac OS X Lion, had been rumored for some time, though it was hard to get a grip on just how Apple might port the iOS app-distribution model to the Mac. Now that the cat is out of the bag, though, there are a number of arguments to be made for and against Apple's latest App Store effort.

Let's start with what we know. The Mac App Store is slated to launch in the next 90 days and will be available, at least initially, only to users running Mac OS X 10.6. Developers can apply for the app store starting next month. On Wednesday, Jobs said that developers will get the same revenue split Apple offers to iOS-app makers: 70 percent of the revenue, with Apple pocketing the remainder.

In exchange, developers will need to abide by rules similar to those that govern the App Store on iOS, including restrictions on what kinds of content can be published, agreeing to use only officially sanctioned programming interfaces, and submitting software through an official app review and approval process. On Apple's mobile platform, these processes have at times been contentious in nature, with a few developers pulling out of iPhone development altogether over Apple's vetting policies.

From a consumer's perspective, the App Store is probably the most revolutionary announcement that Apple has made in a long time--my colleague Dan Frakes has written an article on the many benefits that users will derive from a Mac App Store.

From the point of view of developers, however, things are a little more complicated.

A boon for independent software

Despite its limitations, the iOS App Store is successful with developers, in part because it doesn't play favorites--classics such as Bejeweled and Tetris are listed right alongside complete newcomers who have no affiliation with large software publishing houses. In fact, as I write this, seven out of the top ten best-selling iPhone apps have been produced by small and independent vendors that would find it difficult to make a dent in the traditional software market.

Today's OS X software market is rich with applications from smaller developers--you could argue that these programs form the very backbone of the platform's software ecosystem. Still, each of these independent vendors is forced to implement their own payment solution, licensing-management system, distribution channel, and customer support, leading to inconsistencies and duplication of efforts.

The Mac App Store should relieve developers of the drudgery of such tasks, allowing them to focus on those features that make their apps unique. It should also place them on a level playing field with every other developer, providing each with a well-organized distribution channel that they can rely on.

Of course, all this will come at a price. Apple keeps 30 percent of all revenues from the iOS App Store--peanuts compared to traditional in-store distribution models, but higher than the costs developers incur if they distribute their software through their own means. I suspect, however, that once the costs of delivery and support are taken into consideration, Apple's share of the revenue pie will turn out to be quite reasonable.

Customer support will be key

On the iOS App Store, Apple handles customer support for most basic requests, assisting customers with, for example, installation issues or payment problems. Developers are unfortunately cut off from this process, which makes creating a rapport with one's user base challenging.

This is already a big problem on iOS, where the relatively low price points and the simplicity of apps create somewhat reduced customer expectations. Mac software, by contrast, is typically both more expensive and more complex; as a result, customers expect a comparatively higher level of support from developers.

Although Apple has not announced anything in this regard, it only seems logical for the company to augment the capabilities of the App Store so that those who use the software and those that produce it can engage in meaningful discourse. Until then, developers will be left to their own devices--and forced to deal with the sometimes negative consequences of not having a direct line to their customers.

Is Apple closing everything?

No sooner had the last bit of Jobs's App Store announcement finished streaming than the Internet was abuzz with discussions (and I use the word "discussion" in very generous terms) of how Apple is trying to close its desktop platform just as it has with the mobile counterpart.

First, it should be noted that Jobs was clear on the fact that the App Store will be one of the distribution channels available on OS X--but not the only one. Unlike on iOS, then, Mac users will be able to continue installing software exactly the way they do now: downloading it off the Internet, or loading it from optical media. In the short run, thus, the App Store will be an alternative to traditional channels, rather than a replacement for them.

Looking further into the future, there's a concern that the Mac App Store may stifle the openness of the Mac platform, and that concern has more legs. Even if Apple's intentions are entirely honorable, a successful Mac App Store could establish a de-facto monopoly that, in a few years, could severely limit the distribution channels available to software developers--especially the smaller ones.

Given what Apple outlined Wednesday, though, the only parties that might suffer from a Mac App Store would be traditional retail channels, which are struggling to remain relevant whether Apple gets into the software retail game or not. For everyone else, the App Store seems like a winning proposition as long as alternative routes of software distribution remain available.

[Marco Tabini is an app developer and Macworld contributor based in Toronto.]

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