Mac App Store: The Good, the Bad and the Ambiguous
The Mac App Store is here, and buying, downloading and installing Mac software is forever changed. The new system will mean new ways of charging users for what they want to get, a new outlet for developers who want in on it, and new ways of keeping applications up to date. One piece that's still missing is how big, high-value business apps will fit into the Mac App Store system.
In between gobbling up the tech gadget news coming out of the Consumer Electronics Show last week, I dutifully cleaned a bunch of useless data off of my MacBook, gave it a new pristine Carbon Copy Cloaner backup, then updated all my Apple software applications, including the all-important 10.6.6 update to Mac OS X -- if you don't have 10.6.6, you can't get the new Mac App Store.
I can't recommend that anyone upgrades their operating system without having at least one good backup, but the Mac App Store is worth the hassle: Get it done!
Once you let Apple's Software Update application do its thing and restart, the new Mac App Store icon appears as an application to the right of the Finder icon on the OS X dock.
For all intents and purposes, the new Mac App Store is now part of the Mac experience -- you can't avoid seeing the Mac App Store at least once, and new Mac owners will likely click on it to check it out. Heavy-duty pro users might drag it off the dock and make it poof away from sight, but it's now a new feature of the Mac ecosystem, and you can bet that Apple will market it.
Upon launch, the Mac App Store opens up to reveal an uncluttered modular framework that shows off a variety of App icons, along with ratings stars and the iTunes-familiar white-text-on-gray-oval-price-and-buy drop-down buttons. The main screen is essentially a huge rotating banner ad for all the applications that Apple wants to highlight. It's well-designed, though, and will remind you of the iTunes Store.
The similarities don't end there, of course. We also get familiar categories like New and Noteworthy, What's Hot, and Staff Favorites. Apple also lets you break down the Apps into 21 categories, including the stalwarts like Business, Games, Health & Fitness, Productivity, and surprisingly, Weather. There are only eight Apps in the Weather category, and while weather affects us all, the category is far more appropriate to a mobile app store. I'm guessing Apple expects to see an influx of iOS weather app developers to bring their sunshine to OS X, too.
Meanwhile, the break-out iOS and Android game hit "Angry Birds" is now available as an OS X app. The game play is essentially the same, but it only functions in a full-screen mode, so you can forget lobbing birds at green pigs while on long conference calls at work.
Apple is offering up its own software, too, but not everything yet, and the pieces and parts aren't always explained well. For instance, while the iLife suite is now available for download, it's not available as a complete set -- you can only download each app separately, and you pay for each app separately, too. For instance, you can buy iPhoto '11 for just US$14.99, iMovie '11 for $14.99, and GarageBand for $14.99. Doing the math, that's essentially $45 for what used to be a $49 purchase.
There are some pros and cons. On the plus side, your license lets you install the apps on multiple family Macs, so you don't need to by a "Family Pack" any longer, which can introduce some significant savings. Same goes for the new a la carte option -- if you don't use GarageBand, you don't have to buy it. On the downside, what happened to iWeb and iDVD? I don't know that iWeb ever really caught on that well, and while iDVD isn't a daily-use kind of app, it's still handy for cranking out a quick DVD for special occasions. Both are still included in the brick-and-mortar iLife '11 package but seem totally unavailable in the Mac App Store.
Interestingly, iWork is still missing the '11 version, and the three core applications -- Pages, Keynote and Numbers -- are all available for individual downloads for $19.99. Buying the three for $60 nets you a $19 savings over the $79 box price, which is nice. What's not so clear is what happens when Apple releases iWork '11, if Apple does indeed release iWork '11. Will Pages '09, for example, get freely updated in the future? Or will Apple offer a Pages '11 as a new application?
All in all, Apple's own software applications are coming in at lower price points with separately downloadable components, and for most consumers, this alone is wicked cool. Thank you, Apple!
Your Apple ID Is the Key to the Apple Universe
The Mac App Store revolves around your Apple ID, and for most Mac owners, this is the very same account they use for iTunes and their iPhone, iPad, iPod, and/or Apple TV. It makes the App Store very consumer-friendly while at the same time making it very consumer-focused. This is just another way of saying that it's not clear how the Mac App Store will work well with small businesses -- or worse yet, medium-to-large businesses. The easy answer is that the business needs to get an Apple ID and credit card account, but that seems to be skirting the licensing terms: Basically, apps from the Mac App Store may be used on any Macs that you own or control for your personal use.
Some apps that are more commercial in nature won't require activation keys, serial numbers or registration numbers, but they can prompt you for your Apple ID and password the first time you use them. So there is some rudimentary copy protection. It's still unclear how big, high-value, commercial, business-focused applications will fit in the Mac App Store.
Room to Grow
While Apple was quick to boast that its 1,000 apps garnered more than 1 million downloads in the first day of availability, there's still plenty of room to grow, even for Apple. Amazon.com is offering its Kindle e-book reading app free, but an Mac version of iBooks is still MIA.
Beyond Apple, while most categories have enough apps to fill the shelves, so to speak, there are still thousands of great apps that could find a home with Apple. I've been on the fence with buying a few apps directly from developers' Web sites, but if they were offered via the Apple Mac App Store, I'm sure I'd pull the trigger and just buy them.
First off, the download and install process is freakishly easy. Second, the store is linked to my Apple ID, which means I don't have to enter a bunch of credit card info and related buying details. Third, I don't have to worry about my personal information, along with my credit card and billing (home) address, hanging out in more databases. Fourth, the install licenses are easy and favorable to consumers. Fifth, application updates will be instantly and easily discoverable by me. Sixth, I can read reviews from other customers to help me choose (and ease my hesitation). Seventh, I'll be able to actually find applications, and this is huge. I'm a big fan of Google, but Google for Mac application discovery? It leaves a lot to be desired.
The Mac App Future Is Now
Some developers are already seeing great results, which will create incentives for other developers to jump on board, despite their reservations with the Apple rules and distribution system. The important thing is, they don't have to be in the Mac App Store to sell applications, but I have a hard time imagining that many app developers will be able to do a better job getting in front of paying customers.
Evernote, by the way, is one company that loves app stores. They have multiplatform solutions, and 70 percent of new Evernote users have come from app stores (includes Android, BlackBerry, and webOS). In the first few days the Mac App Store was open, Evernote snagged 40,000 new Mac customers, more than doubling the number of Mac users the company had previously. Not bad. Not bad at all!
Another developer, Pixelmator Team, which offers the Pixelmator image editor application, is moving its sales effort to the Mac App Store, and in a blog post, the team pretty much gushes about the Mac App Store. Like many developers, they are at a crossroad: How do they manage a transition with their loyal customers who bought previous versions the old way? They are offering Pixelmator at a lower price point and offering a future 2.0 upgrade free.
I expect many more developers to take on the challenge and incorporate the Mac App Store into their go-to-market plans. As for the holdouts, I'll still keep an eye out for you on banner ads and other advertising on Mac-focused Web sites. But as for using old-school search engines to find you ... not so much. Which is pretty much how I wasn't finding great Mac applications in 2010.
MacNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at Gmail.com.