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The meaning of the Mac App Store

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mac app store on a macbook air

Yesterday’s Apple announcements were built around one idea: that not only is the Mac still important to Apple, it’s thriving. That Apple isn’t ignoring the Mac—a charge that’s been leveled at Apple in several places, but most notably the World Wide Developers Conference, where programs for iOS programmers have come to dominate.

The flip side of the “Back to the Mac” media event, though, is that Apple is working to make the Mac experience more like that of the iOS. This is sure to infuriate those who don’t like the “walled garden” approach of iOS, where Apple has complete control over what programs are approved for sale. Watch for a lot of people ignoring that Steve said the Mac App Store would not be the only way to sell apps for Mac.

But let’s take a look at why Apple would want the App Store on the Mac.

It just works

The other day I downloaded a small app for taking screenshots. No big deal, it did that one thing, practically could have been an app for my iPod touch. Here are the steps involved:

  1. Go to website

  2. Download app as zip file
  3. Open zip file
  4. Find the unzipped folder
  5. Run installer
  6. Click through various steps of the installer (including choosing which disk to use (even if there’s only one) and maybe what kind of installation to do, whether to make it available to all users, etc.)
  7. Enter password to authorize installer
  8. Open app
  9. Enter license number
  10. Use app

The steps for the same process on iOS:

  1. Find app on App Store

  2. Click “install”
  3. Authorize purchase
  4. Download
  5. Use app

I’m so used to doing things the first way, that I forget how arcane this process actually is…until I have to walk someone through it, at which point I usually snatch the computer away from him because it’s easier to just do it than to explain.

iOS doesn’t work that way: You click, authorize, install, use. And the most time consuming part—installation—is completely invisible.

It’s familiar

iOS is the new face of Apple. The Mac may be doing better than ever, but Apple now has a ton of customers who have never touched a Mac…yet. They’re getting a growth from people who are switching to Mac (perhaps because they’ve seen how well Apple designed the iPhone and iPad), and when those people walk up to an iMac at the Apple Store, having an App Store is going to create a familiar, friendly experience.

I have a prediction, in fact, based on this: 10.7 will run iOS apps. Windows users will be able to walk into an Apple store to buy their first Mac, and the Genius bar will show them how to transfer Angry Birds over and play it in a window.

It’s the Apple Store, everywhere

I remember a time, not so long ago, when the only place you could find Mac software was in a mail order catalog. Maybe a computer store would carry a few dusty copies of business software, or you’d be lucky and a game company would release a hybrid CD-ROM (which would be the only time you’d have a game come out). But back in the bad old days, Mac users were a lonely breed.

Apple obviously remembers that…it’s the whole reason behind the creation of the Apple Store. They wanted a place where you could go and see their products under the best possible conditions, sold by knowledgable, enthusiastic employees—because believe me, if you think the surly teens working at Best Buy are bad at selling you a product they like, imagine what it was like when they hated Macs.

Now the Apple Stores are, by and large, great. But what if you don’t live near one? Sure you can still buy software online, but that creates barriers: the installation process I mentioned above, of course, provided you can simply buy and download it. What if you have to wait for the discs to be delivered? We’re living in a 24-hour broadband world; waiting for Amazon to drop off installer discs can seem like forever.

The App Store exists everywhere you can get a data connection. It’s open 24 hours a day, and you can buy anything they sell any time you want. There are no angry employees, there are no kids racing down the aisle, and they never run out of product. The only problem with it is that the customer reviews are, by and large, worthless, but if you know what you want, you can ignore them pretty easily. If you are in a tiny town and you suddenly need a GPS program, you can buy that. In a strange city and need a guide to tell you where to eat, you can buy that, too. Bored and need a game to play, a movie to watch, they’ve got you all covered.

The big problem

The main complaint about the Apple Store is that Apple is so freaking mercurial about what’s allowed, and that’s an extremely valid complaint. One of my favorite apps, one that I use almost daily, is no longer sold in the App Store because one day Apple decided it didn’t want those apps. (It detects weak wifi signals. Get your mind out of the gutter.)

If I had a software company that sold downloads (as opposed to DVD installers), I’d be concerned about the Mac App Store. Is Apple going to try to freeze out other ways of installing software? Steve said “no.” But was it a “not yet?” I’m not sure that even old school Mac users (like me) would put up with that, though what Mac users put up with to use elegant, beautifully designed products, can be a lot.

The other end of this, of course, is that it makes your products easier to find. If I need a screenshot program, I have to Google “mac screenshot program,” sort through the results of people asking the same questions I am, find the actual page to download it (sniff…alas, poor VersionTracker), and figure out what software I actually want. That’s provided the website hasn’t expired, or hasn’t been set up by a spammer using search terms to attract hits.

With the App Store, everyone knows where to go to find applications. The info is easy to find. The trade off for that is 30% of your income, but Apple also foots the bandwidth and licensing. What’ll be interesting to see is if Apple lets programmers sell both on the App store and on their own websites.

Apple being Apple

Apple makes no secret about wanting to control the whole experience of using their computers. They have a particular vision of what sitting at a Mac should be like—a point of view that can lead to great ease of use, but also to great frustration, like when I spent half an hour today discovering that it is impossible to turn off Faces in iPhoto ’09. (Hey, anyone know if that’s a feature in ’11?)

Apple builds Macs because they want to control how the hardware and software work together. They build Apple Stores because they want to control the experience of buying a Mac. They build the iPhone, iPods, and iPads and have a stranglehold on the App Store to control the mobile experience. It drives some people nuts, but Apple has always demonstrated they want to do things their way, to create a trouble-free (in their mind) experience for the customer, if not necessarily for the developers.

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3 Comments

  1. Yesterday’s Apple announcements were built around one idea: that not only is the Mac still important to Apple, it’s thriving. That Apple isn’t……

    The meaning of the Mac App Store
  2. This sound great but you do realise you can take screenshots with a shortcut right? Command-Shift-3?

    Korra
  3. The App Store will require Snow Leopard at the very least. You cannot install Snow Leopard on a G5.I am having problems from redeeming an application from iTunes on my Macbook and then transferring it to my iPod Touch. Any help?

    juanitahousley