Egomaniacal control? 1984-esque thought dictatorship? The Hokey Pokey? Several sources, many of whom ought to know better, are bemoaning the introduction of a Mac OS X App Store as part of Mac OS X v10.7 (though it will be available later this year for 10.6 as well). “Apple has control issues!”, “Why can’t Steve Jobs just leave us alone?!”, and “Down with this sort of thing!” seem to be the general sentiment kicked up by the introduction of an iOS-like app store to the Mac desktop. True, Apple is imposing an approval process on apps for the the store, subject to some loosely documented review guidelines. And yes, this will be, in Steve Jobs’ words, a “curated” source of applications. But does that mean the end of the Mac software universe as we know it? Here is what the new Mac App store really means:
What do we have now?
Software installation on the Mac can be challenging today, even for advanced users. Different software vendors do different things, from using the standard built-in Installer App to simply providing a disk image that instructs the user to drag the application to the Applications folder. Updates are…well, they simply are. Some programs provide built-in notification, some require users to search for new versions, and some (Adobe) install a separate, irritating update program that continually reminds you to update software you do not even own. The process of getting new software by downloading from unknown sources is increasingly becoming a vector for potential malware on the Mac, a threat of which Apple is obviously aware.
Curating apps offers several advantages all around: Apple gets a nice recurring revenue stream and generates more interest in its platform. Developers of underexposed applications get a big platform on which to expose them: current little-known darlings like Cocktail, Carbon Copy Cloner, Grand Perspective, and Pixelmator will no longer have to hope people chance upon their tools while surfing.
A 30% entry fee for marketing and access to a vastly larger market is perfectly reasonable. And users benefit as well; casual users can now easily find new programs, and more advanced users can get access to these same little-gem-programs without the countless hours of Googling and reading suggestions online.
Is this a zero sum game?
The Mac app store isn’t taking choice away from users; it is opening up choices and possibilities to a pool of users who currently do without. Previously, these folks had to rely on a relative or friend to offer informal support for hardware/software purchases, meaning that consumer choice existed in spirit only— they took whatever they were dealt, and inherited the biases and preferences of their trusted source.
With the easy-to-use app store reviews and a few well-curated choices, many of these users can now shop for themselves, and users who were without the assistance of a Mac-savvy relation can join the party, too. Researching travel destinations can be quite a chore, hence the (shrinking, but not quite dead) market for travel agents. It is doubtful you would trust Steve Jobs for advice on where to take your honeymoon, but knowing you can safely nab a simple program to do some personal finance tracking will enable vast numbers of users and developers to connect in a uniquely user-friendly, Mac-like way. It’s like having a Mac Genius all to yourself right on your desktop.
Why the hulabaloo?
In the same vein as many protesters at the recent Rally to Restore Sanity, I would posit that everybody needs to calm down. Steve Jobs pointed out expressly that the Mac app store would be but one way to get apps onto your Mac. You can still buy a CD or digital download, run Installer or drag the app to the Applications folder. The Mac will not be a walled garden, but a safer playground will be provided for the new kids (or lazy older kids, your author included). iOS is a different environment with severe limitations; iDevices have less resources, and an unruly app can leave you with no phone line. It does not make sense to have a free-for-all app environment for the iPhone, but the Mac can afford to be more inclusive.
Many users never leave the comfort of built-in apps, like Safari, Mail.app, and the iLife suite. You could make a valid argument that Cupertino already curates the software environment on most people’s Macs, with a small group of elite Mac users lending a helping hand to add on from time to time. Knowing there is a comfortable, friendly, safe way to get new software on your computer is going to encourage these less-savvy people to branch out a bit. It is the same barrier-lowering model the iTunes music store implemented; rather than troll LimeWire or The Pirate Bay looking for music, music was available in an easy-to-use and friendly place.
Not only is Apple getting Back to the Mac, they are also getting back to basics—keeping a focus on user friendliness rather than selling feature bloat with every desktop OS release.
So, everybody just simmer down. You can still find your great little unheard-of freeware app that does the coolest niche thing imaginable, and get the pleasure of installing it yourself (fire up the command line to do it if you want a real thrill). Just don’t be surprised if your grandmother can find the same program and gets the advantages of easy installation with auto-updating.