The Changing Tide of App Distribution

It won’t be long before the Mac App Store goes live on Snow Leopard Macs everywhere. For something that is arriving so quickly, we still know very little. We know there is an approval process, rules [PDF from Engadget], and a 70/30 split for developers (devs get the larger piece of the pie). Basically, it’s the same song and dance we’ve seen in the iOS App Store.

Inherent Growing Pains


Over the past couple years, we’ve become accustomed to app stores on our mobile devices. But on desktop class computers this is new territory. Many users expect if they buy version 1.0 of an app, they’ll get a discounted upgrade cost when version 2.0 is released. Not so in the current operation of the iOS App Store, and it looks bleak for the Mac App Store. Apple’s App Stores assume one of two scenarios: free upgrades for life; or release a completely new app for each major release (think Tweetie 2 or Twitterrific 3), charging all previous customers the full amount.

I don’t like that idea. It is inflexible because currently developers don’t have a way to notify customers of a separate app release except through word of mouth. I honestly don’t see why upgrades for major releases aren’t possible. Apple knows who has bought what apps. Also, when you update apps via iTunes, there is a price listing of Free and a dedicated button to Download All Free Updates. Also, if you recall when Apple released iTunes Plus songs, where DRM was finally stripped from the iTunes Music Store and song encoding quality was doubled, there was an upgrade fee. Obviously there is already a pillar of the iTunes Store architecture that can handle upgrading certain file types. Why not allow developers to give previous owners of one version of an app the ability to upgrade at a discounted price, while charging new customers the full price? This would alleviate what is likely the single greatest hesitation among developers.


Other roadblocks are the lengthy approval process. Right now, if a Mac app comes out and a major bug is discovered, developers can issue a patch as soon as it is ready. On the iOS App Store, and presumably the Mac App Store, review processes can take weeks — even for a small bug fix.

Version numbering for apps generally follows a certain hierarchy. For example, assume an app version number of 1.2.3. The 1 represents a major release — your 1.0 or 2.0 major milestone releases. The 2 represents minor feature releases throughout the journey between major releases. Finally, the 3 represents the level known as bug fixes.

I propose both of Apple’s App Stores adopt a policy of varying levels of approval scrutiny for the varying levels of version numbering. Major releases are looked over thoroughly. Minor releases are checked moderately, but would be generally acceptable as the app has obviously been approved before. And bug fix releases would be fast tracked to customers with the trust that a developer is indeed using the release as a bug or usability fix.

Now, what if a developer abuses any of these levels, trying to sneak major changes in a bug fix level update? Well, let there be repercussions. We saw something similar with the whole Camera+ fiasco. My point is that there should be a level of trust between Apple and Developers. I can speak as a customer that this would be beneficial, as it sucks waiting two to three weeks for a bug fix release to repair a crippling bug in an app.


I have to wonder, and I’m sure many developers are wondering, if current customers on the “old model of business” will be able to transition to an App Store version of the same app. I hope so. I’d actually like to get most of my apps under the App Store roof to allow for easy updating.

Other Avenues

Now, the Mac App Store won’t be the only avenue for developers, as it is on iOS. Developers can continue to sell their apps the way the always have. However, it is my belief that the Mac App Store will soon suck the air out of the market. It will be highly visible, on every recent and new Mac, and easy. It won’t take long for the Mac App Store to be the preferred avenue for purchasing apps among users — especially new users.

Why the Mac App Store Will Be Great


I am the tech guy for the family. I don’t mean just my wife and son, I mean the whole family — grandparents, parents, in-laws, aunts & uncles, etc. I’m the guy they call. Granted, many are still trapped with Windows, but one by one, I’ve been working Macs into the family.

Most recently, my mother-in-law switched to the Mac, and it has been up to me and my wife to help show her the ropes. Want to know the single most difficult thing to explain? Installing an app.

Seriously, think about explaining a disk image to a person that is unfamiliar with the way computers generally work.

Now, imagine telling that person that they need to go to a website and figure out the checkout process, then download the app, properly install it, then input the registration details. And then you need to ensure they archive the registration details in case they ever need them again.

The Mac App Store will simplify and streamline the entire process. Tell a new user, “This is where you get apps.” Then, all they have to do is click buy and confirm their Apple ID and Password. Bam! The app begins downloading and installing, automatically being put in the Applications folder, ready to go.

Also, the Mac App Store will notify when there is an update available. Right now, a user can go months without knowing there is an update available for an app if they haven’t opened it.


I have long held to the notion that Apple’s focus is selling an experience. Think about how they package a MacBook. You lift the lid off the box and the first thing you are presented with is your new Mac on a tray. Key word: presented. Same goes for how the iPhone is packaged. And the iPods.

Imagine a new Mac user, just converting from Windows, and how they’ll ask about how they get apps on their new Mac. You just go to the App Store. (Another reason the Mac App Store will suck the air out of the market: new users won’t know any different).

Overall, the Mac App Store will provide a streamlined experience with easy purchasing and updating (and, let’s hope, upgrading to new versions).