by Jean-Louis Gassée
This year, three wishes were on top of my list: A smaller, lighter MacBook, an app store for the Mac, and a curated iOS app store. I got two out of three. The 11” MacBook Air works quite well when the passenger in front of me fully reclines his seat; and Apple, following its own iOS example, did indeed launch a Mac App store. We’ll have to wait for curated help finding our way through the hundreds of thousands of apps for iPhones, iPads, and iPod Touches, but there’s always next year.
The Mac App Store, announced October 20th, is still in the Coming Soon state, likely to open its ports mid-to-late January 2011. Mac developers have been able to bring their offerings to Apple’s altar since the beginning of November and, last week, we got a new set of Mac App Store Review Guidelines (see the PDF here). No real surprise, and a nice conclusion I’ll quote in full:
Thank you for developing for Mac OS X. Even though this document is a formidable list of what not to do, please also keep in mind the much shorter list of what you must do. Above all else, join us in trying to surprise and delight users. Show them their world in innovative ways, and let them interact with it like never before. In our experience, users really respond to polish, both in functionality and user interface. Go the extra mile. Give them more than they expect. And take them places where they have never been before. We are ready to help.
Except for the tired “surprise and delight” marketing BS, it’s a crisp envoi, a sendoff to a fresh set of tasks and opportunities. And, as befits anything Apple does, the Mac App Store kicks up a new and improved set of arguments.
Unavoidably, we have the C-word heat: ‘Steve Jobs is a Control freak. After Closing the iPhone ecosystem, he wants to exert the same dictatorial control over the Mac. Yet another Walled Garden’. The following Fair and Balanced extract from the Wikipedia Mac App Store article lays it out:
The centralization of downloads in the Mac App Store have caused controversy among apple developers in the blogosphere. It has been criticized for creating a monopoly since users are encouraged to get their applications from one specific place. This creates a hard situation for programmers that might feel like they can't afford to stay outside apple store. Apple also charges a fee for programmers to publish their applications in the store. In order to host an application a user need to give 30% of the applications sales price. This is way more than the 8% that software providers like Kagi, eSellerate, or FastSpring charges. The developers doesn't only have to pay for selling their apps but also to develop them. Special tools are needed that can only be licensed from Apple. Developers have also criticized Apple for cutting their connections with the customers when App store is being used, since they have to follow Apples rules it's impossible to use for example Shareware versions and control how updates are done.
This hasty, one-sided—and badly written—piece is a good illustration of Wikipedia’s limits. As a counter, I’ll hasten to point you to the much more complete App Store article. The latter exemplifies Wikipedia at its best: Wide, deep, accurate, filled with numbers and links to other sources.
The main beef against the Mac App store seems to be that it will hurt developers. In an extension of the iOS App Store authoritarian regime, developers will lose the freedom to sell their software as they please.
That’s simply unfounded, and counterproductive paranoia: Mac software will continue to be sold (and sellable) on shelves and on Web sites. But who gets to approach these venues? Small, independent app developers have a terrible time getting shelf space in retail stores. Making money by selling one’s wares on the Web isn’t an easy task either. See here a 1995 Dilbert strip that depicts the hard life of an application developer trying to raise VC money. Fifteen years later, having moved to The Dark Side, I can assure you VCs haven’t gotten more generous…unless you write code for the Apple or Google app stores. In 2008, Kleiner Perkins, the famed Sand Hill Road VC firm, launched a special $100M iFund dedicated to iPhone apps. Two years later, the iFund has doubled in size. Knowing we VCs aren’t non-profit charities, one has to assume we see the victims of app store monopolies making lots of money, of which we’ll get our customarily modest share.
When the Wikipedia piece professes to lament Apple’s 30% take, it shows a deep misunderstanding of the money one needs to sell application software on the Web. You must build and run a commercial site, and, if you’re too small to get a commercial Visa or PayPal account, you also pay a commission to Kagi and similar agents. Then you have to attract customers by spending advertising dollars and buying Google AdWords. That’s why Google’s rich and you’re not.
Microsoft can afford to get shelf and Web space for Office, but a small developer who’s written a neat text editor, or a Website design tool, or a small $10 UI-tweaking utility has a hard time making a living.
At least for today.
Tomorrow, just like with Android and Apple smartphones, the most expensive process will be writing the app, and the occasionally irritating part will be the review process.
Yes, there will be a loss of “freedom.” Today on Macs (and PCs) you can sell code that modifies the machine at any level. It can yield very useful results, or it can wreak havoc, there are (almost) no limits. Tomorrow, the Mac App Store will impose restrictions. Some will irritate, some will be acceptable. We’ve seen Apple back down from some of the more aggressive interpreter restrictions for iOS apps, for example. But your neat $10 utility will find customers, updates will be managed, payment processing won’t be a problem.
And there will be other beneficial effects. Most Mac applications install with a simple drag and drop to the Application folder or icon on the Dock. Uninstalling is equally simple: Drag the app to the Trash and you’re done…most of the time. I won’t name the apps that are, in my experience, the worst offenders but suffice it to say that they sprinkle my system with bits that are very hard to cleanly uninstall. And, just like in Windows, removing one application might maim another program from the same vendor because they both rely on the same module. This is likely to disappear over time as Mac users contrast and compare app installation and updating behaviors inside and outside the walled garden.
It’ll be interesting to watch how prices evolve, if they do. The iPad version of Pages, Apple’s Word processor, sells for a mere $9.99. On the Macintosh, Pages is part of the iWork suite which includes Numbers (a spreadsheet) and Keynote (Steve Jobs’ own presentation software) and sells for $79, or a Family Pack (5 licenses) for $99. Will those prices stand? Perhaps, especially if Apple wants to make room for Scrivener or DevonThink, to name but two examples.
And what about Microsoft? Today, Microsoft Office for Mac 2011 retail prices ranges from $149 to $279, depending upon the version and number of licenses (two for the priciest).
Do we think Microsoft gives less than 30% margin to the total wholesaler + retailer food chain? Of course not, the distribution network’s take is traditionally much higher, sometimes exceeding 50%. Which is to say even Microsoft will like the Mac App Store “strictures”. We’ll have to see how they whine if they’re rejected for infringing some arcane guideline…
This is a good moment to remind ourselves of Apple’s true nature and goals: Apple is a hardware company. For all the beautiful noises they make about software, they don’t care much about making money from it. Software is a means to an end: Hardware margins.
Microsoft puts a code on the Windows disk to protect its OS revenue. Have you seen a license number on an OS X disk? No, you can install it on as many machines as you like…Apple machines, that is. A multiple install from a “single” disk might be in breach of the formal licensing agreement, but unless you’re manufacturing Mac clones, I doubt Apple’s attorneys will be looking for you. (They seem to be very busy fighting patent wars.)
The “blogosphere controversy” blithely ignores the only source of money that matters: The paying customer. Does the new Mac App Store benefit the user? Easier everything: buying, installing, updating. On the iOS platform, there have been more than 7 billion downloads from a library of more than 300,000 apps. We’re probably not going to see such numbers on the Mac version. There are far fewer applications, a smaller installed base (in approximate quarterly numbers, think 3 million Macs versus 15 million iPhones), and alternate venues for selling applications. Nonetheless, even if the new app store has a more modest debut and subsequent growth, it’ll be a good vehicle for smaller developers who struggle with the inconvenience and cost of today’s channels. It might even have the effect of attracting new developers to the OS X platform.
A controversial idea indeed.
And as for Steve Jobs’ controlling manners, who’s complaining? Customers, shareholders?
Oppressed employees? See the Stockholm Syndrome at work below: