Ten changes we'd like to see at the Mac App Store

It’s been a week since the Mac App Store flung open its virtual doors, giving Mac users another avenue to shop for and download software for their computer. Apple hopes to emulate the success it’s enjoyed with the iOS version of the App Store, and the company just might do that when all is said and done—after all, it took just 24 hours for the Mac App Store to ring up 1 million downloads. But after eight days worth of hands on time with the Mac App Store, we’ve noticed that there are a few things Apple could stand to fix.

The Mac App Store is off to a strong start, but we think there’s room for improvement.

We’re not just talking about Apple’s rather restrictive rules, which keep a notable amount of great software out of the Mac App Store. Rather, we’re focusing on features and functionality that would dramatically improve the App Store experience. Here are ten features we’d like to see Apple add—or fix, as the case may be.

A purchase-confirmation warning

The iOS App Store can warn you when you’re about to buy something. The Mac App Store should do the same.

Since the iOS App Store’s launch over two years ago, the “Are you sure you want to buy…?” dialog has protected careless clickers from accidentally buying iOS apps. (That is, until that warning became a regular nuisance and you disabled it, only to find yourself owning several apps you never planned to buy. But we digress.) Unfortunately, the Mac App Store provides no such fail-safe. Sure, if you’re not currently logged in to the store, you’ll be prompted for your account password, but once you sign in, it’s all One-Click, all the time. And while accidentally buying an iOS app usually means spending, at most, a few bucks, if you accidentally click the Buy button for an app in the Mac App Store, there’s a good chance you’ll be out $5, $10, $20, or more.

The obvious solution is for the Mac App Store to present a similar purchase-confirmation dialog, at least by default. This would add a reasonable safety net when browsing items that often cost quite a bit more than the typical music track, TV episode, or iOS app. Until then, we recommend that you be careful when mousing about.

An app wish list

We’d love it if the Mac App Store let us add apps to a wish list or give them as gifts the way we can with iOS apps.

For those times we don’t want to purchase something immediately—maybe we want to mull it over, or maybe we want to check out some reviews before purchasing—how about a wish list for your account in the Mac App Store? Apple’s other online stores each provide one, so why not give the newest store the same feature? It would be a great way to help users keep track of apps they might want to purchase among the ever-increasing flood of Mac App Store entries.

A way to gift apps

The iTunes Store lets you give someone else a music track, an album, a movie, or a TV episode. The iOS App Store lets you gift an app, too. But the Mac App Store is missing this popular feature. Here’s hoping the Mac App Store is just late to the party, and we’ll soon be able to give our non-iPhone-using family members their first copy of the OS X version of Angry Birds.

Trial/evaluation versions of apps

As with the iOS App Store, Apple doesn’t allow trial or evaluation versions of software—free, feature- or time-limited versions that can be upgraded to the full versions by paying. Instead, Apple recommends that developers offer trial versions through their own Websites. We can understand Apple not allowing beta and other pre-release versions of applications, which are commonly available outside the Mac App Store. But having to go to a developer’s Website and manually download and install a trial version just to see if you’d like to purchase the program seems to defeat much of the purpose of having the Mac App Store in the first place.

We suspect that, as with the iOS App Store, some developers will offer two versions of their software through the Mac App Store: the standard, paid version and a feature-limited “lite” version. But if you end up trying the lite version and later purchasing the full version, you’re left with two versions of the program, each likely using different settings files and data—a real hassle. We’d rather be able to download a traditional trial version and later upgrade, if we choose, using the Mac App Store’s purchase process.

Better handling of apps you already own

We’ve already covered the “installed” confusion quite thoroughly, but it bears at least another mention here: If you previously installed a program that’s now offered through the Mac App Store, and if the version number and bundle ID of your copy exactly match those of the Mac App Store version, the Store will display that application as Installed. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that existing software will be automatically updated via the Mac App Store update mechanism—nor that your existing software licenses will be transferred to the Store. Apple should handle this situation better.

For starters, the “Installed” label for an application should differentiate much more clearly between apps that have and have not been purchased through the Mac App Store. If the Mac App Store sees that a non-App Store version of a program is installed, users should get a clearly labeled option to re-purchase that software from the Store in order to take advantage of the Store’s multi-Mac licensing, simple updating, and lack of licensing/registration hassles. If a customer clicks the Buy button on such a program, purposely or accidentally, the store should warn the user, perhaps with a purchase confirmation similar to what we described above, about buying the same app twice.

Finally, as noted by senior contributor Adam Engst, you should be able to rate an application you purchased outside of the Mac App Store. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to exclude a valuable—and potentially huge—pool of potential reviewers from weighing in with their two cents.

Our pie-in-the-sky wish here is for the Mac App Store to recognize a previously installed version of an app and, with the developer’s blessing, update that app going forward. More on that in a moment.

Better notifications of pending updates

If you’ve got non-Mac App Store programs that use the Sparkle update framework, those apps will check for new versions each time you launch them, immediately notifying you if a new version is available and letting you update with a click. Prior to the debut of the Mac App Store, Sparkle was the most painless way for a developer to ensure users always had the latest version of an application. The Mac App Store brings iOS-like app updating to the Mac: Open the Mac App Store’s updates screen, and you see which of your Mac App Store-purchased apps have available updates; click Update All, and those updates are downloaded and installed.

The problem here is that, unlike an application with Sparkle, which notifies you of available updates whenever you’re using the application, the Mac App Store requires you to launch the App Store program to see if updates are available. That means if you don’t use the Mac App Store regularly, you could end up using out-of-date apps—possibly with bugs or other serious issues—for days, weeks, or even months.

Apple should allow Mac OS X to automatically check for updates to Mac App Store-purchased software the same way it does for updates to OS X and Apple software, perhaps incorporating that functionality into the Software Update pane of System Preferences. And it should notify you of those pending updates in a conspicuous way—say, using a dialog similar to the one that appears when your Mac’s due for an OS X update.

[Clarification: There is a background process, storeagent—located at /System/Library/PrivateFrameworks/CommerceKit.framework/Versions/A/Resources/storeagent—that periodically checks for updates to Mac App Store-purchased software. And the Mac App Store program's Dock icon can display a badge if updates are available. However, in our testing, that badge has appeared only after we've launched the Mac App Store—and the badge disappears when we close the program, even if we haven't installed pending updates. We've slightly clarified the language above to emphasize that we're talking about the steps the user must take to check for updates.]

Paid upgrades

As with the iOS App Store, the Mac App Store currently offers developers no way to charge for upgrades. In other words, if the new version of a program is significant enough that the developer must charge for it, there’s no way to offer existing users a reduced fee—they must pay the same as someone buying the application for the first time. This can be frustrating in the iOS App Store, but since most iOS apps cost under $5, it’s something many users have grudgingly accepted. But on the Mac App Store, a good amount of software costs more than $10, and many titles cost $20 or more. Users aren’t going to be as willing to pony up the full price for an upgrade, and developers are going to be even more frustrated by the lack of upgrade pricing—an expected option for traditional Mac software. We hope Apple adds this feature before the first round of major upgrades to Mac App Store software.

Redemption and upgrade codes

Among developers (and the media, for that matter), redemption codes have become a hugely popular feature of the iOS App Store. Developers use them for everything from promotional giveaways to customer-service accommodations—not to mention for providing review copies of their wares to members of the media. For whatever reason, the Mac App Store doesn’t currently allow for promo codes. That’s something Apple should rectify, and fast—some Mac App Store developers have resorted to purchasing iTunes gift cards and sending reviewers the codes off those cards to “buy” review copies of apps.

But we also think the Mac App Store demands more flexibility when it comes to promo codes. For apps on the iOS App Store, Apple limits the number of codes developers can give out (possibly because Apple doesn’t make any money off redemption codes). This limit has frustrated many iOS developers, but it hasn’t been too onerous because the situations in which a developer needs to give away thousands, or even hundreds, of copies of an app are rare. On the Mac App Store, however, this limit prohibits developers from using redemption codes to fix one of the major problems of the Mac App Store—as a way for owners of the non-Mac App Store version of a program to transition that license to the Store version. Many developers would love to be able to issue a promo code to any customer who wanted to make such a move.

Because of the sheer numbers involved—and the lack of a compelling financial incentive for Apple—we don’t see the company allowing unlimited promo codes any time soon. But Ken Case, CEO of The Omni Group, suggested an interesting solution: letting users pay 30 percent of an app’s price to move their previous license to the Mac App Store. In other words, what if Apple allowed developers to issue coupons to existing customers that allowed those customers to purchase the Mac App Store version of an app for 30 percent of the app’s Store price? The catch would be that the entirety of the 30-percent fee would go to Apple, preserving Apple’s normal commission on each sale. Everybody wins: customers get to pay a reasonable fee to “upgrade” to the conveniences of the Mac App Store, Apple gets its 30 percent for each copy sold, and developers get to sleep better knowing they’ll have happier customers and shorter customer-support queues.

Easier uninstalling

The Mac App Store makes it dead-simple to install new software: You just click the Buy (or Free) button next to an application’s icon in the store, and the software is instantly downloaded and installed. But what about uninstalling an application? On iOS devices, the process is as simple as entering the jiggly-icon “edit Home screen” mode and tapping the little X icon on an app’s icon. But on Mac OS X, uninstalling an App Store-installed app requires you to manually drag the application from the Applications folder to the Trash—an action that requires an admin username and password. And that procedure doesn’t get rid of any support files the application may have installed in, say, the Preferences and Application Support folders inside /Library or ~/Library.

We’d like the Mac App Store to make the process of uninstalling an application, and all its support files, as easy as installing it was. It could be as simple as letting you click an Uninstall button next to a program’s name in the Mac App Store’s Purchases screen. If Apple intends for the Store to truly take the confusion and frustration out of managing your Mac’s software, this is a must.

To Dock or not to Dock

Whenever you install a new application from the Mac App Store, that application’s icon is automatically added to the Dock. (There’s one confusing exception here: If you’re installing a program onto an additional Mac using the Purchases screen of the Mac App Store, the app’s icon isn’t added to the Dock.) This is great for new Mac users, who may not yet know where applications reside or how to add a program to the Dock—their new software is right there, ready for use. But many non-novice Mac users are quite particular about the Dock and which programs get access to its precious real estate. The Mac App Store should offer a simple preference for whether or not newly purchased programs are automatically added to the Dock. It could be a blanket preference or, as one editor suggested, the store could ask you, each time you purchase an application, if you want that particular application added to the Dock.

And more…

Of course, we could come up with more than 10 additions and enhancements to the Mac App Store that we hope Apple implements at some point. For example, we’d love a way to choose the default installation location; tabbed App Store browsing; the ability to run purchased apps on pre-10.6.6 systems if those apps otherwise don’t require 10.6.6; a way to keep iTunes Store credit and Mac App Store credit separate without having to set up different accounts; and a Genius feature that could recommend software for enhancing or supplementing software you’ve already purchased. But these are more “it would be nice to have” items—our list of 10 features are ones that would make the Mac App Store feel a whole lot less like a 1.0 product.

We’re looking forward to seeing the Mac App Store mature the way the original App Store has. We just hope it does so a little more quickly.

Updated 1/14/2011, 4pm, to clarify the upgrade-notification item.

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