Developers split over Mac App Store license swaps

Even for those users who have been buying and downloading software on their own for years, the Mac App Store’s promise of license code banishment, convenient multi-Mac licenses, and effortless one-click installation are hard to ignore.

There’s just one problem. If you’ve amassed a collection of Mac software over time, Apple doesn’t offer a way to turn your existing app licenses into Mac App Store equivalents—and so far it has shown no intention of changing its tune.

A few Mac developers are riding to the rescue, however. A handful are finding ways to help users make the transition from the software they’ve already bought to the versions available via the Mac App Store. It’s an encouraging turn of events, but one that’s unlikely to sweep its way across the Mac platform. For some developers, the methods for moving their existing customers to the Mac App Store simply aren’t tenable.

The bridge

Victoria Wang is distributing free Mac App Store coupons to people who previously bought her Twitter client, Hibari, directly from her.

Over the past week or so, developers behind a handful of apps—many of them fairly new to the market—have announced offers to transition customer licenses into the Mac App Store. Those apps include Mizage’s window management utility Divvy; Irraddiated Software’s Divvy competitor, Cinch; and Victoria Wang’s Hibari Twitter client.

Mizage and Irraddiated are using similar techniques: both companies sent out e-mails explaining that if existing customers re-purchase the respective apps and submit a proof of purchase (either by forwarding a Mac App Store receipt or sending a screenshot of the store’s Purchases tab), they’ll issue a refund for the original license purchase.

Wang, on the other hand, is going the coupon route. Like its iOS equivalent, the Mac App Store allows developers to hand out 50 free-app coupons for each version of their app. Wang asked interested customers to e-mail her to verify they bought Hibari outside the Mac App Store. She will then supply them one of her allotted coupons (thus avoiding the 30 percent hit from the refund and re-purchase process, due to Apple’s cut). Wang also said that if she has to, she’ll create a waiting list for handing out coupons with the next version update.

Tyler Bunnell, co-owner and developer at Mizage, says that his company has switched about 500 existing Divvy licenses into the Mac App Store. After Apple's 30-percent take, each swap of a full-price license costs Mizage about $4.20. However, since many people bought Divvy on some sort of sale or promotion, Bunnell calculates the average cost per switch is closer to $3.75. Mizage first e-mailed customers on January 28 and received an initial flood of responses that took advantage of its offer. Now, Bunnell says requests have “pretty much died down,” and the company sees maybe one or two each day.

Mizage, makers of window utility Divvy, is offering refunds to existing customers who buy the app again via the Mac App Store.

A few other developers have also offered a window of opportunity for customers who wish to transition into the Mac App Store. Pixelmator, for example, has enacted a “transitional” price cut from $60 to $30 that’s been in effect since the store’s January opening, and it famously made $1 million in just 20 days. Developer Oleg Krupnov recently put his $20 DaisyDisk storage utility on a 24-hour sale for just $5. On the more permanent end of the spectrum, Sophiestication Software changed the price of its CoverSutra iTunes controller from about $18 to $5, and Conceited Software also lowered the standard price of its Linkinus IRC client from $28 to $6.

But Mizage, Irraddiated, and Wang are among the few developers that offer full license swaps to their entire existing customer bases. And according to several other developers Macworld spoke with, there are a number of good reasons for that.

The chasm

Divvy, Cinch, and Hibari are new enough to the market that it’s worth the time and revenue hit to their respective developers to help customers transition into the Mac App Store. Remember: on top of all the tedious busywork that offers like these create, Mizage and Irraddiated are going lose 30 percent on each (re-)sale that they help process. However, the Mac App Store potentially offers better exposure, giving those developers a chance to make up the money they lose by selling more copies of their apps.

Unsurprisingly, none of the developers of more established apps that spoke to Macworld wanted to go on record with their answers. But for apps that have been around for a while, the consensus among developers is that doing a full license swap is just not possible.

For one thing, Apple doesn’t allow nearly enough coupon codes to cover the installed base of apps which have been around for years. And even for large shops that might arguably have the manpower to process the swaps, the process would be extremely complex and time consuming. Plus, as a couple developers pointed out, credit card processors tend to get spooked easily, and they have a penchant for cutting merchants off if they see sudden bursts of refunds. Toss in the inevitable schemers and the prospects of 30 percent of sales from the last couple of years going up in smoke, and even Lando Calrissian wouldn’t sign on for this deal.

The outlook

If you’re just dying to shift your existing licenses into the Mac App Store, you may largely be out of luck right now. But developers are very aware of the situation, and they’re paying a lot of attention to how this all unfurls.

While there is a growing trend for newer apps to adopt the Mac App Store as their exclusive point of sale, most established developers who have gotten into the store are maintaining separate versions of their apps. And even some of those who are going Mac App Store only, such as Pixelmator, are still offering demos of their apps via their company sites.

It’s worth keeping in mind that though many customers may want to transition their existing licenses into the Mac App Store, there really isn’t much of a technical need for the vast majority of them to do so. Most apps update automatically on their own these days, and users who personally own and use more than a Mac or two (the typical restraint applied by most traditional software licenses) are edge cases.

For those who really want to move to an all Mac App Store lifestyle, it might be best to wait for your favorite apps to get major upgrades in the store. With any luck, developers may hold a sale to celebrate the launch and entice non-App Store customers to buy in. Regardless, the purchase (well, 70 percent of it) will still go to a worthy cause—supporting the growing third-party Mac developer ecosystem.

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