The Mac App Store: It's an honor thing

There’s a great episode of The West Wing where Donna, one of the White House staffers, accidentally votes for President Bartlet’s opponent in the election via absentee ballot. Mortified at her mistake, she heads to the nearest polling place to try and swap votes with someone who was planning on voting for the other guy, thus canceling out her error.

When she finally finds someone (a navy lieutenant who also works in the White House, as it turns out) who’s willing to swap votes, she offers to show him a photocopy of her absentee ballot as proof about how she voted. The lieutenant’s response was classic: “No, no. It’s an honor thing, right?”.

A short while ago, there was a story making the rounds about how the Mac App Store was “cracked,” making it possible for users to gain access to apps without paying for them. I won’t get into the details here, because it doesn’t really matter. You see, Apple has taken a different approach with the Mac App Store. It’s an honor thing, and I like that.

With many software products, I need to have a license code at the ready just to install them on my Mac. When I’m done, that software then must connect via the Internet to some server somewhere and validate that my license isn’t in use by anyone else. The terms may vary—sometimes several machines can be authorized to use the same license, sometimes only one. Often (as I switch computers with a bit more frequency than most) I need to re-install my software. Sometimes I know where the CD is, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I can de-activate older software, sometimes I can’t, and have to call some 800 number overseas and spend 30 minutes convincing someone I’m not a software pirate. Oftentimes, I just can’t find or recover the license key and just give up and abandon the software. Your mileage may vary.

I was pretty interested as a consumer when Apple introduced the Mac App Store. Reading through Apple’s developer guidelines, one of the first things I noticed was that apps can’t be designed with any sort of license key. None. Nada. Zero. And when you read the Mac App Store terms of use, you discover that consumers are allowed to install the software they purchase on as many computers as they own and use. If it’s tied to your iTunes account, it’s legit.

Now, that doesn’t mean a small business owner can download iWork for a dozen employees—in fact, there’s a provision that limits professional use of Mac App Store purchases to a single system. But at the moment, there’s nothing in the world to actually stop someone from doing that.

This isn’t new for Apple. It’s the same way the company approaches licensing in all its boxed consumer software. I can buy a Snow Leopard Family Pack, sure, but if I buy a single-user version of Snow Leopard, it’ll install on all the family computers just the same.

Apple’s approach is simple. It’s an honor thing. The company believes that, given the choice, people will do the right thing. It also understands that anti-piracy techniques don’t stop pirates, but they do get in the way of honest users.

I applaud Apple’s efforts here. Sure, there are folks who will never pay for software, music or any other content if they can find a way to do so. They’ll even convince themselves that it’s OK to do so. (The ability to justify our actions through reason is so prevalent in our society, we even have a word for it: rationalization.) The fact is, most people will do the right thing, especially when doing the right thing is easy for them and doesn’t make their life harder.

I depend on software for so many aspects of my life. For work, for play, and everything in between. I want these developers, who have the talent and ability to create the tools and content I use, to be successful. I want them to succeed for the most selfish of reasons: I want them to create more great stuff I can use. The Mac App Store represents the kind of the thinking that will help make this possible, and Apple’s terms in this case are a model for the industry.

So, forget the fact that you can get a copy of some app without paying for it. It doesn’t matter whether the Mac App Store was cracked or not. Forget the rationalizations. Show developers that this model works, and it’s a win for users and developers.

Remember: it’s an honor thing. And that’s a good thing.

[Michael Gartenberg is a technology analyst at Gartner who covers technology and mobility. All opinions in this column are his own.]

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