Back in the day, downloading software over the Internet and installing it was only for the most techy among us. Paying for that software was even more outlandish. But since Apple launched the App Store in 2008, users of the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad have discovered that shopping for, downloading, and even paying for software isn’t just easy, but fun.
I was never a fan of the word app, which was short for “application,” originally manifested on the Mac as “application program.” It was computer-industry jargon for a piece of software that is specifically being applied to a singular task. Yuck.
But I’ve had to give in and learn to love the app: it doesn’t mean any of those things anymore. Now it just means easy-to-download stuff, and it’s a concept that has broken through to the masses in the way that “electronic software distribution” or “shareware” or “downloads” never did. We now live in a culture of apps. When I visited San Diego’s International Comic-Con this summer, I saw clear evidence that apps have crossed over into popular culture.
Earlier this year, Apple introduced the Mac App Store. It’s an attempt by Apple to bring the same joie de download found on iOS devices to the Mac. And for good reason: I’d wager that the majority of people who’ve bought a new Mac in the past five years have never downloaded any add-on software for their computer. Just among my friends and family, I can’t tell you how many times I have discovered Macs that contain only the programs that shipped with the computer, plus occasionally a boxed copy of something (usually from Microsoft or Adobe).
First with Snow Leopard, and especially with the release of Lion, Apple has tried hard to expose these users to the concept of downloading Mac software. The Mac OS X 10.6.6 update didn’t just enable the App Store—it added its icon to the most prominent place on your Mac’s Dock. It’s still there by default in Lion, and of course Lion’s new Launchpad feature is designed to be a friendly place to store all those new Mac apps you’ve bought.
Then there’s the fact that the Lion upgrade itself is available as a download from the Mac App Store. There are no doubt lots of reasons why Apple decided to go that route, but I’ve got to think that one motivator was to get people used to the idea of buying and downloading software from that Mac App Store interface.
After most of a year with the Mac App Store, I’m still inclined to say that it’s a great thing for the Mac. The Mac has a vibrant community of software developers whose add-on products make it much more fun to use; more people need to be exposed to that software. Which is not to say that the App Store still doesn’t have its problems.
App Store Omissions
Some of the Mac’s finest apps aren’t eligible for the Mac App Store. Apple’s got some fairly strict rules about what App Store apps can and can’t do—in many cases for legitimate concerns about stability and security. But if you want to buy a great backup utility like Shirt Pocket Software’s $28 SuperDuper or any true antivirus utility, you’ll need to leave the Mac App Store. That’s because those apps require deep system access to do their jobs, and Apple has decided to not allow that level of access in any Mac App Store app.
What’s worse, beginning in November Apple will be enforcing a new rule that requires every Mac App Store app to be “sandboxed.” Basically, a “sandboxed” app has limited access to the functionality of your Mac, largely for security purposes: even if an app has a serious security flaw, if it’s got no access to the rest of your Mac it can’t do much (if any) damage.
Apple getting serious about app security is a good thing. Unfortunately, many of the apps we Mac users have come to know and love over the years require a broad amount of access to the system for a lot of their key functions. Not as much as SuperDuper, say, but still quite a lot. What I’m hearing from some Mac developers is that they may actually have to remove features from their apps, or reduce their functionality, in order to fit them inside Apple’s new sandbox. (For more on this topic, read Andy Ihnatko's take.)
Not only does this approach risk turning the Mac App Store into a wasteland of arcade games and one-trick-pony apps, it risks dumbing down the Mac app ecosystem as a whole. While developers can always opt out of the Mac App Store, they’re reluctant to do so. Not only are they afraid that Apple will one day make new Macs unable to run apps that don’t come from the App Store, but they realize that if their competitors are in the Mac App Store, they risk losing sales. It’s generally too expensive to develop two separate versions of an app, so the net result of tighter App Store restrictions could be that Mac apps everywhere—on and off the store—will actually become less powerful.
That’s the wrong direction for Apple to take the Mac. Here’s hoping Apple finds a way to keep our Macs secure, while allowing OS X apps to remain as powerful and innovative as they’ve been over the last decade. Mac users deserve both security and power—and the Mac App Store should be a showcase for the very best that Mac software developers have to offer.
[Jason Snell is Macworld's Editorial Director.]