The Mac App Store: With convenience comes compromise

"Available exclusively on the Mac App Store" seems like ideal marketing, but it comes with many strings attached for both users and developers.

mac app store

As both a consumer of OS X apps and as a part of the OS X independent developer community, I find these words somewhat troubling when I encounter them in the marketing for a given app:

Available exclusively on the Mac App Store

Why troubling? For many reasons, though those reasons vary based on whether I’m wearing my consumer hat or my developer hat.

The consumer hat

As a consumer, I don’t like it when a developer only offers their apps in the Mac App Store. Here are the short-and-sweet reasons why “consumer me” dislikes App Store only solutions.

No demos, no refunds

The App Store has no official “try before you buy” solution. Some developers may offer a free “lite” version of their app, so you can see how it works, but such versions are typically feature-limited. If you don’t like what you bought, tough—the official policy is no refunds. (You can usually get one, but try too often, and you won’t get any more.)

No reduced-cost upgrades

When you buy direct from a developer, most of them offer future major releases at a discount to existing customers. The App Store doesn’t offer paid upgrades, so developers have to reduce the cost for everyone—typically through a “launch week” promotional price, which is available to everyone.

The sandbox

Every app in the store—excluding some long-existing apps that pre-dated the rule changes—must be sandboxed. Apple pitches the sandbox as increased security for users, which is definitely true.

But for some apps, the sandbox means they may not be allowed to implement some features (because the sandbox doesn’t allow everything). It can also lead to annoyances like this one, in our own Name Mangler app:

sandbox ask

The sandboxed version of Name Mangler is required to ask you to unlock folders before you can rename files. The non-sandboxed version has no such requirement.

A user may not know what sandboxing is, but they may wonder why a developer “chose” to put up an annoying “please grant permission” dialog box when they try to do something.

Limited application scope

The sandbox—along with Apple’s review guidelines—lead to entire classes of programs being excluded from the App Store. If your app does things that cannot be handled within the sandbox, or that don’t meet Apple’s guidelines, then it can’t be in the App Store.

There’s a huge world of OS X apps out there, and if you restrict your browsing to the App Store, you’re missing a lot of potentially useful, fun, and interesting apps.

App updates at Apple’s discretion

App Store apps are updated at Apple’s discretion—all updates must be approved prior to release. Review times on both the iOS and Mac App Stores average about a week. That’s bad if you’re waiting on a critical bug fix. (There are escalation paths, but developers don’t like to ring that alarm bell too often.)

The developer hat

First off, I realize that selling direct isn’t necessarily easy—especially for someone who has only ever sold on the Mac App Store. A direct-selling developer needs a licensing system, a storefront, a shopping cart and payment processor, and an app update mechanism—these are all things Apple supplies for apps in the App Store.

However, there are third-party frameworks available to help developers with the aforementioned licensing, shopping cart, and in-app updates.

Xcode (the development tool for OS X apps) helps too, as projects can be constructed in a manner that makes it relatively easy to build both versions of an app from one code base. Sections of code, like that required for in-app updates, can be marked for inclusion in one version but not the other.

So while there are hurdles to direct selling, they’re not insurmountable. We’re a good example: we have but one developer, and yet seven of our 10 apps are sold both direct and in the App Store (the other three aren’t sandboxable).

With that said, here are some of the things about App Store-only selling that I find troubling as a developer.

One distribution channel

Almost nobody who sells anything sells it through only one partner. You can buy a Samsung TV at Best Buy or Sears or Costco. You can buy books from tons of resellers. But if you sell only on the Mac App Store, that’s the only spot a potential customer can buy your app.

This may not seem limiting, but we’ve heard from many customers who tell us they use computers at work that are blocked from the App Store; these buyers would have no recourse if we sold solely on the Mac App Store.

No demos, no refunds

I want people to try our apps before deciding they like them. And if they buy an app and decide it’s not for them, I’d like them to be able to get a refund (within a reasonable time period). The App Store doesn’t allow either of these things.

It’s expensive

Apple takes 30 percent of an app’s sales price as the cost of using their storefront. By comparison, costs for selling direct run between 5 and 15 percent of revenue, depending on how you’re selling. That’s a big difference when you’re a small developer and every dollar matters.

The benevolent dictator

I think of our App Store apps as being under the control of a generally benevolent dictator. Apple sets all the rules, and they’re mostly nice to their citizens. But if Apple changes the rules and your app doesn’t meet the new rules, you might be out. If Apple decides your previously-approved app doesn’t match existing rules, you might be out. Apple can also just remove your app, without really explaining why.

Apple doesn’t usually behave in this manner, which is good for all involved. But what if they do, and you happen to be the targeted developer, and you’ve just lost your only sales channel? Wouldn’t it be great if you had direct selling ready to go as a fallback?

App review times

App review times can be an issue if you’re trying to patch a critical bug or get a major new release in customers’ hands. Currently, the review time is about seven days:

review times

It currently takes about a week to get a new submission or app update reviewed by Apple.

Even worse, if you get a review rejection, that resets the clock. This delay adds complexity to planning product releases and updates and puts your timeline under Apple’s control.

The sandbox

The sandbox is also troublesome when I’m wearing my developer hat. We’ve spent hours working around various glitches in the sandbox, trying to get things to work as they were expected to work. We’ve had to leave features out because they weren’t allowed in a sandboxed app. In the end, we wind up with an app that may have fewer features than its direct-sales counterpart, and that takes longer to develop. That’s not a good combination.

Customer interaction

Many App Store buyers use the Reviews section to leave tech support questions (often with one-star reviews because the user is having an issue). Developers can’t reply to these questions, so the one-star review and its negative commentary remain forever. Apple needs to provide a way for developers to respond to App Store buyers (without giving away the buyers’ identity, obviously). I feel awful when I can’t help someone who posted a very simple tech support issue as a “review,” but never directly contacted us for help.

The final word

As a consumer, I prefer buying direct because the developer gets more of my money, future updates aren’t under the control of a third party, and there’s no sandbox to limit what my purchased apps can do. But that doesn’t mean I hate the App Store; I think it’s done a great job at bringing more OS X apps to more users, and I use it when purchasing certain types of apps, like simple games—and any apps I can’t buy direct but need to purchase.

As a developer, selling outside the App Store definitely requires more work, especially for the first app. Once set up, though, having two sales channels means that your business won’t shut down overnight if something happens to your App Store app. After all, there’s a reason “don’t keep all your eggs in one basket” is a saying.

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