Will the Mac App Store have enough to sell? — Revisited

Ryan Block
Dec 2, 2015 · 6 min read

This week Bohemian Coding announced that it would be pulling its flagship product, Sketch (one of my very favorite apps), from the Mac App Store. This will be remembered as the watershed moment of the Mac App Store exodus.

Way back in October 2010 I wrote a piece asking of the long-awaited and then-freshly launched Mac App Store: will it have enough to sell?

At the time, the implication that the MAS might not be the same kind of game-changer as the genuinely world-beating iOS App Store ruffled a few feathers. I even helped make some claim chowder (yum!).

Anyway, given the events of this week, I figured now is good a time as any to dust that off that old piece (unedited, and expanded with some retrospective footnotes below):

Apple bringing the App Store to the Mac was a pretty obvious move — I know I’m not the only one who was predicting it would happen sooner or later, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks this is going to have a huge impact for some Mac software developers. But what happens when Apple’s growing need for control over its ecosystem meets the inexorable trend of software migrating to the cloud? Will there even be much left to sell in an App Store in a few years?

First, set aside high end professional software such as Photoshop. If for whatever reason you need it, you’re probably not heading to the cloud anytime soon, nor do I think you’ll be buying it on the App Store. (Can you really imagine Adobe letting Apple take almost $800 off the top of each sale of its full CS5 Master Collection set? I can’t.)

There’s certainly a lot of other productivity software out there for professionals using Macs — perhaps enough to make the Mac App Store a pretty interesting marketplace. But if there’s one thing we know about Apple, it’s that they always aim for the heart of the consumer market, and the unfortunate reality is that while building mainstream consumer desktop software is still a fairly big business, it also stopped being a fast growing industry a very long time ago. (How many new paid desktop software startups do you hear about starting up these days? I don’t even remember the last time I saw one.)

Assuming you have one, take a look in your Mac’s Applications folder. If you’re anything like me, you’ve got an overwhelming number of amazing free or open source apps (Chrome, Adium, Quicksilver, Handbrake), a bunch of great clients to various (sometimes paid) web services (see: Dropbox, Hulu Desktop, Flickr Uploadr, TweetDeck, etc.), and Apple’s own suite of pretty damned decent bundled apps (Mail, iCal, iPhoto, etc.). That isn’t to imply that the Mac App Store can’t spur a new wave of sales of desktop software, but even if the desktop software business is ripe for disruption or revival (and I’m not sure that it is), the space is nothing like mobile apps prior to 2008, where distribution was the primary problem.

The real issue with the desktop software market is that (unless you’re talking about productivity software) there just isn’t all that much consumers need to buy anymore. The boxed software business didn’t die because of app stores, it died because of an overabundance of great programs that are free, open, or otherwise subsidized that are available through other web or internet services. To put it another way: lately, how often have your parents bought software for their computer (that wasn’t Microsoft Office)?

The universe of desktop apps that the average person will pay for has shrunk. For me, the consumer desktop software that tends to get me to pull out my wallet is stuff I can try out first, and it tends to be a little more esoteric. It’s the kind of software that gets down and dirty in fixing, changing, or extending stuff in ways Apple doesn’t, like Growl, Perian, Smartsleep, Stay, TimeMachineEditor, MagicPrefs, Default Apps, and Cinch. Naturally, these are the areas where Apple’s stringent rules and need for control come into play. Here are some examples of App Store rules that would apparently exclude some of my favorite (paid) apps on the Mac App Store:

2.6 — Apps that are “beta”, “demo”, “trial”, or “test” versions will be rejected
2.18 — Apps that install kexts will be rejected
2.26 — Apps that are set to auto-launch or to have other code automatically run at startup or login without user consent will be rejected
6.5 — Apps that change the native user interface elements or behaviors of Mac OS X will be rejected

See, when they’re not free, desktop apps tends to cost an order of magnitude more than those of the mobile variety, which is a big part of why demos and trials are so important. (I’d argue they’re important in mobile too, but I’ll save that for another time.) As of right now, the for-profit developers the Mac App Store has the most to potential to benefit (i.e. smaller software houses that still distribute trialware) are automatically out of the store, and Apple’s other rules seem to preclude all kinds of software I consider essential.

Granted, we’ve yet to see what Apple is actually going to reject from the store, and it’s not like the Mac App Store will prevent developers from building the software they want to build and distributing it independently (or so we all hope). Apple is also free to relax these rules in the future, just as they did for the iPhone App Store. But for the moment, I’m ambivalent about the whole thing, as I’m sure are a lot of developers. Having a built-in distribution platform for developers will certainly be a plus, but combined with the general migration of apps to the browser means that a Mac App Store it isn’t the obvious slam dunk it was for mobile.

Maybe part of the problem is that these app stores themselves no longer seem like the radical innovation they were only a couple years ago, having since become an expected, table-stakes means of distributing software to users’ devices. Is there a huge amount of potential here? Definitely, and if I were the guys at Panic or Rogue Amoeba, I’d be pretty stoked after this week. But as long as some of the most interesting consumer apps are (for one reason or another) kept out, the Mac App Store will be neither the best nor the only place for consumers to get software and developers to sell it.

The tl;dr of why I thought the Mac App Store wouldn’t be a slam dunk:

  • Desktop software distribution could definitely be improved, but distribution was never a primary problem with desktop software (as it was with mobile software). And ultimately not relying solely on the MAS for distribution in the first place is the same thing that’s now enabled developers to exit the MAS completely.
  • Productivity software represents the bulk of desktop software revenue, and most productivity software won’t be sold in the MAS (still true today).
  • Indie software developers that want to charge enough money for their products to make a living wage are unable to have trial periods on their apps in the MAS, which erodes customer confidence in the pre-purchase cycle (still true today).
  • A lot of the other great Mac desktop software, from indies and bigcos alike, still can’t get into the MAS at all (also unfortunately still true) due to sandboxing and other arcana.

One additional and super important thing I did not predict: Apple would also forsake the Mac App Store.

Oof. I’m not sure anyone really saw that one coming.

Neglect is proving to be the straw that’s breaking the camel’s back, although an exodus on the scale that the MAS is seeing right now is only possible if there are other issues are at play.

Gatekeepers and creaky marketplaces aren’t exactly new things to developers; people who build things (especially software!) are generally optimistic and highly resilient, and they’ll jump over some hurdles if they’re able to reach customers and sell product.

No one’s talking much about revenue of the companies in this exodus, but the subtext seems clear: lots of Mac developers have survived the last five years just fine without selling their wares in the MAS, and those packing up and leaving the Store right now believe they can do so without killing their business (or perhaps worse yet, because they believe that they may wind up doing serious harm to their business if they don’t leave).

Which means the MAS just wasn’t providing sufficient revenue to get over the cost-benefit hump of where things are today. Oof again.

It would be impossible for me to overemphasize how important the Mac is to my life and work (and even my upcoming company), and there’s little I’d like less than to see that ecosystem hurting. So here’s to hoping Apple doubles down — nay, triples down! — on the Mac and the MAS in 2016.

Ryan Block

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Co-founder / product @Begin. Fighter of entropy. Master photobomber. Citizen. Sic transit gloria mundi.

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