Fixing the App Store purchasing problem

See a great iOS or Mac App Store app and want to share it? Not a problem. Copy the link, and you can send it through mail, messages, social networks, or post it on the web. If the link is for a Mac app and you're on your iPhone, though, it starts to become a problem. If the link is for an Apple TV app, well... it can't be, because there's currently no way to share Apple TV app links. But what if there was? What if you could get any App Store app on any Apple device—or even from the Web?

The platform jail

Right now, if you're on a Mac and you click on an iPhone or iPad app, it'll open on iTunes and let you download it. Then, when you're back on your iOS device, it will either have downloaded automatically, or you can get it from your purchased list. It works fine.

If you're on an iPhone or iPad and attempt to do the reverse, however, you get a page telling you that app is only available on OS X with a link to learn more... which will sometimes take you to the iOS version of the app instead. It's confusing.

But it's still better than the poor Apple TV, where the only way to get an app is to go to your device's App Store, search for the program, and pray you can find it. (Luckily, there are few enough apps right now that the App Store's lack of search prowess doesn't get in the way, but this won't be the case forever.)

The great web escape

Instead, imagine if the web intermediated, providing all App Store links on all platforms. Click on an App Store link on your Mac or PC and, instead of iTunes, you go to iTunes Preview and there's a Get or Buy button right there. Click the button and you can choose to open in iTunes or log into your Apple ID account and initiate the Get/Buy right from the Web.

Instead of iTunes Preview, though, it's now App Store for iCloud, or whatever best fits the model Apple wants to use.

Same with iPhone or iPad: Since those are single-user devices, iOS apps can automatically redirect to the App Store app. Mac apps, though, could launch the iTunes Preview page in Safari and offer the same opportunity to log in and initiate a Get/Buy from the Web.

This would also work for getting Apple TV apps from iPhone, iPad, or Mac. Tap or click on the link, go to the Apple TV app page on App Store for iCloud, and tap or click to begin the Get/Buy process.

Here's a (really bad) mockup.

Since App Store for iCloud—like iTunes Preview—pages could show up in Google and other search results, it would also make it easy to find the links for Apple TV apps, making sharing possible to begin with. At least on every device but the Apple TV....

To share from Apple TV would still be a challenge, since it doesn't have any mail, message, social, or Web/WebKit integration. Perhaps handing off to an iOS device could work?

Since you can already buy iOS apps on the Mac, the process for buying apps for one device on another is likely simple and secure enough that additional safeguards aren't needed. There's an argument to be made that customers might get confused over which app is for which platform, but clear branding and presentation can handle that.

If Apple believes security and the potential for confusion warrants additional safeguards, though, any download could require confirmation on the destination device.

In other words, if you Get/Buy a Mac or Apple TV app on your iPhone, the next time you use your Mac or Apple TV, and App Store prompt could pop up asking for password or Touch ID authorization to complete the purchase/download. You could also opt for auto-download if the added security is too onerous for you.

iOS 10 and beyond

I have no idea how complex this system would be for Apple to implement, given the existing iTunes architecture. But it's something its competitors already provide. You can browse Google Play apps right from the web and send them to any Android device connected to your account. Same for Amazon Kindle content—and that content can even go to iOS devices. It's something that's conspicuously absent from not just the capabilities but the convenience of Apple's ecosystem.

The ability to get apps from any device—at any time, anywhere—wouldn't just make the experience better: It would make the platforms more valuable for customers, especially the iPhone and iPhone owners, since that's the device most of us have with us most of the time.

Hopefully the App Store team is on it and we'll all be able to enjoy universal App Store purchasing sooner rather than later.

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

  • And while they're at it, how about a 15 min grace period (Google Play) to refund a purchase if you don't like it. One of the few things I miss coming back to iOS. I have purchased so many crap iOS apps and games. Money that could be spent on things I would actually keep installed and use.
  • Will be tackling that in a future article!
  • How dare you... There. Are. No. Crap. Apps. in the app store. Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • You can get a refund.
  • That's a great idea. No trial apps. Just a trial period of 15 minutes use with the app. Maybe even 5 minutes (but that's counted once the app launches for the first time - not from when it's downloaded!)
  • I want Apple to stop the new practice of forcing App Store downloads instead of using existing app files during restores. I lost a couple of apps & games during a recent upgrade because the apps are no longer in the App Store. The apps are still listed in iTunes but the files are reported as missing. The worst part is that somehow Apple deleted the .ipa files from my local iTunes library. I've only done local backups and NEVER used iCloud backup.
    For example, I have a game purchased in 2008 that has been on every iPhone from the 3G to the 6, but didn't make the upgrade to the 6S Plus.
  • Oh how i hate apple removing apps that you made for a long time ago. A waste of money but it's software and we aren't 'buying' the software in reality but hold a license. Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • They switched to a new delivery system that involves targeting "thinned" binaries to specific devices. That way your iPhone 6, for example, doesn't have to store the 32-bit binaries for iPhone 4s, or the large interface files for iPad Pro. They also get new optimizations that might have been made available since they were last uploaded. So, you basically get the best possible copy for your device whenever an app is re-downloaded.
  • That sounds like fragmentation... Hmmm Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • Hmmmm.... No it does not.
  • App thinning is great except when the App Store doesn't have the app to thin. In that case the app thinning workflow should to fallback to the last known good file: the user's local file (fat binaries and all). Apple should treat user data like doctors treat patients - first, do no harm.
  • I have ringtones that I paid for that have disappeared after updating... I need help getting them back... Sent from the iMore App
  • They should start with fixing and removing all the crap scam and ripoff applications abundant in the role playing section and other categories. That would be an excellent start. I've e-mailed them constantly of the situation and all i get is iTunes 2 songs credit. Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • Basically this. It would be a lot easier to re-engineer the search and purchasing experience without at least a third (I'm being lenient here) of the total apps available in the App Store to deal with in the first place.
  • How many apps there are makes no difference. You just update the infrastructure and everything it's attached to gets it applied. They don't go through 1 page at a time updating it.
  • And there's the matter of localized stores. I can imagine Apple 's headaches regarding daily currency fluctuations, less frequent tax rates and probably ever changing rules on forbidden and obligatory matters for apps and books. But living in the Netherlands I "often" find that items on sale in the App Store (like according to AppShopper) are not on sale in the Dutch store, or even not available at all.
    Strangely Apple itself (themselves?) may redirect me to the US store, but then direct me back to the Dutch store without doing business.
    I must admit that the reverse appears true too: I happened to find out that some iOS apps are available in the Dutch store, but apparently not in the US one.
    You'll say that some apps won't matter across the pond, but then, how about that (free) app that is available from the US app store, yet is only useful to members of the Dutch Labor Party? Well, some of them may live on the US East Coast... I rest my type cover... ;-)
  • I agree with iCloud having an App Store (for all devices), along with an iTunes Store and iBooks Store. But the "App Store" app on each device should only list apps available for that device. (Except of course for Apple Watch and Car Play apps, which are basically "extensions" of iPhone apps.)
  • App Reviews! I would write a lot more, and a lot more carefully, if I could use TouchID to verify my review. Why do I have to type in my monstrously big password EACH time I review something? I think they want it to be hard to review apps.
  • There's a silly naive part of me that thinks Apple is already working on this but as a part of their internal massive Mesos-based overhaul project (reported by TheInformation and 9to5Macs) to modernize their entire services infrastructure that is no longer relying on WebObjects and multiple different backends they're still running for more than a decade. The sole purpose of this project is to allow a single modern backend for all services and to interact with each other, allowing them to build new features much faster, scale it, and so on.
  • I've heard Rene lobby for this app purchasing option on several different podcasts in the last few weeks. I'm hoping Phil is finally getting the message. If I hear about an iPad app and look for it through my iPhone, it won't show it to me if it is an iPad-only app. I'm not sure how Apple will know when I am trying to purchase an app on my iPhone that I even have an iPad (or Apple TV) to redirect it to. This aspect may be the show-stopper for Apple...
  • Want to be able to move App Store purchases to my personal Apple ID rather than the one I have to input on all my devices. Then I would do family sharing and likely family Apple Music. Wonder where this is on their priority list. I'm too far invested in one ID for purchase and one for iCloud to abandon one for the other. I suppose I would want all purchase and current Apple Music data moved but I would be happy with just the purchases. Sent from the iMore App
  • To add to the wish list - and I'm sure I'm can't be the first to bring this up - but how about Apple take the time to improve their awesome music service (Apple Music) with web-based accessibility? Spotify has it, Google Play has it, Pandora has it, but Apple Music has no web-based capability. I'm sure this is a big decision maker for many considering most work centers don't allow a user to install there own applications. Many people circumvent this by accessing their music library via web browser. Wishful thinking I suppose.
  • Buying hardware from Apple is an awesomely simple process. Buying software & services from Apple could only be worse if someone really, really tried. Really hard. For a long time. I would be really happy if Apple just flat out skipped software updates for a year (iOS, OS X, all apps, etc) and dedicated every software engineer they had to destroying iTunes and the Mac App Store and built separate apps that work properly, and are actually pleasant to use.
  • One more addition, for those of us who started out with and eventually thought it wasn't worth $99 per year and have two Apple ID's or switched to Android for awhile, let us merge two Apple ID's into one. Bottom line is I paid for all of it, I should be able to merge two ID's into one.