In the shadow of two App Stores

MacBook Pro in low light
MacBook Pro in low light (Image credit: Rene Ritchie / iMore)

Sketch, an Apple Design Award (ADA) winning design app for the Mac, is leaving the Mac App Store. It follows BBEdit and Coda, and the reasons given aren't dissimilar. From the Sketch blog:

There are a number of reasons for Sketch leaving the Mac App Store—many of which in isolation wouldn't cause us huge concern. However as with all gripes, when compounded they make it hard to justify staying: App Review continues to take at least a week, there are technical limitations imposed by the Mac App Store guidelines (sandboxing and so on) that limit some of the features we want to bring to Sketch, and upgrade pricing remains unavailable.

The reaction has rekindled the debate about the viability of the Mac App Store (MAS) for developers—at least for indie Mac developers and those who make more niche, more productivity and utility apps.

Much of the debate has focused on the reasons stated in the Sketch post, on the perennials—trial periods/refunds, upgrade pricing, direct customer relationships, freedom from sandboxing, disintermediation of review, etc. All mechanisms and realities from a time before mobile shattered the expectations associated with traditional software businesses.

They're easy to point to, and have nostalgia on their side, but it's tough to say what if any substantive difference they'd make in the post-"pop app" world. It's one of the many reasons why presenting perceived solutions to a problem is never as productive as stating problems and leaving them open to potentially novel solutions. It's the "faster horses" trap.

We live in a world now where apps are cheaper, more plentiful, and more available than ever. Companies like Apple, Google, and Microsoft give away—even pre-install—highly crafted software subsidized by their hardware, services, or enterprise businesses. Venture capital funds development disassociated from profitability. App Stores and the modern internet allow for easier and far more accessible distribution than ever.

Customers, especially the vast mainstream majority, spends more time on the web and phones than they do desktop software and computers, and that has dramatically changed our expectations. We've become disinclined to pay for things, including music, videos, news, and, of course apps. Not just up-front but at all.

What it means to be an app is also changing. Just like web services have become decoupled from web sites, app features have become decoupled from app binaries. They already extend into widgets and share sheets, project across watches, TV boxes, and dashboards, and handoff between platforms. That's after less than a decade of App Stores. What will happen after a few more years? How is that kind of software/service made discoverable, available, and sustainable?

There are likely no easy answers, especially when you start to consider the repercussions. But solving hard problems is Apple's job. They wield the greatest power in the App Store so they bear the greatest responsibility.

No app is entitled to exist and there are certainly no guarantees for success. Yet the App Stores have always felt at least partially designed to givie apps a better shot, especially indies. To open up trusted distribution to everyone.

That said, it's possible that Apple is fine with Sketch, BBEdit, and Coda leaving the Mac App Store and many apps never entering it at all. Apple created Gatekeeper, after all, to allow for trusted app delivery outside the Mac App Store. It's part of what makes the Mac App Store distinct from the iOS App Store. Apple might well think the MAS is best suited for pop apps, and pro or niche apps can and should exist outside it.

It's also possible Apple doesn't see the MAS as a priority. Even though they're distinct, the Mac App Store shares resources and attention with the iOS App Store. Since the Mac App Store is a much smaller market and earns a tiny fraction of the revenue, almost all those resources and attention go to the iOS App Store. There is no single, company-wide executive running and championing the entirety of App Store as a product, much less Mac App Store in its own right.

As a result, the Mac App Store trails far behind the iOS App Store in terms of features for developers like TestFlight and analytics, as well as for customers, like app-gifting, bundles, per-category features, video previews, and more. (That the Mac App hasn't seen any major updates since launch should also disabuse anyone of the notion unbundling from, in and of itself, accomplishes anything.)

To get the Mac App Store to parity with the iOS App Store would likely require the establishment of a high level position within Apple directly responsible for Mac App Store success, with a distinct team dedicated to delivering it. And that would likely require champions within the Mac product team and a major release it can piggy-back on. Something that makes it a priority at the executive level. Not because its market size or revenue demands it, but because it increases the overall value of the Mac and is rightfully a point of pride.

That team could then figure out what, if any, features and mechanisms need to be added to the Mac App Store to make it a first class experience. Maybe legacy features and mechanisms, maybe novel ones, maybe both. But with a constant goal to bring the MAS not just into the present but into the future. Not just because it would be better for developers, but for customers and for Apple.

If Apple does want the Sketch and BBEdit and Coda apps of the world in the Mac App Store, they can figure out how to make the MAS a place that supports and sustains them. And if it turns out some apps really don't suit the MAS, if it's more for pop apps than for niche apps, than it can be due to activity, not inactivity, which is infinitely better for everyone.

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.