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 (opens in new tab) 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.

  • Great write up Rene and all very valid points except for one - Apple will never get rid of sandboxing on the MAS. Love it or hate it, it's here to stay.
  • I think the MAS is a great tool for the elderly. I have my parents iMac set to only install apps from the MAS. They don't know how to easily bypass that; so I don't have to worry about them installing anything bad from the Internet. And having everything sandboxed also helps. For pro users, they never even have to touch the MAS if they don't want to, still allowing the freedom to install from anywhere. I like that the MAS is like this safety net for the tech un-savvy.
  • This bothers me, less as a user of the Mac App Store, more as a Mac user in general. The Macintosh platform is falling behind at Apple and as a Macintosh user first, iOS user second, this is troubling for me. Apple has the resources to keep Mac OS at parity with iOS but somehow that's not happening. Yes, iOS dwarfs Mac OS in terms of user base and income for Apple, but every product Apple sells ought to work as flawlessly as every other and at this point that's not happening.
  • A lot of words but no specific facts to point to what you feel doesn't work as 'flawlessly' on your mac that does on the iOS devices.
  • Great UNBIASED opinion piece, looking at the issue from all views (small to medium developer, large developer, Apple, and most importantly, the user). Most of the other editorials I have read appear to focus on the current ills of the MAS like the app review process, sandboxing, refunds etc, but what reveals their bias towards the indie developer (at least for me) is how they include the main thrust of the devs' wish-list, paid upgrades, direct contact with users and freedom from app store royalties, almost as an afterthought at the end of a long list, i.e. hidden in plain sight. As Rene has stated, there will be consequences; having secured market visibility and reputation through the MAS, "cutting out the middleman" and going direct to Apple's users will gradually distance developers from hardware and system software upgrades that Apple is well known for pushing on a regular basis, increasing the tendency to "break" features and duplicate functionality. Open warfare may well break out with devs asking users not to upgrade their OS Version or even hardware models, or to hack their devices in ways unacceptable to Apple. And, as Rene says, burning bridges may well be a premature move if or when a potentially novel solution to the issues raised crops up. The MAS itself, once upon a time, was hailed as one such breakthrough.
  • What is an unbiased opinion piece?
  • Something that doesn't deviate from the reader's preconceptions.
  • I see MAS as ok for apps I don't really care about. Any programs that I do care about and spend on I'll go to that website. I don't use windows store either. To be honest, if both stores vanished overnight, it wouldn't bother me one bit. But I'm sure many mainstream users rely on them. The bigger priority is iOS. We already have great software on macs.
  • This. Especially as you tend to get discounts AND extra features direct from the web store that you don;t get in App Store versions. Plus searching in the Mac App Store, (just like iTunes), is crap at best.
  • What's a "pop app"?
  • I really like what's going on at Mobile Nations! Keep up the good work everyone! Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • For all the things I love about Apple's products and the Apple ecosystem as a whole (and this is coming from a guy who has an iPadAir2, an iPhone6+ (which this is typed on - so forgive my typos) and an old (and rapidly approaching "too old") Mac, with plans, at a MINIMUM, to get an AppleTV within the year, and a new Mac within the next two years or so) one of the things I REALLY dislike about it, perhaps the thing I dislike MOST is "the tale of two app-stores" - three really, when you consider that there also exists a hard line in the sand between phone and pad apps - five actually, when you factor in watchOS and now tvOS. It's crazy! Now, I know that there is a little bit of salve, at least between iOS and tvOS in the form of so-called "universal apps" (a term that Windows had first, and is much more meaningful in their ecosystem), but there are still walls everywhere in Apple's app-store ecosystem - and that's leaving out another major gripe about there being four separate OSs in the ecosystem in the first place, but we can debate the pluses and minuses of that approach another day. A personal example of this: I briefly started learning Japanese. I put it back down because I was in the process of learning German and found that trying to actively learn two languages at once was overkill. But I plan to pick Japanese back up later. Anyway, I found a PHENOMENAL resource for learning the language, called "Human Japanese". It's a tremendous app that I recommend to anyone wanting to learn the language.....the problem? To have it on all three of my Apple devices, I'd have to buy it three times! Once for Mac, once for iPhone, and once for iPad. That's outlandish! I also have multiple Windows devices and multiple Android devices. How many times do you suppose I had to pay for the app in each of those ecosystems? That's right! ONCE! In some ways, Apple is the king of apps. Their app screening process is so much better than Google's. Android may have more apps in total, but the play store is something of the Wild Wild West, or perhaps even "a box of chocolates" - you never know what you're gonna get! Also apps tend to be updated quicker on Apple, and where they are significantly different than their Android counterparts, more often than not, they are better. And even with all that, in terms of total apps, Apple still doesn't really trail Android by very much. So Apple has all of this going for them. But I cannot stand the segregated App Store model, and can barely stand the segregated OS model. Heck, even looking just at iOS, I would still have to buy Human Japanese twice! I know that there aren't many Android apps optimized for tablet, and that phone apps stretch to work, which sometimes still looks okay, sometimes looks awful, but always looks less than ideal. So I get the charm of having separate versions customized for the form-factor. I do get it, really! That said, give me Android's approach on the phone app/tablet app scenario over Apple's any day! Especially if the hope comes true of the tablet-optimized app pool situation improving someday! Anyway, just a few things I hate about Apple peppered in amidst all the stuff I love about them. There are "love/hates" to be marshaled in all three ecosystems, and they're all quite different lists across the board - that's why now is such an interesting time in tech, and why I am DELIBERATELY multi-platform! That MAS is so much different, not only in terms of how robust the app selection is, what that app selection is made up of, how strongly it's supported and nurtured by Apple as well as paying, or even non-paying customers, but even just how it works functionally is both surprising and not surprising (it's more of a "I'm surprised that I'm surprised" situation), and it just further illustrates the dark side of all these divisions within the ecosystem. For my part (as part of the problem), I'm not sure I've EVER used MAS for anything other than MacOS updates. Cheers!
  • West Wing reference in the title?