Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/11/01/mac_app_store/

App Store II: Steve Jobs sucks Mac's soul

The Human Interface Commandments

By Rik Myslewski

Posted in Software, 1st November 2010 06:00 GMT

Comment Apple has hacked the Mac's software ecosystem in two.

When Jobs & Co. opens its iOS-style Mac App Store early next year, there will be two types of apps available for the company's flagship — but aging — Apple Macintosh platform: simple consumer-level apps that the vast majority of users will purchase through the online store revealed by Steve Jobs last month, and professional apps sold in traditional ways — for now, at least.

And the Mac universe will be a less interesting place.

As revealed in Apple's recently published Mac App Store Review Guidelines, Cupertino's control over the future of consumer-level Mac software will discourage innovation, and will be defined — quite literally — by what Apple believes to be Good for You™.

The Mac App Store, for all intents and purposes, will bring an end to the rogue, piratical culture that Jobs once championed.

"Why join the navy if you can be a pirate?"

— Steve Jobs, 1983

Up until the day the Mac App Store opens, Mac apps will be able to jostle for advantage on a level playing field where developers wrestle to out-innovate one another, and where — more importantly — the arbiters of success are folks who buy Mac software, and not folks who are employed as Apple's App Store police.

That's called the free market, and it has been a cauldron of innovation since Adam Smith stirred the pot with his timeless invisible hand.

The day that the Mac App Store opens for business, however, buyers of Mac software might feel as if they're free to choose which apps to install on their iMacs and MacBooks, but in reality their choices will be "curated," to use Jobs' deceptively kindhearted term.

As has been true with the iPhone/Pod/Pad App Store since its inception, Apple will decide the universe of apps from which consumer-level Mac users will be allowed to choose.

We'll quickly admit that Jobs, when introducing the Mac App Store, noted that "It won't be the only place [to buy Mac apps], but we think it'll be the best place." Unlike iPhone/Pod/Pad users locked into the current iOS App Store, Mac users will still be able to load non–App Store apps onto their Cupertinian desktops and notebooks.

But let's be realistic: most won't.

Consumer apps

Jobs described his company during his surprise appearance at Apple's recent financial-results conference call by saying: "We're a very high-volume consumer-electronics manufacturer." Consumer-electronics companies sell stuff to consumers. Consumers, well, consume. Once they've chosen their platform, they predictably follow its guidance.

And the Mac App Store will be there to provide that guidance by narrowing — "curating", in Jobs-speak — their choice of apps. And those choices will be determined solely by Apple and its view of what's acceptable.

And how will Jobs & Co. decide from which apps consumers will be able to choose? Well, the Mac App Store Review Guidelines detail 93 strictures that narrow the range of what Apple's new iOS-meets-OS-X store will accept.

Many of the elements of that superabundance of no-nos are reasonable restrictions that protect against fraud or promote privacy. Wonderful. Thanks, Steve. Really. The positive side of a curated App Store is that someone is watching your back.

On the other hand, however, some of the 93 no-nos are ridiculously over-reaching. Our favorite, for example, is the commandment that "Apps that exhibit bugs will be rejected."

If bugs make an app unacceptable, then Mac OS X — especially in its earlier incarnations — would be banned. If Apple software were bug-free, why would the company's Safari browser have a Report Bugs to Apple menu item?

And let's not even start on Microsoft Office, Adobe Reader, or other popular Mac apps. Software has bugs; that's just a fact of life.

A conspiracy-minded observer might see the "no bugs" stricture as a catch-all kick-out that Apple might use to reject apps it simply doesn't want aboard the Mac App Store. That may or may not be the case, but we don't need a tinfoil hat to be concerned about many of the the store's other guidelines.

Eyebrow-raising regs

There are plenty of restrictions in the Mac App Store Review Guideline that raise concerns, but we'll focus on a mere half-dozen eyebrow-raisers:

Let's take these strictures one-by-one, and explain why we find them troubling:

Complex or "less than very good": Apple will reserve the right to define, evaluate, and enforce user-interface innovation and quality.

To be sure, Apple's continually updated, continually perfected Human Interface Guidelines have made a strong contribution to the acceptance of the Mac as an easy-to-use, easy-to-learn computing platform. But over the years those guidelines have been just that: guidelines.

With the inception of the Mac App Store, however, those guidelines will be elevated to the status of commandments. Should a developer invent a new way for users to interact with their Macs, his or her creativity must pass muster with the App Store police before Apple will allow that inventive app to profit from acceptance into the Mac App Store.

In other words, the market won't decide what's good or useful; Apple will. Innovation will have a gatekeeper.

Over the years, developers have pushed the UI envelope in many ways — Kai's Power Tools and Poser leap to mind as examples. Whether or not you find the UIs of such apps "complex" or "less than very good", however, isn't the point — what matters is that the Mac App Store Review Guidelines takes the right to make that decision away from you, and hands it to the App Store police.

Duplicate apps: Apple will decide if there are enough apps of a particular type in the Mac App Store.

If a developer wants his or her app to compete with existing apps, he or she may be S.O.L. And as with the UI strictures, Apple will decide who wins and who loses, not the market.

Take, for one simple example, FTP clients. Today, a Mac user can freely choose among FileZilla, Fetch, Captain FTP, Cyberduck, Transmit, Yummy FTP, ForkLift, FTPortal, Interarchy, and more, all with their strengths and weaknesses.

Is that too many? Maybe so, maybe not — but once the "curated" Mac App Store opens, the App Store police will decide whether or not there are enough apps of a particular type or function in the store, and when they do decide that enough is enough, they'll narrow a consumer's choices. And the developers whose apps aren't allowed into the sacred store will be at a distinct — and possibly fatal — disadvantage to those whose apps are App Store residents.

Not very useful or lacking "lasting entertainment value": Apple will tell you what's useful, and will decide whether or not an app might "entertain" you — lastingly.

One of the charms of Mac software — especially during the platform's more-carefree earlier years — has been whimsy. Examples abound, but we'll offer three: Talking Moose (now Uli's Moose), Jared: Butcher of Songs, and SimStapler.

One user's whimsical app, of course, may very well be simply pointless crapware to another user — you pays your money (or allocates your drive space) and you makes your choice. Egalitarianism, and all that.

That will now change. Up until the advent of the Mac App Store, whether to install a digital diversion that "brings all of the thrill and excitement of a 'real' stapler right to your computer screen!" has been your decision, not Apple's. The new Guidelines give Apple the right to take that decision away from you.

And what, pray tell, is "lasting entertainment value", and why should Apple define it, and not the marketplace?

Mentions other platforms: Apple will prevent developers from telling prospective buyers that their apps are also available on other platforms.

This restriction is — not too put too fine a point on it — %$#@!ing petty and small-minded.

When choosing an app, a buyer may want to know if there's also a version of it that will run on another computer that they may own — a Windows box, for example. Many apps, of course, do have such complementary versions, and knowing that info can help a buyer make an informed decision based on, for example, whether he or she wants to avoid retraining on multiple apps.

In the brave new world of the Mac App Store, there will be but one platform that can be spoken of: Apple's.

This stricture, as is true with many others in the Mac App Store Review Guidelines, is already in force in the iPhone/Pod/Pad App Store. Witness, for example, the case of developer Flash of Genius, whose test-preparation app was held back, and who received an email from the App Store police stating: "While your application has not been rejected, it would be appropriate to remove 'Finalist in Google’s Android Developer's Challenge!' from the Application Description."

While Apple can't be expected to promote a competing platform, is it asking too much for it to help its developers and their customers know of an app's range of platforms? Apparently.

Such information, of course, can be found on a developer's website, but the Mac App Store aims to make sales outside of its confines essentially irrelevant. Not allowing a developer to inform their customers of their app's platform range is at best shabby, and at worst a slap in the developer's face.

Competition be damned

Similar to existing Apple apps: Apple will decide which apps it wants to compete with, user preference be damned.

If you control the platform — hardware, operating system, and access to software — you get to control the competition. And with this barrier to competitive entry, Apple will decide which direct competitors it allows into the Mac App Store.

Take, for example, Apple's iChat instant messaging app. Today, Mac users are free to choose to use it — it comes bundled with Mac OS X — or they can instead install Adium, AOL's AIM, Microsoft Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, or other iChat competitors.

When the Mac App Store goes online, Apple may choose to allow those apps a place in its sacred store, or it may not — and that removal of a consumer's right to choose, again, is the point: Apple will choose what apps its mainstream consumers have access to, not consumers themselves.

Which raises an interesting and somewhat unsettling point: although Jobs has said that the Mac App Store "won't be the only place" to get Mac apps, he hasn't said whether all types of apps available from, for example, third-party websites, will continue to be installable on future versions of Mac OS X.

Which raises an interesting and somewhat unsettling possibility: breaking out that tinfoil hat for a moment, it's not beyond the realm of possibility that Apple might use some form of software-keyed lockout to allow only apps it approves of to be installable, and to ban installation access to apps it considers competitive.

We scurry to point out that this Brave New Worldian restriction is, of course, mere speculation. But we wouldn't call it unthinkable — if not in Mac OS X 10.7, aka Lion, then maybe in Cougar, Bornean Clouded Leopard, or whatever Jobs & Co. choose to call their future feline OS releases.

Yeah, we know, we know — pass the tinfoil.

"We see tremendous value in having Apple, rather than our users, being the systems integrator."

— Steve Jobs, 2010

Objectionable or crude content: Apple will extend its current iOS App Store Puritanism to its new Mac App Store.

As Latinate literary types are wont to say, "De gustibus non est disputandum" — meaning that you can't argue about taste. Apple ratchets that maxim up a notch by amending it to be: "You can't argue with our taste."

If Apple brands something as objectionable or crude, that's that. If your definition of objectionable differs from Cupertino's, too bad. As with all of Apple's other restrictions, they decide — not you, not the market, not prevailing societal norms, not nothin'.

Paternalism, thy name is Apple.

Professional apps

As we've noted, the Mac App Store has a decidedly consumer-centric focus — and that priority becomes even more clear when examining the Mac App Store Review Guidelines.

The store, simply put, isn't designed for large, complex apps. Three guidelines stand out:

The way we read the shared-code restriction, apps and app suites that make use of shared libraries won't be allowed into the Mac App Store.

Needless to say, this restriction not only would prevent a hefty chunk of Apple apps from being available in the store — think GarageBand and its Apple Loops and support for AU, converted VST, and other shared audio plug-ins as a consumer-level example — but, more importantly, Adobe CS and even Microsoft Office won't be welcome.

The prohibition against copy protection also militates against pro apps. Does it mean that dongle-protected apps such as LightWave, or copy-protected apps requiring registration such as Sibelius are verboten? It seems so.

And that final warning — "the more expensive your app, the more thoroughly we will review it" — appears to be a direct challenge, and a warning to not even try to apply to the Mac App Store if your app is targeted at professionals.

Which, actually, is just fine. Pros and their support staffs are quite capable of assessing, installing, and managing their own apps, as long as Apple allows them to keep doing so.

And here is where we again don that darn tinfoil hat.

It remains to be seen just how iOS-y Mac OS 10.7 Lion turns out to be, and how much Apple values its relationship with its devoted professional base.

As we mentioned above, Steve Jobs defines Apple as a "high-volume consumer-electronics manufacturer." And as one anonymous source close to Apple's professional-application development team told The Reg, Jobs & Co. are deemphasizing the company's own pro-app development teams, and moving those resources to consumer efforts.

The Mac, of course, is and has been for many years the go-to platform for creative professionals. But it doesn't have to be. With the possible — and arguable — exception of Final Cut Pro, most Mac-centric creative apps are either available in Windows versions or have capable Windows substitutes.

If the Mac disappeared from the pro market, life would go on. And perhaps Steve Jobs could then lock all app distribution into the Mac App Store, and achieve his perfect computing ecosystem — one which he controls completely: hardware, operating system, and software distribution.

We're not saying that such a world will come into being next summer when Lion is uncaged. And we're not saying that such a world is even on the distant horizon. But still...

If Jobs & Co. decide that profit margins, support costs, engineering resources, and "curated" control would all be optimized in an Apple with a consumer-only focus, that might be Cupertino's future.

And it'd be Steve's world — you'd just be living in it.

Only if you should so choose, of course. ®