Mac App Store: Developer godsend or Evil Empire?
OS X coders rate Jobsian alternate app universe
Ken Case, the CEO of longtime Mac app developer The Omni Group, loves the new Mac App Store.
But not everyone agrees with him.
"I think the Mac App Store is a huge improvement for the platform as a whole," Case says. "It solves a need that a lot of consumers have had, which is 'How do I find software for the Mac? Where do I go to buy it? How do I know if it's any good? Can I trust the vendor that I'm working with?'"
Apple's Mac App Store has been open for less than a month, but that's been long enough for Mac OS X developers to have developed strong opinions about it, both pro and con. During last week's Macworld Expo, The Reg sat down with execs from both prominent and lesser-known Mac-app publishers to learn of their experiences with Apple, its app-approval policies and procedures, and how the Mac App Store is affecting their business.
We came away with an earful.
The Omni Group, Ken Case's company, has a long track record upon which to base his generally positive take on the Mac App Store. The developers behind The Omni Group started programming on Steve Jobs' NeXT platform in 1989 and started their company in 1992. When Mac OS X launched in 2001, The Omni group was ready with OmniGraffle and OmniWeb. The company now offers 10 products for Mac OS X – five paid and five free.
"We have found so far that the Mac Apps Store has mostly been additional business for us," Case said. "It varies by product line. For some products [such as Omni Focus], we've seen a little bit of a dip in our direct sales, although not nearly as much as has been added by the App Store sales."
Rich Siegel, president and CEO of Bare Bones Software, developers and publishers of BBEdit ("It doesn't suck."®), TextWrangler, WeatherCal, and Yojimbo, has also been in the Mac market since 1992. Like Case, he has also seen improved sales as a result of the Mac App Store. "The sales through the App Store seem to be additive," he said. "I hope they stay that way." Since the Mac App Store rolled out, TextWrangler has been downloaded about 150,000 times.
Reid Lewis, president of both the Enterprise Desktop Alliance and of content-management and connectivity software vendor GroupLogic shared with us his theory of the value of the Mac Apps Store. "The hardest thing that any software vendor faces is not creating software. It's selling it," he said. "In order to sell things, you need exposure."
From Lewis' point of view, the Mac App Store provides that exposure. "Take a grocery store, for example," he said. "You make spaghetti sauce, what do you need? You need it on the shelf. Consumers walk into the grocery store, they're like: 'Spaghetti, yeah, yeah, yeah – that one looks interesting' because you've done a good packaging job, and they buy it. If it's not on the shelf, they can't buy it. As a developer, the shelf is global."
It's all about finding your spot on that global shelf, said Lewis. "How do you get on the shelf? Well, you spend a lot of marketing money, you build a big channel, or your customer never gets to pick you off the shelf and buy you. So I see the Mac App Store as a huge shelf. ... It's a way for vendors who may be skilled at creating software but not necessarily skilled at getting it in front of people to get it in front of those customers. It will mean that more developers can bring products to market, and customers have a much wider choice."
The Omni Group's CEO also talked about store shelves, but his example was more direct: retail software stores and the experience of shopping in them. "The stuff that's on the shelves in boxes, that's software that has been vetted. Somebody had to pay enough money to get it shipped, and somebody had to approve it to put it on the shelf, and so that's probably reputable and probably quality."
Case, however, thinks that the Mac App Store gives more legitimacy to an app than does a retail store. "But even [in retail stores] it was kind of hit-and-miss: you go and buy some boxed software and it turns out it's terrible," he said. "But of course nobody goes to retail stores to look for software anymore. There is a little bit if you go to an Apple [bricks and mortar] store, but it's a very, very dwindling shelf space."
To Case, the Mac App Store means he doesn't have to worry about that dwindling shelf space anymore. "The biggest thing that [the Mac App Store] has changed for our business is that we've shut down retail here in the States. That's enough of printing boxes, and shipping them places, and building up inventory, and having to destroy boxes when we've released a new version. All of those headaches are just gone."
From his point of view, the 30 per cent cut that Apple takes is a win-win deal. "Compared to, say, the retail percentages," he told us, "that's more the other way around in retail – you're lucky if you clear 30 per cent by the time everything is done. So having a channel where you get to keep 70 per cent? That's great."
And it's a win-win-win if you add in the consumer, Case believes. "The purchasing experience is just so much easier. You press this button – and presumably you've already set up your iTunes account in there, so it's just going to charge your credit card – download the app, it's installed on your Dock, and you're done. You don't have to go figure out what kind of an installer it is. 'Is it a package? Is it a DMG? Is it a ZIP? Do I drag it to Applications? Do I have to use an installer? How do I uninstall it later?'"
Siegel, however, isn't yet convinced that Apple's 30 per cent take is good for his company. He's waiting for more time, more data. "The obvious reason for not instantly converting all of our sales over to the App Store is we don't want to instantly give up 30 per cent of our revenue stream," he said. "Numerically, if the App Store generates 130 per cent additional sales, then the 30 per cent is worth it."
Questions – and crickets – remain
Siegel also sees additional pitfalls in the Mac App Store model. "There are other costs to doing business in the App Store. A big one, especially for established companies who are used to doing it another way, is you lose control over the relationship with the customer. We don't know who our App Store customers are."
A big reason for Siegel's concern about losing the direct relationship with his customers that he develops from sales at Bare Bones Software's online store – and a major concern he has with the App Store as a whole – is that Apple provides no way for a developer to sell upgrades to their apps.
"Today there is no stated [paid] upgrade model, and for established developers who are used to doing business another way, that's a point of discomfort. At least for us it's not a [current] issue because we don't have an upgrade to sell right now – but when we do, it's going to be very important to have that question answered."
We asked Siegel if he had raised that concern with Apple. He has. Asked what Apple's answer was, he responded with an entomological metaphor for silence: "Crickets. 'We've heard this question. We know it's important. We don't have an answer.' Crickets."
The inability to get timely responses to questions he poses to Apple, or to get timely estimates of when an app will be approved or rejected, has created business problems for Siegel.
"There's a lot of opacity," he said, referring to dealing with Apple. "Typically there's a lack of feedback. You'll submit an app for review, and it's kind of like the original set of complaints about the iOS App Store" – meaning a lack of feedback.
He emphasized that he's not asking that Apple provide developers with a precise date for approval or rejection. "I'm not looking for a service-level agreement," he said. "I'm looking for guidance. I'm looking for you to tell me 'Your current hold time is 15 minutes'. I'd like to know that."
And Siegel was quick to cut Apple slack. "They're still finding their feet, they're still working their processes out," he said, but his forbearance doesn't diminish the challenges. "You'll submit an app and you don't know how long the wait is," he said, "They don't do any expectation management. And in the lack of expectation management you have an expectation gap. I would like to know, if I were to submit my app, if they'd say, 'Okay, right now our turnaround is 10 days.' That's valuable information when I'm trying to plan."
But Siegel acknowledged that there are two sides to his relationship with Apple. "I find myself able to look at the problem, the issue, from two different angles. There's the developer's side where I need to know what's happening because I need to make plans. I gotta know when the website needs to be ready. I need to know when the press release needs to go out. I need to know when to email my customers. All that important operational stuff," he said. "On the other hand, Apple is a business, and they don't really owe me anything – except 70 per cent."
At this point in the Mac App Store's short life, Siegel said, "it's easy to come to the conclusion that there are lots of realities for existing developers that the App Store process model didn't take into account. There's the opacity of the review process, there's the upgrade model, oddly there's no provision for educational pricing in the App Store for Mac apps but there is in the iOS App Store."
When asked if he had asked Apple about those problems, Siegel replied that he had, and that Apple's answer was "'This is a question we've gotten and we know it's important'. Crickets," he said.
Siegel finds the lack of clear information from Apple to be disquieting. "Any measure of concern comes from the uncertainty. I'm running a business. I'm accustomed to having control over my own destiny," he said.
That uncertainty, Siegel believes, may simply exist because Apple is finding its way. "In this span of time," he said, "if there's a pretty clear [response from Apple that says] 'Oh crap, we didn't think of that, let us work through it'," then all will be copacetic.
But things could change. In six months, Apple could say something different. Or nothing at all.
In addition to the lack of a paid upgrade policy that concerns Siegel, The Omni Group's Case was disappointed that the Mac Apps Store doesn't allow trial or try-before-you-buy apps. "I would love to see trials," he told us. "I think that would be great."
In a related note, Case believes that the Mac App Store pulls the rug out from under shareware publishers. "I would guess that it will replace a lot of shareware," Case said, but he also suggested that "Maybe they will continue to operate as shareware through their own websites."
Siegel agrees with Case about trials. "No demos, no 'try before you buy.' That's not the way we do it – especially at our level. Two bucks, five bucks – who cares? Fine, if it doesn't work. But $38.99 is real money. I would like to see 'try before you buy'."
Rejections and runts
When we asked Case about Apple reserving the right to reject duplicative apps, he said that guideline didn't concern him. "I understand where they're coming from. They don't need 500 apps that all do the exact same 'Flashlight', right? Or maybe 500 is how many they need but they don't need 5,000. Or once they hit 500, that's enough. Or maybe they'll take the best 500. Or the first 500. Or something."
When we pressed Case on the fact that Apple will decide which and how many apps it accepts, and not the open market, he responded: "That is kind of a funny thing. But maybe the market needs a little bit of guidance so that you're not getting everybody who has just taken a high school course and learned to do some programming, and now they're going to go build their 15-minute flashlight app and go submit it to the App Store – and now it's just completely overcrowded."
An overcrowded Mac App Store doesn't help anyone, in Case's view. "The more crowded the store gets, the harder it is to find the quality stuff in it, right? And it's already a problem."
One way that Apple has tried to make apps in both its iOS and Mac online stores easier to find is through its featured-app choices: Staff Favorites, New and Noteworthy, and the like. When we talked with Siegel, one of his apps – Yojimbo – was being featured. We asked how that selection was made, and he responded: "I think it's arbitrary. They decide they're going to feature you – and we have no idea," he said. "It's very much a casino economy. It's the luck of the draw."
And very good luck, as well. "If you get on that front page, your sales go like this," Siegel said, drawing a vertical line in the air. "You get this hockey-stick effect, where you're flat, and then you just take off."
How much an app's sales take off, Siegel said, "appears to be inversely related to the price. If you have a two-dollar product, and you get featured, that line's going to be almost vertical – you're going to blow 100,000 sales in days. For products like BBEdit and Yojimbo, where the price in the App Store tracks the price outside of the App Store ... the slope is much less. People aren't going to spend $39, they're not going to spend $99.99, on a whim."
Developers can't ride that sales surge, of course, if their apps aren't in the Mac App Store in the first place. Case, for example, told us that when The Omni Group first approached Apple for inclusion, "They rejected all of our apps ... for some use of private API that we weren't actually using" in the apps' current versions.
To Case, however, that rejection was only a minor bump in the road. "They were some old system API to work around some bugs in earlier versions of the operating system. And we weren't calling it anymore because this is running on Snow Leopard and the bugs are fixed. But we hadn't pulled the [offending] code out of our code yet, and so they had searched and they found these references to actions like getting Carbon Menu or something and they said, 'Well, don't use that anymore. We're rejecting this, and this is why, and please resubmit.'"
Case and his team yanked the offending API, rebuilt and resubmitted the apps, and all was well. So well, in fact, that as of this Thursday three apps from The Omni Group are among the top 10 business apps on the Mac App Store.
Siegel noted, however, that Apple's guidelines prevent him from selling versions of his apps in the Mac App Store that are identical to the versions he sells on his company website. "Under today's conditions," he said, "... a lot of highly capable, highly technical products – including our own – couldn't be sold. There are certain things that we ran into: privilege escalation so that we can do the installation of the command-line tools, authenticated saves. That stuff won't pass review."
Not good, Siegel said. "That's a bit of an uncomfortable situation for us now, because the app we sell [on the company website] can do something that the app in the App Store can't. We have to figure out how to resolve that."
He could resolve some of that problem through re-engineering his apps. "But ideally what I'd like is to get a variance, and have them respect our position, and ... look at how long we've been around, look at what we've done," he said. "We can be trusted with the power tools."
Despite what the Mac App Store guidelines say, Siegel believes that developers should test them rather than regard them as gospel. "The guidelines are just that: they're guidelines. They're not hard rules."
Too many developers don't even try, according to Siegel. "I've lectured some developers on this, some guys I know who have great apps, and they say: 'I'm not going to bother submitting to the App Store because I don't think my app is going to pass review'. And I said: 'Don't be crazy. The only way you're going to know if your app is going to pass review is to submit it. And if it doesn't pass review, let them tell you that. Don't presuppose, because you're just denying yourself the audience'."
One developer with whom we spoke, however, isn't planning to take Siegel's advice. When we asked Jon Parshall, COO of CodeWeavers, whether his company was represented in the App Store with their Wine-enabling app, Impersonator, he responded: "We can't be. Because of the legal issues. [Mac/Windows VM app publishers] Parallels or VMware aren't there either, as far as I know [They're not. —Ed.], for these very same issues."
That's disappointing to Parshall. "We'd love to be there," he told us. "Obviously."
Asked if he had even tried to submit Impersonator or its precessor, CrossOvers, Parshall said: "No. We haven't even bothered. ... You look through the requirements sheet, and it's like, if there are six requirements and I fail one, okay, I'll push it and see what happens. But it seemed to us to be painfully evident that they did not want us, did not want us – 'Oh, and by the way, we don't want you.' There were like five or six different restrictions around different operating systems and yadda-yadda that to us made it pretty painfully clear that we were not going to get any traction."
As much as he'd like to get Impersonator in the Mac App Store, Parshall – whose development roots are in Linux – is not overly enamored with Apple's walled garden. "If you come from the Linux community," he said, "[Apple] is sort of the antithesis of everything [regarding] open software."
Not that he has anything against Apple's product-development folks. "We have good relations with Apple on the engineering side of things," Parshall said, "but we never talk to the marketing people at all. Why bother? It all comes down from the 'Jobs pod' anyway, so we're not going to get any traction there."
Siegel wrapped up our talk with a philosophical-but-realistic take on his company's relationship with Apple and the Mac App Store. "In a sense," he said, "life was easier before the App Store, when I only had to do one build, and I had control over my release process, and none of the issues that I've talked about were even considerations."
But the Mac App Store glass is also half-full: "On the other hand, the App Store brings in an entirely – hopefully – new and larger audience, he said. "So I'm glad that there's an App Store because it gives us an expanded audience."
When all is said and done, however, you play the hand you're dealt. "Let's face it," Siegel said, "I run a business. I work. I write code. I do customer support. And I'm here to do the job – and that's part of the job."
But in his final comment to The Reg – one that might well summarize the relationship between the world's second largest company and all but its most deep-pockets developers – Parshall said: "Who are we? Just little runts." ®