WWDC Prediction: Mac App Store

Since the iPhone app store debuted, there has been speculation that Apple may introduce a similar app store for Mac OS X applications.

I really started thinking about this when I saw a 2008 tweet from Steven Frank:

Scenario: Apple makes code-signing mandatory for desktop Mac applications. You can now only buy them through iTunes. Think it can't happen?

The discussions over email, over Twitter, or over beers have ranged from the skeptical "It'll never happen" to the paranoid "OMG OMG."

But now, I'm beginning to think that it's really going to happen, perhaps with an announcement at next week's WWDC to start the ball rolling.  And it might be a good thing.

So what if Steve Jobs supposedly denied that there would be an app store for the Mac? You know that Apple is never straight about its future plans. Many times before, Apple (or Steve) has denied the existence of strategies or products, only to introduce it a few months later.

Here is why I think the Mac app store idea is ripe to happen. First, there's the removal of the link to the Apple downloads page from Apple's website. You can still get there from the  menu, and they are maintaining the page again after a bit of a mysterious hiatus, but the page and its family are clearly not being "pushed" by Apple.

But my second reason is much stronger. Apple now has three computer software platforms: iPhone, iPad, and Mac OS X. Two of these use the Apple app store for third-party software. One doesn't. Two are absolute cash cow for Apple, with Apple making 30% of every piece of software sold. The other, Mac OS X, makes little money in comparison; the only way I can think of is profits from third-party boxed software sold through Apple stores.

The purpose of a corporation, like it or not, is to maximize profit. Steve and company would be blind to not consider how to make money off of sales of Mac software.

With two platforms with working models (well, working well for Apple; not as well for developers), it seems obvious that Apple will try to convert their minority platform to the majority business model.

Apple is not really putting a lot of emphasis on Mac OS  X in their marketing, or in their communications with developers, as evidenced by the lamented disappearance of any Mac categories in the Apple Design Awards this year. (As a Mac developer, I don't even have any reason to go to the awards ceremony!)

Does it make sense for Apple to let Mac OS X falter? Of course not. They need to do something to give it a shot in the arm.  I think that a conversion to using the app store is what they will do very soon.

Of course, the Mac is a legacy platform, where users are completely free to install whatever they want and developers have the ability to write and sell absolutely any kind of software. So it's not like a transformation to an app-store model can happen overnight.

I think that they way that Apple will start this change is to offer an app store as a new way for developers to reach potential buyers. It will be optional — at first — but presented as a great opportunity for developers to make money and find new customers. There will be some technical hoops to jump through to convert existing applications (e.g. removal of existing store mechanisms, code signing) and then a submission process.

And you know what? I think it might be a good idea, at least if it's not taken too far.

I wrote a post defending Bodega for requiring a 7% commission for applications sold through their storefront. That's a paltry commission to somebody who is finding you a new customer. If there is anybody who is going to find new customers for us, I'm happy to give them a cut, because I'd rather have a new customer, even making less than retail price, then not have that new customer at all and make zero.

There are maybe 25 or 30 million Mac users out there, and most of them are not my customers, nor yours. They might have bought Microsoft Office or iWork, but chances are pretty good that they've bought absolutely no software for their Mac. They probably don't even realize it's possible to find, download, try out, and purchase software over the Internet.

But Apple has a pretty good way of reaching out to their customers. What if some decent percentage of those 25+ million users discovered that there were other applications out there, and that they could buy them conveniently?

Right now, a developer can make a good living selling a few thousand copies of their program each year, and make a killing selling tens of thousands. You might have 1/1000 of the installed Mac base as customers if you are very successful.

What if Apple opened up a new channel for selling software and you could now reach 10 or 100 or 1000 times as many customers as you can now?

Even with a hefty commission for Apple, you'd be doing pretty well.

But what about all the downsides? Oh, there are plenty of downsides; just look at the current iPhone/iPad app store issues. Apple could be just as capricious with their decisions of whether to accept or reject your application. If you write software the competes with Apple, like a WYSIWYG website builder, you might not be accepted at all! Or, it might be really hard to adjust your mature code base to fit their standards. And of course your competition will be opened up like with the iPhone so you'll have to compete with copycats as the universe of Mac software expands by orders of magnitude. Naturally, Apple's app store will be just as horrible of a venue for getting out the message about your application, limiting you to a couple of lines of descriptive text and some static screenshots.  Demos not allowed! If you aren't allowed a way to directly reach your customers, that will be really unpleasant from a marketing standpoint.

So, you could choose not to play that game, and continue selling your application independently over the Internet only, for the time being. You might do OK, but if a competitor in the app store becomes 10 or 100 times more successful, you're going to have a very hard time finding customers. (Or more accurately, they'll have a harder time finding you.)

And if Apple does start locking down the operating system so that apps can only be installed from the app store, this might be an unpleasant situation as Steven tweeted. You might have to make some decisions then about whether you still want to support the platform.

But that day may not come for a while.

But in the meantime, it's probably going to be a very good ride for the established Mac developers, with existing products to adapt for the app store. Unlike the iPhone and iPad, where developers had only a short time to get familiar with the platform and write their first attempt at distributable software, you will have a huge leg up on the new contributors. All of your development expertise will mean that you have a mature product that will be hard to compete with, at least for the first year or so. All of your existing marketing activities will be especially important, because you really can only count on the app store as a distribution mechanism. Marketing a Mac application will be a lot more like marketing an iPhone application, which I wrote about last year.

So … there's my prediction/analysis. The ball may not start rolling next week at WWDC but it is coming soon. Very soon it will be time to decide whether to climb on, get out of the way, or get crushed. Fun stuff!

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