This week’s Apple announcements are interesting. First, there’s going to be a Mac App Store. Second, we got a nice, although short, preview of the next version of Mac OS X, Lion. And finally, the MacBook Air now comes with a higher-resolution display. But let’s talk about the App Store.
The Mac App Store seems like a good idea to me, at least in principle. As it won’t be the exclusive way to distribute applications, it won’t break other distribution channels. But it’ll make it easier for users to discover and install applications, and both tasks surely deserve improvements. Surely, the App Store rules are going to disqualify a lot of the currently existing applications from being listed, but even for the remaining ones that can be sold according to Apple’s rules, practical problems might arise.
One of those problems is going to be the licensing scheme. Developers are currently responsible for the licensing of their application. Today’s applications generally contain code that check if they have a valid license, which allows the developer to create license terms that are a good fit for its target audience.
With the App Store, the OS itself is going to take care of those licenses. While this is nice, it means that if a developer wants to continue to offer his application outside of the App Store, he’ll need to maintain two different versions: the App Store edition with no license code check, and the regular edition that can be distributed by other means and that requires a serial number or something similar.
Maintaining two versions is not terribly complicated, although it’s a little more hassle. But why would a developer bother about this instead of only publishing on the App Store? One reason is that he’ll probably make more money by selling in his own store. As low as you might find the 30% share Apple takes on App Store sales, selling on your own online store remains a lot cheaper. For instance, if you’re using Kagi, Fastspring, or Esellerate, they will manage your store website, will handle all the payments for you, and will only take a share of about 10%. All you’ve to do is write a serial number generator and integrate a serial number checker in your app. Sure, the App Store will have more robust DRM and list your app in its catalog and be more user-friendly, but is this worth the remaining 20%? If I put an application on the App Store, I might price it higher there than on my online store, as I’ll be able to sell it for less on my store and still make the same amount of money on each purchase.
A second reason for a developer to maintain his own online store is independence. As the iOS App Store has shown, you can never be sure Apple won’t decide to remove an application from their store. What’s more likely to happen though is that the developer might want to add a new feature that Apple doesn’t like. If that happens, likely the feature will make its way in the regular edition of the app, but not in the App Store edition. App Store customers lose again.
So while it makes sense for a developer to sell an app on the Mac App Store, if only for the visibility, it’s not necessarily a good deal for the consumer to purchase it from there. Stricter DRM combined with the possibility that some features were crippled to accommodate Apple’s restrictions and the likelihood of the price being higher; it’s probably best to check the developer store’s first.
There’s one exception however: if you don’t trust the application’s developer, perhaps you’d trust better the Apple-verified version. On the other side, if you don’t trust the developer, would you use its software in the first place?