A Developer’s Take on the New Mac App Store

When Steve Jobs announced the Mac App Store yesterday, my first feeling wasn’t excitement, but rather worry. My concern is that the Mac App Store will, perhaps in two or three years, become the only effective channel through which Mac developers can sell their apps.

The Best Place to Get Apps…

Jobs mentioned in yesterday’s announcement that the Mac App Store won’t be the only place to buy apps but that he “hopes it will be the best.” I’m sure it will be the best. Apple is providing a gorgeous storefront from which to browse and purchase apps, and it’ll ship with every new Mac once OS X Lion is introduced.

The whole process, from searching, to purchasing and downloading, to launching and later updating, will just work, like it does with Steam. Apps won’t merely be enhanced dashboard widgets, they’ll be full-blown desktop programs. The entire iLife and iWork suite were already up there during the demo.

The store will be an immense success, and Jobs will certainly be showing off the stats at one of next year’s Apple events. With that success will also come a shift in the app distribution landscape and a shift in the mindset of users. The Mac App Store — while it won’t be the only source to downloads apps — will most likely eclipse all others.

… Becomes the Only Place

Here’s my worry: Two or three years down the line, Jobs will say, “The Mac App Store has been a massive success. It has revolutionized app distribution for developers and app purchasing for users. The best thing though is that we’ve seen the quality of apps for the Mac go through the roof. Apps for the Mac App Store look better, work better and feel better. And it’s good business for the developers too.”

Jobs would then go on to explain that on the new range of Macs and MacBooks, the App Store will be the location from which to download apps. The only location. The only escape will be upgrading to Apple’s Pro computers, which won’t require apps to be installed through the App Store.

From Apple’s point of view, this wouldn’t stifle development, as the Mac App Store would be a proven success (so why distribute on your own?) and, if you’re developing something for that niche Pro audience, you can still reach them with or without the Mac App Store.

Earlier this year, Cory Doctorow wrote an article over at Boing Boing titled,”Why I won’t buy an iPad (and think you shouldn’t either).” I bought an iPad, and I dig my iPad. However, Cory’s article came to mind during yesterday’s announcement.

Software Upgrades Only

Cory talks about “infantalizing hardware.” With the iPad, you can’t physically open it. The idea is that you don’t improve your device by hacking or tweaking, but rather by purchasing. Purchase an app, and you improve your device.

Think about the new Macbook Air: a sealed box. Purchase apps from the Mac App Store and improve it. It’s not that great a leap to imagine the Mac App Store being the only channel through which you can purchase apps for all future Apple notebooks, too, which will likely be similarly closed.

The Gatekeeper Dilemma

Then there’s the “Wal-Martization of the software channel” as Cory puts it. I’ll skip over the whole DRM issue, and I’ll quote Cory on the thing that concerns me most, “… as a copyright holder and creator, I don’t want a single, Wal-Mart-like channel that controls access to my audience and dictates what is and is not acceptable for me to create.”

I am a creator. I am a copyright holder. And I don’t want to see a future where I only have one option for distribution on a platform that was previously open. A future where I would have to seek approval from a central authority before my creations can be released.

For the record, I’ve released apps on iOS. I’ve been through Apple’s approval process before. That’s the nature of iOS though. It’s always been like that, and I’ve never known any different for that platform. OS X is different though, I can create anything I like and release through whatever channels I like. I don’t want to see that change.

If that does change, would we see amazing creative tools like Pure Data or Ableton Live anymore? I think we still would, but there’s a caveat. These apps would have to compromise on their features or functionality in order to gain Apple approval. It’s easy to see how this could stifle innovation.

But then, none of this has happened yet, and indeed it may never happen. Especially if developers make sure that Apple knows this isn’t what we want.

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