Apple's decision to open an App Store for the Mac will disrupt the traditional software distribution channel, experts said today, but questions remain unanswered, ranging from pricing to lockouts.
On Wednesday, Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced that the company would launch an App Store for the Mac in the next 90 days, putting its shoulder behind a software delivery mechanism that's been wildly successful and widely copied, for its iPhone and iPad.
"The Mac App Store will be the best place to discover apps," Jobs said. "It won't be the only place, but we think it will be the best."
Apple's new e-mart will go live in the next three months, Jobs promised as he demonstrated some aspects of the store. Like the App Store associated with the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch, the Mac version will feature one-click download and installation, all apps will show on a special landing page in the next version of Mac OS X, dubbed "Lion," and Apple will take a 30% cut off the top, giving developers 70% of the revenues.
Apple will also let programmers set the price of their wares, and like the iOS App Store, will bar some software from the channel.
For Van Baker, an analyst with Gartner who was at Apple's Cupertino, Calif. event Wednesday, the Mac App Store was the big news of the day.
"It's great for developers, it's great for consumers and it's great for Apple," Baker said today. "Who is it bad for? It's bad for the retailers, both brick-and-mortar and the online resellers, that have been the distribution channel for Mac software. Why? Because a lot of people will switch to the App Store."
"Absolutely, this will be disruptive to the traditional software distribution model," said Scott Schwarzhoff, vice president of marketing for Appcelerator, a company that produces tools that let developers recompile their software so it runs on Macs, Windows PCs, iPhones and iPads.
"But this is a net-net positive for almost everyone," said Schwarzhoff, particularly developers. "This is a logical extension of what developers were already doing on the iPhone, and opens up the developer base because you're talking about a frictionless kind of world."
Baker used the term "frictionless," too.
"It's frictionless commerce," he said, referring to the App Store model. "Software just downloads, installs and updates."
Another Gartner analyst, Michael Silver, who tracks both Microsoft and Apple, contrasted the App Store's online delivery method to the current software distribution model, calling the latter "archaic."
"Going down to the store [to buy software] is archaic," he said.
But while Silver said the move "bodes well for the popularity of the Mac" as a computing platform, the App Store is bad news, really bad news, for companies that sell boxed software.
"Where's Blockbuster?" asked Schwarzhoff, talking about the video rental chain that's in Chapter 11 after facing competition from Netflix's DVD- and instant-delivery models.
The Mac App Store may prove troubling to some, however. Some developers may be barred from the download mart because of Apple's restrictions that seem to block, for example, system diagnostic software, or programs that rely on optionally installed technologies, such as Java.
And what about software prices? Can consumers expect to see software costs drop as developers ditch the expensive retail model?
"Look at the pricing pressure that this puts on developers," said Schwarzhoff, citing the low prices of iPhone and iPad software in Apple's store.
Baker disagreed. "I don't see that there will be downward pressure on software prices," he said. "Most users don't equate Mac software with iPhone software. And as Apple has always done, they'll let developers set the price. Will it being competition to the market? Of course. But the App Store also makes [a developer's software] more visible."
But Baker acknowledged that software makers that choose not to participate in the App Store will be at a disadvantage as time goes on.
"The App Store makes an awful lot of sense," he said. "The day that Apple opens up its own software for upgrades on the App Store, sales will go through the roof."
Some vendors are uncertain whether they'll go for the Mac App Store, Microsoft for one.
"The MacBU is working to understand the impact of the new app store to the Office for Mac business," a Microsoft spokeswoman said today, referring to the Macintosh Business Unit that produces the Mac version of the company's Office suite.
"If they don't choose to participate in the App Store, they're going to be at a disadvantage," said Baker. "But I don't see why they wouldn't want to participate."
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.