Journey to the Center of the Mac App Store

Apple [AAPL] now plans to cease boxed software sales through its retail channels in favor of pushing all application sales via the Mac App Store, a report claims. Is this a convenience for connected consumers or a move to take complete control of Mac software sales?

Apple's plans for an App Store for Mac apps first emerged last April, when I reported on claims made by the developers at Rixstep:

"Developers planning on marketing software for 10.7 will submit their products to the App Store as iPhone and now iPad developers have already done," they said.


Baseless fiction?

Apple CEO Steve Jobs immediately dismissed the claims. Asked, "There's a rumor saying there will be a Mac App Store and no software without authorization from Apple will run on Mac OS X. Is that true?", the company's CEO wrote, "Nope."

Accusing the Rixstep article of being baseless fiction, one developer reportedly said, "I'm in the Mac Developer program, and there have been no announcements from Apple about 10.7 whatsoever."

Except Rixstep had an inside track. Flash forward a few short months and the Mac App Store for OS X is here. "Developers have done a great job bringing Apps to the store and users are loving how easy and fun the Mac App Store is," said Jobs, welcoming the successful launch of the store.

Things are looking good. Sales are extremely strong. Developers from iOS are bringing their Apps to the Mac, and developers, including Microsoft, are plotting a path to offer software through that store.

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Cash and content makes a king

Apple has in one move created the world's biggest online store for immediate gratification in desktop and notebook computing, and it is generating cash for those developers lucky enough to be featured within Apple's operation. For example:

  • Pixelmator raised $1 million in just 20-days through software sales via the store.
  • Rob Maguire, AutoCAD product manager at Autodesk told me in a statement, "The downloads of Sketchbook Pro from the Mac App Store effectively doubled the total desktop user base for Sketchbook Pro on the first day alone."

Consumers like the generous (five installs) usage rights, the relative simplicity and easy access to software updates for installed Apps. The fact that titles are vetted and approved lends a sense of security. Developers are making money and are pleased at the relative simplicity of bringing their software to the store -- despite some problems with piracy.

This momentum means Apple's Mac App Store is certain to become the de facto standard for OS X software sales. And Apple -- which believes the future of mobile computing doesn't include an optical drive, as seen in the MacBook Air -- wants to take things further.

"Apple is planning on making the move to all digital sooner than expected at their retail stores. Apple is working towards eliminating boxed software and presumably focusing sales through the Mac App Store," MacRumors reports.

This news is likely to make some developers a little anxious. Apple's App Store forbids some Apps while some developers (Adobe, for example) seem unlikely yet to offer their software via the store.

Of course, this is not the first time Apple had driven its market and the vision makes perfect sense: the loss of physical software media will make storage and installation of applications a much better experience, most of the time.

Apple takes control?

But the Rixstep report from last April held another warning: That Apple will eventually insist that all software for Mac OS X 10.7 be approved and signed by Apple.

"10.7 will have kernel support for ('insistence on') binaries signed with Apple's root certificate. No software will be able to run on Mac OS X 10.7 without being approved and signed by Apple, Inc," Rixstep warned.

Support for signed binaries isn't new. It has existed within Mac OS X since the introduction of v.10.5. In use you might have seen an application request Keychain access following an upgrade; if you have then that piece of software is not using a signed binary. All your other applications which don't request such access are.

As Ars Technica explains:

"A signed application, on the other hand, can mathematically prove that it is indeed a new version of the same application from the same vendor that you expressed trust for in the past. The result is an end to dialog boxes asking you to confirm a choice whose safety you have no reasonable way to verify."

I approached Rixstep to ask if they knew any more. Conceding that online software distribution saves paper and trees, they warned that the issue isn't distribution, but control.

"Once Apple activate their IP*-type kernel, then no one can put anything on their computers Apple won't approve of. Just look at the ridiculous rules for their App Store now," they warned, but declined further comment.

A January 2010 note from Google developer Mark Pilgrim warns that any move to exercise too much control over software sales will eventually harm developers and consumers.

"Apple has declared war on the tinkerers of the world," he wrote. "With every software update, the previous generation of 'jailbreaks' stop working, and people have to find new ways to break into their own computers. There won’t ever be a MacsBug for the iPad. There won’t be a ResEdit, or a Copy ][+ sector editor, or an iPad Peeks & Pokes Chart. And that’s a real loss. Maybe not to you, but to somebody who doesn’t even know it yet."

All this could be much ado about nothing, but perhaps we're only seeing part of the picture as we swim 20,000 leagues underneath a sea of Mac rumor. After all, Apple has already promised other ways of acquiring Mac software will exist.

"The Mac App Store will be the best place to discover Apps," Jobs said, announcing the store. "It won't be the only place, but we think it will be the best."

But will Apple one day flip a switch and make the best place the only place for Mac software sales? Rixstep thinks it might, and has been right before. What do you think? Let me know in comments below. I'd also very much like to invite you to follow me on Twitter so I can let you know when I post new reports here first on Computerworld. (And I'll tip you off with breaking Apple news, too).

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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