First Impressions of the Mac App Store

I try to be original in the subjects I tackle, but if you are a Mac user, there is no escaping the Mac App Store, which is probably the most important thing to happen to the Macintosh platform since Mac OS X, at least. It remains to be seen whether it will be in a good or a bad way, but for now, I’ve given it a test drive.

Trial Run

After uneventfully updating to 10.6.6 and launching the Mac App Store application, I decided to buy Delicious Library to catalog my growing collection of webcomic books (it’s not as big as the one Wil Shipley pimps in the Delicious Library 2 screenshots, but I’m getting there), and of course to get a feel of how the Mac App Store works for a paid application download, not just a free one. This was when I encountered the first issue:

Screen Capture of a Mac App Store dialog in French, with text being cut off in the middle

“effehargements”? I’m afraid I don’t know that word

Gee, are things starting well… I mean, did localizers get so little time to give feedback on the size of user interface elements that this couldn’t be fixed for release? Any other explanation I can think of would, in fact, be worse. I’m not going to focus on that too much since it’s likely to be fixed soon, but it’s a bad first impression to make.

After logging in with my Apple ID as instructed, I was unsurprisingly told I had new terms to accept. Less expected is the fact these terms are an extension of the iTunes Store terms and conditions; apparently the commercial relationship users of the Mac App Store have is an extension of the one most of us already have with iTunes, not an entirely new one or an extension of the Apple Online Store ones. The main reason, I guess, is that they can use the credit card already associated with your iTunes account, and any iTune Store credit you may have; plus, that way the Mac App Store benefits from the iTunes Store infrastructure (servers and stuff).

Of course, by the time I was done reading the terms, my session had expired; it’s as if they weren’t expecting you to read them… I’m noticing this everywhere, though, it’s not just Apple. So I logged in again, accepted the terms, and bought Delicious Library. As widely reported, the application then moved to the Dock with a nice, if slightly overdone, animation (sure, have an animation, but they may have used a simpler one), where it showed a progress bar while it downloaded, up until the download was complete, at which point it jumped once, and stayed in the Dock (while, behind the scenes, it had been put in the Applications folder). This may seem gratuitous, but to me this is indispensable for the buying/downloading experience, as opposed to the disconnected experience of downloading software on the Web.

I then tried out Delicious Library, entering a few books, etc. (unfortunately, I do not have a webcam attached to my Mac pro, so I had to enter the ISBNs by hand). I’m not going to get into a review of Delicious Library here, I just checked that the application was working correctly.

Then, I checked something I had been wondering about. Even though the Mac App Store will only work on Mac OS X 10.6.6 onwards, this is not necessarily the baseline for the apps bought on the Mac App Store themselves: apparently, they can support earlier releases of Mac OS X, including Leopard. Obviously, they cannot be bought from there, they have to be transferred from a Snow Leopard Mac where you bought them. But I was wondering how the computer authorization process (documented in various articles, like Macworld’s hands on, read just above “Work in progress”) would work on a Leopard machine where the Mac App Store cannot be installed.

So I took the Delicious Library application, and moved it to my original MacBook, which remains on 10.5 for a variety of reasons (I don’t have another Mac with Snow Leopard on hand, to test on pre-Mac App Store 10.6.5, unfortunately). When I connected my MacBook to the network (for the first time in the year), there was no update, which would have been necessary to add such support. And when I tried to run Delicious Library, this is what I got:

Delicious Library crash report, listing an “unknown required load command 0x80000022”

Uh oh, Wil

This error is, in fact, not related to the Mac App Store at all, it seems instead that the application relies on some other Snow Leopard-only feature, probably by mistake. Apparently, this build was never tested on Leopard. I double-checked, and the application does declare it can run on Leopard in the Mac App Store application, as well as in its property list (from which the Mac App Store information was probably generated). So, I went looking for a free app that would run on Leopard; Evernote fit the bill, so I downloaded it and transferred it. It ran without problem, however being a free app, it did not need to validate its license on the MacBook or anything of the sort, I would have to test with a paying app. Osmos declares it runs on Leopard (as early as Tiger, in fact, though it’s Intel-only, so not on a PowerPC machine), so I bought it (the things I’ll do for you people) and transferred it. But it didn’t run any better than Delicious Library, though for a different reason (it required a version of libcurl more recent than the one found in Leopard). So, it’s another app that hasn’t actually been tested on the baseline Mac OS X version it claims it supports, great. I stopped the expense there.

Note that a large majority of paid apps actually require Snow Leopard, if their Mac App Store listings are to be believed. I’d wager that none of the paid apps that declare otherwise were actually tested on Leopard, and that all paid apps actually require Snow Leopard and probably 10.6.6 to run correctly; anyone care to confirm otherwise? I have no intent on spending a bunch of money to test that theory.

General Criticism

Besides the events of this run, I want to make more general observations on the Mac App Store. Contrary to the music, movie, book, comic book, etc. industries, where digital distribution is a relatively new phenomenon, people have been selling computer software over the network (not even necessarily the Internet back in those days, think Compuserve, AoL, the numerous BBS…) – and making a living out of it – since the beginning of the nineties, if not earlier. And yet, even after 20 years, for the majority of Mac users the act of buying software still means the brick and mortar store, or at best, a mail-order store like Amazon. There is no household-name software that’s distributed mostly digitally, except for some open-source applications like VLC or Firefox, expander/viewer/reader companion apps, and rare successes like… uhh… I’m sure I’ll think of one eventually.

Welp, while my questioning of whether such software existed was rhetorical at the time, it turns out there is a piece of software that in fact qualifies: Skype; their unusual business model is irrelevant: indisputably, it is commercial software mostly distributed digitally. This goes to show that when you solve a very practical problem with killer tech, you can overcome the barrier between digital distribution and the mainstream Mac market; that being said, it remains a hard problem for anyone else. – May 22, 2012

I’ve said the Mac App Store is probably the most important thing to happen to the Macintosh platform since Mac OS X, and that’s because it promises to provide at last a way to distribute software outside of the brick and mortar stores, that the rest of us will actually use; this, in turn, will allow developers who do not have the means to distribute their products in stores to access the majority of Mac users; of course, virtual or physical, shelf space and attention remain limited, but now we can avoid a hugely inefficient step in the middle.

Since the Mac App Store will set the expectations of Mac users for years to come, how it works, what it allows users, the kind of software found on it, etc., are extremely important, not just for Apple in the short run, but for the health of the platform in many years down the line. To me, the Mac App Store delivers in the main area it was supposed to: provide a great, integrated, end-to-end buying/downloading experience. However, it falls short to a smaller or greater extent in all other areas.

Let’s begin by the design. It’s a straight port of the “App Store” iPad app. Really, couldn’t they have done better? Surely, they could have made better use of the space afforded by the desktop, instead of using the strict iPhone/iPad tabbed design. Why have one entire tab to the updates, couldn’t this be put in a notification area in all modes? And breadcrumbs? Are they forbidden now? But the worst is surely that weird window title bar, with no title, and the stoplight window controls in the center left of the bar; I mean, is space at such a premium that they couldn’t have gone with a traditional unified title and toolbar design? It would have worked very well with the Panic toolbar design! To add insult to injury, these “toolbar tabs that go to the top of the title bar” are actually click-through! Argh! Now not even the top center of a window is safe for clicking (the worst thing is, I was already instinctively avoiding them when clicking to bring the Mac App Store window to the foreground, showing how thoroughly pervasive click-through has already damaged my computer habits).

As I’ve said, the Mac App Store provides a good, more importantly connected experience, from the buying intent to the moment the app is ready to use in the Dock. I’ve heard some complain about this automatic Dock placement, but to me this is not a problem, or to be more accurate this is not the problem with it. If you think about it, this policy actually is the most efficient: as it stands if, in the minority of cases, you don’t want to regularly use the application you just bought, you can just drag it out of the Dock; otherwise, you do nothing. The alternatives are not putting it automatically, in which cases in the majority of cases you are going to fetch the newly bought app from the Applications folder to put it in the Dock (which is more work than dragging an application out of the Dock), or asking you each time, in which case every time you have to read a dialog, choose on the spot, and click; and let’s not mention having a preference. The same goes for automatic placement in the Applications folder. Yes, I know browsers have these kind of options (Downloads folder/Desktop/ask each time), but that’s mostly because of historical reasons, your not necessarily expecting to be downloading something, and the wide variety of things you could be downloading from a browser.

But that’s from the perspective of an experienced user. For user actions, and doubly so when actions are made to happen “automatically” like that, the way to undo the action should be obvious from the way it was done (or shown, animations are very useful for that); I don’t mean the way to reverse immediately if the action was a mistake (the undo command is here for that), but the way the action can be reversed later if so desired. Here the way to “undo” the Dock placement remains reasonably obvious (drag it out of there), but users are going to think it gets rid of the application. Besides the fact this not the case, users will be reluctant to move applications out of the Dock for fear of not being able to find them again, and will keep them all in there. Yeah, I know, Mac OS X Lion and the Launchpad are supposed to solve that, but they’re not there yet, and in the meantime, the Mac App Store is here and users will use it. People do not get confused by however complex the system is underneath (do many even suspect that applications are in fact folders containing the binary and support files? No.), but by “innovations” that purportedly simplify some aspect of the task while leaving some or most of the complexity still visible elsewhere.

Besides the way the Mac App Store application currently works, there are issues with what the Mac App Store enables, or to be more accurate, does not enable.

For long, developers have asked for a way to update their applications as part of the (Apple Menu)→Software Update command, or to get access to the crash reports from their applications that were sent to Apple (though the issue was more that the “send the crash report to Apple” feature gave the expectation that the developer could do something about it or was notified of the issue). But I’ve always felt that this could not be done without Apple and the developer being in a tighter relationship, because of the potential spoofing and security issues that could occur; and now the Mac App Store is that relationship. However, there are Mac App Store improvements that could be given to non-Mac App Store applications (and it’s in the long-term best interest of the Mac platform that this option remains viable); for instance, it’s been a long time since distribution through a disk image was cutting edge, and Installer packages are too interaction-heavy. It’s not possible to have one-click download and installation from the web for obvious security reasons, but couldn’t Apple make available an application packaging method that can be downloaded, then, when double-clicked, would ask something close to the quarantine question, possibly show an EULA (as disk images can do), then install the app in the Application folder, show where it is, and discard the package, without any further interaction? I’m sure plenty other improvements of the sort could be made.

I also take issue with many Apple policies with the Mac App Store. Many of them are the exact same complaints developers have had about the iOS App Store (with the exception, of course, of the inability to distribute applications outside of it; developers can distribute betas and other special versions of the application however they want); while they may seem developer complaints that users shouldn’t care about, most of them disrupt the relationship between users and developers, resulting in a lose-lose situation. These issues are, among others: not inclusive enough (for instance, applications cannot install kernel extensions; why have that facility then?), no customer information whatsoever, user “review” system that gives the expectation developers can give tech support on them even though they can’t, still no “unfiltered Internet access” rating, no support for upgrade pricing, and most of all, no real support for demos/try before you buy.

That last one is the most infuriating. Apple is showing all Mac users a more practical alternative to shrink-wrapped software stores, and the policy is still that you have to buy with your eyes closed, only on the basis of a description, a few screenshots, and “reviews” that… could be better? Frak! And don’t tell me this demo business is confusing, people get to try before they buy in real life all the time: with TVs, consoles, audio systems, etc. in the electronics store; with clothes, shoes, etc.; with cars in their auto dealer, etc, etc, etc. Do I need to go on? I’ve always been suspicious of the “experience optimized for impulse buying” argument for the absence of real demos on the iOS App Store (it seems to me there are already plenty of apps at impulse buy prices, so it would be a good idea to encourage non-impulse buy prices), but here on the Mac App Store it makes no sense at all. Oh, sure, developers can distribute a demo from their web site, but it feels about as disconnected as a broken wire. This, alone, will ensure that I will rarely, if ever, buy again from the Mac App Store; not because I’m going to go out of my way to avoid using it, but because I’ll always be afraid of wasting my money on something useless, as I never buy on impulse. Practically all the downloaded software I own, I bought it after trying it, and I’m not going to start changing that now; that would be going… backwards, back at the time of brick and mortar stores, precisely those the Mac App Store is supposed to obsolete.

By the way, in case you have an iOS device and want to encourage “try before you buy”, there is a simple way: go to the “try before you buy” iTunes badge, to mark this as an iTunes store link featured group, download 10-20 of them that seem interesting to you, and try them out. That’s it, that’s all I’m asking of you: there is bound to be a few that you will like and where you will buy the complete version; this, in turn, will send Apple the message that yes, we do want to try apps before we buy them.

I’m deeply torn about the Mac App Store; not just how it currently is, but the whole principle of it. As it currently is, it works and will be used without a doubt, while having a number of issues and setting a number of bad expectations. While I have no doubt many issues will be fixed, Apple has been pretty stubborn about some of them (I mean, for how long have we been asking for a trial system on the iOS App Store?). And there needs to be life outside the Mac App Store, but Apple seems utterly uninterested in improving anything there.