Apple pushes boxed software a step closer to extinction

The company is discontinuing hard copies of apps like iWork and is making them available only as downloads in App Store

Alongside the official release of Lion, Apple moved today to kill off the shrink-wrapped versions of some popular Mac applications, opting instead to make them available only via the Mac App Store. Apple's move from packaged software could meet some initial industry resistance and skepticism, but ultimately, Apple rivals could end up following suit.

In a note to resellers, Apple announced that it was discontinuing sales of the boxed versions of software, including iWork '09, Aperture 3, iLife '11, and Apple Remote Desktop. Notably, Lion is currently available only as a download via the App Store as well.

The company telegraphed its plans to do away with boxes o' software earlier this year, noting that eliminating boxed software would reduce costs as well as clutter in Apple retail stores.

The announcement demonstrates Apple's faith in and expectations for the App Store to be the preferred medium for all of its digital sales, both for consumers and businesses. Just last week, Apple unveiled a plan by which organizations could more easily purchase software licenses in bulk for easier distribution to employees.

Apple's boxless scheme has clear cost-saving benefits, as it eliminates all the expenses associated with materials, shipments, and storage of software packages. There's also the convenience of having any and all apps you could want available on tap. From a green perspective, there's a potential environmental benefit to dematerialization, which is replacing physical goods with digital.

The challenge may be to get customers on board who are unable or unwilling to endure waiting for massive downloads, such as the 4GB beast that is Lion. The company has taken precautions to help those who want to download Lion but can't because they lack a sufficient Internet connection: They can download the code in an Apple store later this month, according to the BBC.

The other challenge: Some customers may be turned off by the prospect of not having a hard copy of an application for backup and peace-of-mind purposes. Apple is addressing that concern for would-be Lion customers by offering a USB flash drive version in August, according to DVICE.

Given the aforementioned concerns about relying heavily on the Internet as the medium for purchasing and delivering apps, Apple is arguably taking a gamble. It's human nature to resist change, and that resistance is perhaps even more pronounced in IT admins. Abandoning those comforting backup CDs and surrendering valuable network bandwidth to large downloads might be a bit too much for some of them to handle.

Then again, Apple has a proven track record for embracing technologies and practices that were initially pooh-poohed, only to be later emulated, from removing CD drives and ports from Macs to the introduction of the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad. We may very well see Microsoft and other such rivals following Apple's lead sooner than expected.

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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