Mac App Store: Blueprint for the software retailer of tomorrow?

Online software distribution channels are on the rise, but to succeed, app stores must become more like real stores

Compared to some Apple product launches, the debut of the Mac App Store last Thursday was a subdued affair. Current Mac users can't even access the store until they update to Mac OS X 10.6.6. But depending on whom you ask, the Mac App Store is either the most revolutionary software delivery mechanism for desktop computers since the floppy disk or the death knell for independent software developers everywhere.

While app stores are familiar to smartphone owners, the concept of a one-stop shop for desktop PC software is relatively untried. So far, however, Apple's experiment seems to be a success. In a press release, the company said the Mac App Store had already served 1 million downloads by the close of its first day. That's sure to attract the attention of competitors -- indeed, Microsoft has already said it is planning an app store to coincide with the next iteration of Windows (expected in 2012). If this becomes a trend, some developers fear that desktop software could soon be governed by the same kind of restrictions we see in the smartphone market.

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Whether desktop app stores will succeed in the long run, however, is hard to predict. And no matter what vendors and developers might like to think, the OS and the quality of the apps aren't the only factors that will come into play -- far from it. For this software delivery method to truly take off with mainstream consumers, app stores are going to have to become more like real stores -- and if they do, their benefits could actually far outweigh their disadvantages for independent developers.

Our store, our rules
By now the litany of complaints about Apple's iOS App Store is well-trodden ground. Chief among the gripes is that Apple assumes the authority to accept or reject apps from the store for a variety of reasons, and sometimes its decisions can seem capricious or arbitrary. Open source software, in particular, is largely excluded, because free software licenses are incompatible with the terms of Apple's SDK.

The arrival of the Mac App Store brings up additional issues, owing to the greater complexity of desktop applications versus mobile ones. For example, apps that require the user's administrator password are forbidden, which excludes many types of legitimate system utilities from the store.

Apps must also use the Mac App Store's built-in download mechanism to deliver software updates, which creates a chicken-and-egg problem: Many developers have already built their own update-delivery mechanisms into their software precisely because nothing like the Mac App Store existed before now. Those features will now have to be removed, and the update mechanisms redesigned, before the apps can be sold through Apple's store.

But pricing seems to be the chief complaint. Some developers worry that the Mac App Store will create a "race to the bottom," driving application prices down to the levels of the iOS App Store, where full-featured programs routinely sell for $5 or less. Others complain that the store does not support upgrade pricing, and that there's no sensible way to maintain more than one major version of a product on the store at the same time.

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