App licensing is the headache you don’t want to DIY

Mac app licensing is the headache you don’t want to DIY

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app licensing
For Mac developers, handling app licensing can be a huge hassle.
Image: MacPaw

Our new App Business section is brought to you by MacPaw, maker of proven Mac apps.

For independent Mac developers, one of the big, daunting tasks that the Mac App Store efficiently handles is app licensing. You just submit your app, then the store manages the actual app license through its user accounts. But this unquestionable convenience comes with a few critical downsides.

First, there’s no such thing as a free trial in the App Store. To offer potential customers a test drive, you must create two versions of your software: one free and one paid.

Then you’re left hoping that your free users proactively upgrade to the paid version at some point. Say goodbye to high conversion rates!

Related to this is a lack of actionable app analytics. When you sell your app through the Mac App Store, you’ll find yourself unable to test different trial periods or feature limitations because you won’t have full visibility of the conversion funnel.

The second big problem with selling your creation in the Mac App Store is that you give up a huge percentage of your profits. Sure, distributing your software through the App Store saves you time and hassle, and potentially could offer some exposure. However, the cut Apple takes is so large that it’s unclear if it’s worth the cost.

Getting off the Mac App Store grid

To be honest, the idea of going outside the Mac App Store sounds pretty disheartening. If you go that route, you must implement licensing keys (activation, deactivation, volume purchases, etc.). You’ll also need to track active keys and set up things like a custom payment and billing service, automation for key recovery, a key-generation algorithm that is relatively crack-safe, etc.

The amount of niggling complexity is significant.

If you’re going to leave the secure (but costly) confines of the Mac App Store, what you really want is an end-to-end app licensing framework. For these reasons, more and more developers are switching to integrated solutions like DevMate or Paddle to handle licensing and other crucial undertakings.

The ease of use of the App Store, combined with developers’ unfamiliarity with the problems it obscures (like app licensing), has created a blindspot for many Mac developers, who might not realize that there is another way to get things done.

Paddle supports a variety of app platforms, but DevMate’s creator, MacPaw, has been focused on Mac licensing issues specifically. MacPaw took eight years of institutional knowledge, as well as core technologies built for the company’s Mac apps, and bundled it all into a developer services suite that makes it easy to drop the App Store altogether.

Simply reviewing some of these platforms’ features — and thinking about why they exist — serves as a good primer on the complexities of app licensing, so I’ll go through a few here. To make sure I got the details right, I skyped with Vera Tkachenko, Cocoa team lead at MacPaw in Ukraine.

Managing app licensing

So let’s go back and take a look at app licensing issues. From a user perspective, it’s nice that the App Store does away with key management altogether by putting it behind a single login. Fortunately for developers, if you want to break free from Apple’s clutches, certain tools can help make it painless for you and for your users.

With these developer platforms, for example, you don’t need to worry about creating and managing the activation keys you issue to users. They also handle offline activation, beta licensing, distribution, payments and bulk B2B sales.

Most developers don’t even think about many of these features (and frankly don’t want to think about them). But it’s time for all indie devs to consider taking control so they can squeeze the most growth and usage from their products.

Your crack is showing

On top of making the whole keygen process easy, a developer platform can help you stay ahead of hackers. Tkachenko told me that back in the day, MacPaw started out using salted date keys (other interesting approaches can be found on Stack Overflow). Then MacPaw’s approach evolved to using digitally signed JSON and beyond.

After realizing years ago that one of the company’s products suffered from 50 percent cracked installs, MacPaw put a lot of care into addressing the issue.

Nothing is crack-proof, but by outsourcing this task to experts, the keys you issue will be a lot more secure than what you would be able to come up with on your own. And do you really want to change your algorithms and techniques every few months just to maintain a paying user base? You’re an app developer, dammit, not a keygen specialist.

One last thing to keep in mind about cracking that Tkachenko pointed out: The people using cracked versions of your software are potential customers, not enemies.

“Your aim is to convert them to paid users,” said Tkachenko. “Some users don’t even understand that they’re using a cracked version.”

A developer platform can identify these users and reach out to them with discounts or other incentives, providing an outreach vector that would be difficult to build on your own.

In a weird way, the black market could even be a boon to your app’s growth. Instead of potential users never being able to try your full-featured app, they may get a cracked version and be converted to a paying customer later.

Don’t hate, integrate

One big reason I won’t be building my own app licensing solution anytime soon is that putting everything behind an API would be a huge lift. With Paddle or DevMate, I could hook them into my CRM and affiliate systems, and even support popular apps like ZenDesk, right out of the box.

Just think about that for a minute. You would be able to integrate app licensing data with your existing business workflows for complete visibility and tracking of your users, support request, clients and sales. That’s something the App Store can’t do, and doesn’t even want to do.

And while we’re talking about sales, if you’re with me so far maybe you’re on board with moving off the App Store, but you’re worried about the potential for lost revenue. In fact, that’s where your own app licensing strategy can actually start paying off.

Fewer users … more money?

It’s one of my favorite market inefficiencies right now: By moving away from the Mac App Store, you can gain all this additional functionality while putting more money in your pocket as a developer.

Developer platforms that include licensing, or services that offer more limited features (like App Annie or HockeyApp), are likely going to be priced by user rather than by purchase. That means fewer sales can get you the same amount of money or more.

But will going outside of Apple’s app storefront actually mean fewer sales? We’re trained to think that without the App Store’s distribution, your sales volume will plummet. But more often than not, in the the App Store your app just gets lost in the noise anyway. It takes a crazy amount of downloads to get featured or promoted, and for many developers the cost just isn’t worth it.

Also, Tkachenko points out that once outside the App Store, a whole world of marketing techniques becomes available to you. These app licensing problems are not just hurdles — they are opportunities for growth.

“Licensing is a way to grow your user base, especially if you have more than one product,” she said. You can “bundle keys, experiment with crowd types, spend less time on [customer] support.”

Not only do these features make it easier for you to find your audience and develop for them, she said, the pleasant user experiences increase word-of-mouth recommendations.

There’s a growing sense of discontent among macOS developers. The App Store creates big winners, but leaves smaller apps in the shadows. Seemingly small things like not having access to user emails and not having embedded stores can produce big, bad effects, hampering your business’ ability to grow.

If you’re considering going indie, check out tools like Paddle, DevMate or other licensing SDKs to see if they could be a good fit.