Lies, Damn Lies, and Mac App Store Skeptics [Part 1 of 2]



I’ve noticed an alarming trend over the five days since Steve Jobs introduced the Mac App Store at Wednesday’s Mac-focused media event. On all sides, the internet is being overrun by otherwise savvy tech pundits who have decided that Apple’s efforts to provide an easy-to-use, accessible, and intuitive marketplace for Mac software is irrelevant at best and, though you didn’t hear it from me, evil, too.

The most alarmist such pieces I have encountered thus far are Ryan Block’s “Will the Mac App Store have enough to sell?” from GDGT, and Matt Buchanan’s “Big Brother Apple and the Death of the Program.” The former, as you might imagine, argues that desktop software is dead, while the latter, predictably, foretells a grim future in which you won’t be able to read these words, and the keyboard I’m typing this post on write now will instead devote itself to composing Jobs-praising hymns.

I don’t often give myself over to Fisking, but I think it only makes sense to deconstruct these pieces by responding to specific arguments within. I am, necessarily, only excerpting from each piece, so I encourage you read them in their entirety — the full context is as ridiculous as the smaller slices. Up first, Ryan Block tells us why your notebook doesn’t have any software on it.

The Cloud is the future, and also, Adobe won’t play ball or something.

But what happens when Apple’s growing need for control over its ecosystem meets the inexorable trend of software migrating to the cloud? Will there even be much left to sell in an App Store in a few years?

Apple has made a mint by positioning iPhone and iPad apps as the ideal front-end to a wide variety of cloud services whose web-based clients users tolerate on desktops, but only because they have to. Imagining that software is actually migrating to the cloud (and not, say, just its data), isn’t the time ripe to make ever-better desktop UI front-ends for them?

First, set aside high end professional software such as Photoshop. If for whatever reason you need it, you’re probably not heading to the cloud anytime soon, nor do I think you’ll be buying it on the App Store. (Can you really imagine Adobe letting Apple take almost $800 off the top of each sale of its full CS5 Master Collection set? I can’t.)

Leaving aside the spurious argument about professionals avoiding the cloud, does Block recognize that Adobe sells Master Collection for the same price through Best Buy as it does through its own site? And that Best Buy therefore takes several hundred dollars off the top of each sale?

There’s certainly a lot of other productivity software out there for professionals using Macs — perhaps enough to make the Mac App Store a pretty interesting marketplace. But if there’s one thing we know about Apple, it’s that they always aim for the heart of the consumer market, and the unfortunate reality is that while building mainstream consumer desktop software is still a fairly big business, it also stopped being a fast growing industry a very long time ago. (How many new paid desktop software startups do you hear about starting up these days? I don’t even remember the last time I saw one.)

This is the biggest flaw in this entire argument. Essentially, the argument is that, because consumer desktop software has been a slow growing market for some time, it’s guaranteed to remain such. It’s actually entirely possible that the reason so much free software has flourished in recent times is because that’s how it has been distributed. As brick-and-mortar software sales have crumbled, nothing better has filled the void. The fact is, most people who download shareware will never register it, because they don’t have to. The Mac App Store makes you pay to play, and I think people will. Moreover, this kind of clean, well-lit place might actually make desktop software hot again — because it’s a big innovation in distribution.

The real issue with the desktop software market is that (unless you’re talking about productivity software) there just isn’t all that much consumers need to buy anymore. The boxed software business didn’t die because of app stores, it died because of an overabundance of great programs that are free, open, or otherwise subsidized that are available through other web or internet services. To put it another way: lately, how often have your parents bought software for their computer (that wasn’t Microsoft Office)?

Of course it didn’t die because of app stores. There weren’t any of real significance until now!

See, when they’re not free, desktop apps tends to cost an order of magnitude more than those of the mobile variety, which is a big part of why demos and trials are so important. (I’d argue they’re important in mobile too, but I’ll save that for another time.) As of right now, the for-profit developers the Mac App Store has the most to potential to benefit (i.e. smaller software houses that still distribute trialware) are automatically out of the store, and Apple’s other rules seem to preclude all kinds of software I consider essential.

That’s an interesting definition of “automatically out.” This further follows the notion that desktop software has to cost an arm and a leg. I think Apple is pushing hard for sub-$20 apps for the Mac, and there will be a bonanza in the market. And who cares what kind of software you consider essential? This is targeted to people who aren’t the editors of tech blogs.

Maybe part of the problem is that these app stores themselves no longer seem like the radical innovation they were only a couple years ago, having since become an expected, table-stakes means of distributing software to users’ devices. Is there a huge amount of potential here? Definitely, and if I were the guys at Panic or Rogue Amoeba, I’d be pretty stoked after this week. But as long as some of the most interesting consumer apps are (for one reason or another) kept out, the Mac App Store will be neither the best nor the only place for consumers to get software and developers to sell it.

This won’t be a flop because it doesn’t contain Growl. It won’t. And Apple isn’t aiming to make this “the only place for consumers to get software and developers to sell it.” It just wants to be the best. And I have to assume, based on Apple’s past track record, that this is exactly what it will be.