The Rise of the App Store

For this column, I originally set out to write a post about apps. Example: “3 Apps for Every Stag” or “5 Apps to Get Me Through Thesis” or “What’s on John Faranda’s iPhone?” Turns out, a lot of people have covered this. My Google search of “top 5 apps” yielded 1.3 billion results. Moreover, I guarantee that any random selection of apps that I picked will be different than anyone else might pick. Even worse, I might miss some fantastic iPhone-only app because I have an Android phone (gasp). Such is the challenge in a world with hundreds of thousands of apps--there are almost literally too many to choose from. So rather than provoking a debate from which I might never recover, I’d like to redirect your attention to one of the truly revolutionary outcomes of the app-ified world: the Mac App Store.

It’s been around since January 2011, but was implemented so subtly that a lot of people--including many CMCers I’ve met--haven’t even heard about it. Simply put, the Mac App Store marks a turning point in how we use software for three reasons: it makes everything “an app”, it’s dead simple, and it sets a precedent. Windows users, bear with me, a similar “Windows Marketplace” is coming as part of Windows 8, so the ideas apply on both sides of the OS canyon.

The original iPhone, you might remember, didn’t have apps. In fact, the first non-Apple developers weren’t able to create apps for the phone until more than a year after the iPhone was first announced. There was no “App Store” to speak of. People still thought of software as “programs”--you bought your program, like Microsoft Office or TurboTax, on a CD, stuck it in the drive, and installed it. You could download it from the internet as well, but most of the “big things” were still coming on CDs. Moreover, most software programs were big lumbering beasts that needed a CD in order to function. The idea of a lightweight piece of technology that did one thing simply and well didn’t exist yet. You bought Counter-Strike and it dominated your computer while you were using it. The iPhone changed everything by demonstrating that it was feasible to make these simple pieces of technology, distribute them for (almost) free over Apple’s platform, charge a buck per download, and still make a significant amount of money.

What was the model that Apple used when building the App Store? The iTunes Music Store. Why? Because it worked really well. Apple had shown that people would pay for music online if the experience was really good and the music was high quality. There’s a premium to be had for not having to worry about BitTorrent or P2P and all the hassle that go along with obtaining music illegally, and Apple captured it. The iPhone App Store, and now the Mac App Store, are further extensions of the same idea. With the creation of the Mac App Store, Apple wants every single piece of software that runs on Apple computers to become an “app”. And in Apple’s dreamworld, the apps are curated so only the ones that don’t have viruses, don’t violate Apple’s terms of services, and don’t copy Apple’s own software get through. With the Mac App Store, everything’s an app, as long as it passes Apple’s gauntlet.

So what do users receive in return for allowing Apple stricter control over what goes on their computers? A better experience and better prices. The app store experience for your desktop programs. Log in with your Apple ID, click the price button to buy, and then click again to install. Everything is automatic after that, and every time you open the app store, all the available updates can be installed in just one click. It’s an exact recreation of the iPhone experience. Apple is operating under the belief that users will pay a premium price for an Apple computer becuase it offers this simplicity and elegance. You don’t have to go through the Windows install pain of downloading the install file, opening it, running “InstallShield Wizard”

and clicking “next” ten times before you can run your program, you click “install” once and watch as the program hops into your dock and a small red bar above the icon shows you the installation progress.

It’s readily apparent that Apple sees the Mac App Store as its ideal distribution platform for everything installed on your Mac. Apple’s two major software suites, iLife (iMovie, Garage Band, and iPhoto) and iWork (Pages, Numbers, and Keynote) are both no longer available in Apple retail stores. They’re up on the Mac App Store as à la carte downloads: $15 for the iLife apps and $20 for the iWork apps. This means that instead of dropping $120 on Microsoft Office, you can pick up Apple’s Word, Excel, and PowerPoint equivalents for half the price. Other flagship Apple software products, like Aperture for advanced photo editing and Final Cut Pro for professional video editing, are also available from the Mac App Store.

Perhaps the sharpest evidence of Apple’s committment to the Mac App Store platform is its chosen method of distribution for Mac OS X Lion, the newest version of its operating system. When Lion was released in July, the sole way to get the update was to install it from the Mac App Store. This meant a tradeoff--users had much less control over how the update went about, and had no hard disk backup of the OS in case something went wrong. In return, most users received the easiest OS upgrade in the history of personal computers. To make the upgrade experience even more enticing, Apple offered Lion for just $30--far cheaper than past Mac upgrades or comparable Windows upgrades. OS X Lion remains the best selling and top grossing “app” on the Mac App Store. Several weeks later, Apple released OS X Lion on a thumb drive in stores and online for $70. Nonetheless, it’s easy to conclude from the pricing and timing of Lion that the Mac App Store is Apple’s preferred method of distribution. The writing on the wall is clear: settle for Apple’s curation and limitations, and in return you’ll receive higher quality apps and a cleaner, more enjoyable purchasing experience. It’s a model that Apple used successfully used for both music and iPhone/iPad apps, and now they’re ready to make it universal.

So where does this leave Windows users? Windows, like Apple, is looking to make the next version of Windows more closely resemble the mobile phone experience its worked so hard to perfect on the Windows Phone. The Windows Marketplace for Mobile is the Windows phone equivalent to the iPhone App Store, and the early previews of Windows 8 draw heavily from the Windows Phone experience. There’s even stronger evidence though: screenshots of Windows 8 show a big icon for a “store” (right). Assuming that Apple demonstrates the viability of the Mac App Store, expect Microsoft to follow suit and try to provide a comparable experience for PC users. In neither case will these platforms replace a large swath of applications that people download from the internet, but they will capture a large much of the revenue in the desktop app market.

One final note: with these platforms, it’s clear that Apple and Microsoft both believe that there is a future for desktop applications. This differs fundamentally from Google’s philosophy that in the future, everything can and will be done on the web. I didn’t include the Google Chrome Web Store in my discussion because it presents a completely different vision--where users run all their applications inside the web browser and the desktop is just a portal to get on the internet (or is eliminated entirely).

Want to read more from Dave Meyer’s #CMC Tech Blog? Check out his technology saavy by reading Castles & Moats in the Tech Business, let him explain Twitter to you and help ease the stress of school with 3 Tech Tools to Simplify College Life.