A Wish List for the Mac App Store

The Mac App Store may seem like the best option for indie developers, but it’s not. I remember when Apple first announced the Mac App Store (MAS). It sounded like a pretty good idea to give Mac developers the same kind of centralized marketplace to sell their software that made the iOS App Store so popular. Apple said then and still proclaims that MAS is dedicated to helping devs make great apps but most developers (myself included) will tell you that it’s never lived up to its potential and is now going off the rails.

Don’t get me wrong, the Mac App Store does a lot of things really well. One reason devs keep putting their apps in the store is that Apple takes away a lot of the mundane tasks, such as payment, licensing, and updates. The MAS has a huge built-in audience, making it a convenient and easy one-stop shop for developers to list their apps, and it makes getting paid easy since Apple handles the payments side. It also handles security fairly well, so there’s less risk of malware infecting users.

But after five years of working within Apple’s strict regimen of rules and guidelines, a lot of great developers struggle with the restrictions placed on them which too often throttle usual business practices for selling software. As a result, many makers of popular apps have made the decision pull their software from the Mac App Store (or simply don’t bother submitting them at all) and sell them outside it.

It remains to be seen how and whether or not Apple intends to address the issues frustrating devs. Even Apple has conceded that changes need to be made. For example, subscriptions were recently introduced for MAS but developers have quickly realized that while theoretically, any app can now offer subscriptions, most are having a hard time taking advantage of them.

Here’s my wishlist for the Mac App Store:

1. Eliminate or relax the sandboxing guidelines

Many developers have to make the difficult choice between degrading the functionality of their software or leaving the MAS to sell online. In some well-known cases, such as Panic’s Coda and Bohemian Coding’s Sketch, developers have pulled their apps altogether in favour of direct downloads.

Things are so acute that entire categories of apps cannot be distributed in the store because they cannot be sandboxed without crippling their feature set (e.g. developer tools, system utilities, and pro apps).

For a growing number of apps, including Alfred and our own RapidWeaver, updates are no longer distributed via the store with the result that the MAS counterpart has fallen behind the direct download version. With extreme cases on the rise, the number of ‘abandoned’ apps has become such an issue that Apple announced a few weeks ago that it will begin finding and removing these “problematic” apps.

2. Revamped pricing models

Current App Store pricing does not allow for sustainable distribution and monetization. Apple should work harder to foster a competitive landscape where developers are focused more on improving feature set and meeting customer needs, rather than fixating on pricing strategies. Let’s face it: devs are not universally good at monetization—for the 30% Apple takes we should be able to focus on developing great software instead of monetization schemes.

One issue that has been a subject of consternation among developers is that there are no free trials. Introducing this would be easy to implement for developers, yet the MAS does not allow it. A shift toward paid upgrades would also encourage additional developer participation, as selling software as a one-off purchase is a difficult model for most developers.

Instead of treating subscriptions as a substitute for paid upgrades, which seems to be Apple’s current strategy, devs should be incentivized to upgrade and continually innovate on their software to keep customers using it. One idea is a flat-fee subscription for the store. Spotify and Netflix come to mind. Why not for the MAS? Developers could be paid according to the number of active users in their apps.

3. Emphasise quality over quantity

The Mac App Store is overloaded with trash, and the sheer number of apps (30,000+), makes it really hard to get your software discovered and seen by users. Consumers are overwhelmed with the choices, and it is impossible to know for certain if an app is right because you have to pay for it to use it. Having more is not always better, most people don’t use thousands of apps.

Search has also been a huge problem. To its credit, Apple has tried to fix this more than once, but it still doesn’t work well and is complicated by paid app-placement ads (iOS only for now). And again, from the perspective of users, there is no trial or demo software available. It is too expensive to pay for each app and find out later that it is not what you were looking for. Users have to buy an app to see how well it works, which only serves to depress sales.

4. Get rid of in-app purchases

In-app purchases are killing the user experience, but they are currently the only way Apple allows developers to achieve incremental revenue. As a result, one of the only options available is ‘liteware’ with piecemeal in-app purchases, annoying ads, and free apps that “trick” you into buying more later. Devs are stuck between a rock and a hard place: They can’t achieve incremental revenue without in-app purchases but are punished by consumers for the terrible experience.

5. Streamline the approval process

Apple has made a lot of progress in reducing the average time it takes for an app to be reviewed, pushing the average app store review time down to just one day from a previous average of eight. That said, Apple’s app review process is incredibly inconsistent. It’s not unusual to hear war stories: Apps being rejected because a similar app came online while a dev waited for theirs to be approved, or apps being killed after being in the store for years because a feature was deemed unacceptable when the app was submitted for upgrade even after already having existed in previous versions.

While it seems that some of this may be improving, the process is still a bit of a mystery to most developers. Feedback on rejections is one of the biggest challenges for devs who want to know what changes to make before resubmission. The standard feedback you can expect from Apple is a line quoted from its exhaustive guidelines, along with a screenshot (if you’re lucky). It can often be confusing and you have to guess at what it all means. Asking for clarification just prolongs the review process. Too often, you get more of the same and perhaps even a reference to “internal guidelines” that Apple uses but won’t share with devs. The delay in shipping your app is compounded if you’re not in the same time zone as Cupertino.

Both consumers and developers want a healthy balance between the number of users and the quality of apps in the App Store — Changes that incentivize indie Mac developers to offer apps with long-term value to users, ensures they have a big growing market and consumers have all the best apps they need.

Hopefully, we’ll see improvements to the Mac App Store in time for WWDC next year. I love Apple and I know they can do better, but until they do I’ll still be distributing my apps directly like I’ve always done.

Dan Counsell @dancounsell