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Peering Behind the Mac App Store Counter

Citing over 1,000 apps at launch, Apple has thrown back the curtains on the Mac App Store, releasing it as the primary aspect of the Mac OS X 10.6.6 update. Like the iOS App Store, the Mac App Store presents an easily parsed interface for finding and viewing information about apps.

A single click purchases a paid app (or gets a free app), causing its icon to fly into your Dock and show a progress bar while the app downloads to your Applications folder. All downloaded apps add their icons to your Dock, but you can of course drag their icons off. Looking forward, the App Store app on your Mac will provide updates as they’re approved by Apple.

Apple has announced that the Mac App Store served over 1 million downloads in its first day; the numbers have undoubtedly continued to climb, and I expect we’ll see more crowing from Apple as the Mac App Store achieves future milestones.

Look, Feel, Shop -- Although the public face of the Mac App Store is a small application called App Store, Apple did integrate the Mac App Store deeply into Mac OS X. Along with the animation that causes icons of purchased apps to fly into the Dock and show an animated download progress bar, there’s a new App Store menu item in the Apple menu, and the dialog that appears when you double-click an unknown document type offers to let you search the Mac App Store. There are also various new frameworks and internal OS support for developers.

The App Store application itself is essentially a Web browser, displaying the Mac App Store interface just as iTunes displays the iTunes Store and App Store for iOS devices. That makes sense, of course, since the Mac App Store will change constantly, but what’s unfortunate is that it’s a mediocre Web browser, offering only Back, Forward, and Search controls, along with five hard-coded buttons (and associated menu items, but no keyboard shortcuts) for Featured, Top Charts, Categories, Purchases, and Updates. Wouldn’t it be nice to have tabbed browsing, though, so you could Command-click multiple items in the Mac App Store to open them in separate tabs, and then flip back and forth quickly to compare?

You can, in fact, see all the information about an app via the Web, on the Mac App Store Preview Web site (shown below displaying Things). But you can’t see any of the lists of featured apps, app categories, or the like via the Mac App Store Preview site, so it’s mostly useful because it makes the Mac App Store searchable by Google, Bing, Yahoo, and other search engines.

I do have two minor gripes. First, couldn’t Apple have come up with an icon for the App Store application that wasn’t round and blue? It’s difficult enough to distinguish between Safari, iTunes, and iChat, and with a few more similarly badged programs installed, the Command-Tab application switcher becomes downright confusing. Second, would it have killed Apple to call the Mac App Store’s application “Mac App Store,” rather than just “App Store”? Now we have the Mac App Store with the App Store application, and the App Store (which is for iOS apps, remember) with the App Store app. Sure, it makes sense when you’re looking at any given instance, but it’s hard to talk about clearly.

Existing Apps -- So what happens if you already own a copy of an app in the Mac App Store? One of two things. First, if the version of the application on your hard disk matches the version of the app in the Mac App Store exactly, the button showing the price will instead read Installed, and you won’t be able to buy it. That makes sense, since Apple doesn’t want the customer service load of people accidentally buying applications they already own. Applications that fell into this category for me included BBEdit, Transmit, and Things, along with Keynote, Pages, and Numbers from iWork ’09.

Unfortunately, the side effect of this is that developers are now hearing from existing customers who think an Installed badge means the application is fully integrated with the Mac App Store, which isn’t true. For instance, you can’t rate an application you bought outside of the Mac App Store, which seems like an oversight Apple should fix—if you own an app, you should be able to rate it. More notably, what won’t be happening, according to a number of developers I talked with on Twitter, is that previously installed and subsequently recognized apps will not seen as purchased by the App Store application, and thus won’t be eligible for updates through the Mac App Store.

More common will be the situation of having an older version of an application on your hard disk than is in the Mac App Store, since many developers will have created updates specifically for the Mac App Store. I own Fetch 5.6, but the version that Jim Matthews of Fetch Softworks submitted to the Mac App Store identifies itself as 5.6.3, and thus isn’t identified as being installed.

In that situation, you can still purchase the application (or download it, if it’s free), and it will silently replace the existing file in your Applications folder. I verified this by downloading the free Garmin Training Center app and watching it replace my older version. With free apps, this is probably desirable, since now the Mac App Store will manage updates for Garmin Training Center for me. With paid apps, though, you’ll want to be careful to avoid buying what you already own.

If you have questions about how the Mac App Store relates to existing applications, give Macworld’s FAQ a look—it covers all the basics.

Pricing and Speculation -- Many iOS apps are priced at $0.99 or $1.99, and although some iOS apps have aimed for higher price points, there has been much discussion about whether the App Store has driven prices so low that only extremely popular apps can sell enough to cover development costs.

That same concern has been floated with regard to the Mac App Store, but some initial analysis by Richard Gaywood for TUAW would seem to show that a large percentage of apps are priced between $10 and $50, matching their existing price points outside the Mac App Store. Less common are apps priced above $50, and even fewer are priced above $100, also matching existing pricing structures. Instead, the other large chunk of apps is priced under $5; lots of those are games ported from iOS.

Although many long-time Mac developers are jumping into the Mac App Store (the oldest app there would appear to be Fetch, which first shipped in 1989, followed by BBEdit, PCalc, and StuffIt Expander in 1992), most appear to be doing so with justified caution. There are exceptions—the Pixelmator team has announced that it will be moving all sales and distribution there in the next few months, and Sophiestication’s CoverSutra is now available solely through the Mac App Store. And I’m sure that many iOS developers see the Mac App Store as an extension of what they’re already doing in the iOS App Store, and see no reason to establish their own online store.

There’s no question that the Mac App Store offers significant benefits to users and developers alike, including improved discovery of new apps, easy installation, automatic updates, re-downloads when setting up new Macs, and elimination of serial numbers. And unlike the iOS App Store, developers aren’t locked into it, so there will be much less consternation over Apple’s approval policies.

But downsides remain, beyond the 30-percent transaction fee that Apple takes. Most concerning to developers is that Apple owns all the customers, so as a developer, you have no connection with the people who have purchased your product. That’s a concern for marketing in the future, of course, but it will also make product support more difficult. Expect to see a lot of apps in the Mac App Store asking you to register with the company in some form or fashion. There’s also currently no way to provide discounted upgrade pricing for major new releases, something that’s standard in the software world.

And of course, many useful and popular applications can’t be sold through the Mac App Store at all because of Apple’s restrictions. Apple won’t accept apps that install resources into the OS (the version of BBEdit available from the Mac App Store doesn’t install command-line tools, for instance), or that need to run as the root user (like the backup program SuperDuper or the firewall software Little Snitch). Apple’s restrictions also eliminate all system preference panes, screen savers, and other utilities that aren’t implemented as standard applications.

Despite these problems, I think the Mac App Store is a good thing, and I believe it will become the primary way that Mac users acquire standard Mac applications. That’s in large part because Apple’s Mac sales are way out of proportion to the sales of any Mac developers I know—it’s clear that most Mac purchasers simply aren’t buying software. But the success of the iOS App Store shows that vast numbers of people will buy when Apple reduces friction in the process. In the end, the Mac App Store is grease for software sales.


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Comments about Peering Behind the Mac App Store Counter
(Comments are closed.)

Tom Gewecke  2011-01-06 15:34
It looks like there is no limit to the number of machines in the same household that you can install an Apple app obtained from the store on. This is something new, right?
Define "new". It varies from company to company; some will integrate a method of ensuring the same registration information isn't being used at the same time across computers, while others use the honor system.

This is new, in a sense, in that it effectively makes the blanket policy "buy it once, use it wherever you want". Yay for standardization, to an extent.
It's not new, in the sense that this has always been true of the iOS App Store. It actually appears to be a mismatch between official terms of use and the technological features included in iTunes and the store: while officially a license is supposed to be for 5 devices, there doesn't seem to be any counting going on, and there is no option to purchase an additional copy if you've already installed on 5 devices.
Tom Gewecke  2011-01-06 18:59
It certainly seems new for something like the iWork apps, which I think up to now were "one computer at a time."
Yeah, that's true, which I guess makes the new system extremely generous for people who have multiple computers.
Michelle Steiner  2011-01-06 17:29
Actually, Garmin Training Center does have built in update mechanism. A week or two ago, when I launched it, it prompted me update itself.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-01-07 05:40
Perhaps my version was too old to have that update mechanism in it, since it hadn't prompted me in the last few launches (that said, I only use it for archiving; my data really goes into the Web site).
CanYouDoBetter  2011-01-06 19:02
Really? The icon shape, name and color is worth a gripe? - You guys are hard to please.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-01-07 05:42
Well, I said they were minor gripes. :-) But yes, the icon shape and color reduce usability of Mac OS X in general, and the name will engender small amounts of confusion in media coverage and general conversations, where you have to be very careful how you write or speak to avoid incorrect conclusions.
Tonya Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-01-07 07:53
Personally, I have a hard time quickly seeing the differences between icons if the primary shape and color are the same. The round, blue circle for Safari, iChat, and iTunes, for instance looks the same to me on first glance. If they were different colors, I'd have no problem.
Larry Mawby  2011-01-07 10:18
the fact that the app store only works with osx 10.6 is a bummer, and would make me as a developer not want it to be the only way customer's can buy my software. what about people with 10.5 or 10.4.....?
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-01-07 10:34
It's pretty clear that the Mac App Store requires significant hooks within Mac OS X itself, so it's not in the slightest bit surprising that Apple isn't supporting earlier version. Plus, Apple really does want to encourage developers to keep writing to the latest version of Mac OS X, since that encourages customers to keep upgrading their computers. And of course, people who don't stay current with the operating system generally don't buy much software.
Glenn Fleishman  2011-01-07 10:47
For new software, there's a diminishing rate of return for developing against older versions of Mac OS X to begin with. There's also no reason that you can't have two trees: one 10.4/10.5/10.6 support sold directly and through channels; one that's 10.6 only. As far as I understand, there's no problem with this.
Dennis B. Swaney  2011-01-10 19:18
I sent in a suggestion to Apple that there be a link at so those logged in with Mac OS 10.4.11 or later could access the Mac App Store. There are millions of Apple customers that can't run 10.6.6 or later.
Michael Paine  2011-01-07 11:47
Icons can be changed - see
But you will need to temporarily change permissions of the App file.
I tried this using the DS9 star trek logo that looks like an A.
Jim Matthews  2011-01-08 07:57
Migrating users from non-App Store versions is a hard problem. Even allowing users of non-App Store apps to rate and review App Store equivalents is a thorny proposition, since the App Store can't easily tell a free copy in a trial mode from a paid-for app.

Currently "Installed" means either "you have a copy from the App Store" or "you have a non-App Store copy with the same version number as the one for sale in the App Store," and "Buy" means either "you don't have this app on this computer" or "you have a different, non-App Store version of this app". It would be helpful if Apple sacrificed some simplicity in favor of making these labels less ambiguous. For instance, they could put an asterisk (which can be clicked for more information) next to "Installed" if the installed version isn't from the App Store, and next to Buy if there is a different non-App Store version installed.
Minus van Baalen  2011-01-09 08:47
A minor gripe of mine: I live in France, but I'm not French and my computers speak English to me. With MacOSX no problem to set the main language to English. Nevertheless App Store ignores that and insists on speaking French to me; there is not even a preferences dialog box to change its language.
Minus van Baalen  2011-01-09 13:15
Ah... I only just discovered the flag button hidden out of sight on the very bottom-right corner of the page...
Berend Hasselman  2011-01-10 11:23
But that also changes the location of the App store you are using.

I have a similar problem: live in Netherlands and have Mac OS X configured to speak English.
I want to use a store giving prices in euros but speaking English.

I feel that the language use by the App store ought to be separated from the store's location.
Ditto. Doing this all automatically makes things simpler for Apple, and is good for the majority of people. But not everyone belongs to the majority, and customization is important, even if the options are semi-hidden away.
paulaulot  2011-01-11 13:22
English language and Euros? No problem, Ireland:
Mark Nagata  2011-01-10 21:43
Here is another point: you can't add plug-ins into an application that you've purchased from Mac App Store, as explained by the author of Jedit X at, the venerable&powerful text editor application that I love.
Richard Costanzo  2011-01-11 12:50
I notice that you can now buy "Numbers" instead of having to buy the whole iWork. But once it's downloaded and installed, are you provided with a dmg that you can burn to disc in case you needed to reinstall?

Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-01-11 13:03
No, there's no disk image involved. You can (and certainly should) back up the application in normal ways (Time Machine, CrashPlan, etc).

I was vaguely under the impression you'd be able to download from the Mac App Store again, but I'm not seeing how to trick it into allowing that, so maybe it's not possible.
Glenn Fleishman  2011-01-11 13:14
I just coincidentally spoke to Apple about this a few minutes ago. On any computer with the Mac App Store installed and that you use your Apple ID to purchase or download software, you just log in, and click Purchases. You can re-download and install any software that's missing on that particular machine, whether or not you purchased it on that machine or had it installed before there.

This lets you buy software on one computer and then install it on another (that uses the same Apple ID account for the store). This is the same process that the App Store on an iOS device and in iTunes uses: redownload without repaying.
Richard Costanzo  2011-01-11 13:32
That's good information on being able to download the application again which I guess solves that problem but there's nothing like having a physical install disk of the application. Maybe I'm just old fashion. Still, you now have the opportunity to buy one program in iWork instead of the others which you may not need or want.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-01-11 14:05
The question is, what counts as "missing"? I pulled Garmin Training Center out of my Applications folder an put it on my Desktop (which required an admin password; Apple doesn't want people deleting apps willy-nilly, I guess). I then relaunched the App Store application and went to Purchases. It still said Garmin Training Center was installed and wouldn't let me download again. Then I deleted Garmin Training Center entirely, with no change in the App Store application's belief that it was still installed. I'll try a reboot next.
Richard Costanzo  2011-01-12 04:04
Hi Adam,
Any resolution to the problem of reinstalling paid applications from the apple store?
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-01-12 05:37
Yes, I just restarted, and after the restart the App Store application did indeed see Garmin Training Center as missing, and I was able to click an Install button in the Purchases tab.

So yes, this works, but you may need to restart for the App Store application to become aware of the need to allow a reinstall.
Andreas Frick  2011-01-12 06:22
Usually I install downloaded applications not into the Applications folder but into a separate folder of my admin accout. I believe it is best to keep things separate. With the app store this becomes impossible.