26 May 2010
A Mac App Store
Update: Got everything right except for 10.6.6 not bundled with iTunes. Didn't realize they agreed that much: Apple's Mac App Store.
Billions of app downloads through a mobile application store was not a certainty or even speculated. Apple had no idea the App Store was going to be such a runaway success. By an account on Daring Fireball, there was a heated debate simply over the phone's OS: Mac OS X or something else. And even after CocoaTouch was built, Apple didn't ship the App Store and iPhone SDK for a full year. The popularity of third-party apps was not guaranteed.
But then Apple launched the App Store, and everyone saw just how popular it was. The App Store transformed the device from an outstanding Apple product, like Apple TV, into a revolutionary mobile device. Apple's interest was sealed at that point. Think about Apple's 2004 Macworld press release, three years after it launched Mac OS X: "Mac OS X Users Approach 10 Million. More Than 10,000 Native Applications Now Available." Compare that to Apple's recent iPhone 4.0 press release, three years after it launched the iPhone: 85M iPhone OS devices, 185K apps, 4B downloads.
However, the Mac lacks a comparable experience. We've seen how much confusion the Mac's current installation process causes. DMGs and zipped app bundles are better than Windows applications' arbitrary installer workflows, but still, non-technical people simply do not understand what's going on. Which is fine, they shouldn't need to know about the man behind the curtain. They're just normal people.
The computer industry has been blind to their needs for decades, and experiences like the App Store are revolutionary improvements. The App Store proves that there is a huge pent-up demand for software that's easily purchased and installed. At no point in using the App Store does someone wonder how to find an app, how to install it, where the Downloads folder is, or what a DMG is. The abstraction of the App Store is complete.
Of course Apple is thinking about a Mac App Store. Bringing the App Store's distribution model, payment model, and user experience to Mac OS X is a natural progression. And Apple's next OS upgrade, 10.7, seems like a fitting place to debut a Mac App Store. It won't lock out all other software, like some suggest. Why bother? The Mac platform is already established. The concerns over battery life and content quality are moot. They're just layering on an additional layer of simplicity, much like Mac OS X layered a beautiful user interface and tool set on top of BSD Unix. Valve's Steam is an App Store for games. Facebook is an App Store for friends. Again, it's all about abstraction.
And from a business perspective, it's all about sales. Hardware sales. What drives sales? Killer apps. Apps that convince people to buy the hardware. What drives iPhone OS sales? The App Store. It delivers killer apps. It's a meta-killer app. A Mac App Store would surface the best Mac apps through iTunes to millions of people, who use either a Mac or a PC to sync their iPod or iPhone or iPad. It would provide potential customers thousands of reasons to purchase a Mac.
Consider the present alternatives. Apple Downloads lists around 6K apps. People can find it from menu bar under "Mac OS X Software..." and, until recently, the Downloads link on Apple.com. The site is available but not blatantly obvious. Beyond that controlled environment, there are Softpedia (72K apps), VersionTracker (23K apps), and MacUpdate. Their goals are ad revenue, not user experience; hence why my Multicast Ping was automagically added to Softpedia. And there is the open web. Sure, potential customers can search around to fill their needs or find apps by word of mouth. But even ignoring the search issues, the installation workflow is far from ideal. Finally, there is Bodega, the third-party Mac app trying to solve this very problem and doing a really good job at it. Their software is clean and inviting, and their 100K+ downloads support the theory that there is a need. Nonetheless, Bodega doesn't drive Mac sales. Apple needs its own Mac App Store to do that.
Yes, people have speculated about a Mac App Store since shortly after the iPhone App Store debuted, and the idea has seen renewed gossip since Apple converted ADC to a flat $99/year membership, removed the Downloads link from their site's header, and explicitly said it will never be. I remember when Jobs said no video iPods.
So that's my prediction: Mac App Store through iTunes in 10.7. But let's say I'm wrong. Apple decides not to extend its billion-download idea onto the Mac. What does that say about Apple's interest in the Mac? I'd guess Charlie Stross is right, and Apple views the Mac as a dying platform.
I doubt that, though.