When Apple opened the Mac App Store (MAS) back in 2011, it seemed like a great thing for end users and app developers alike: For regular users, it was a one-stop shop for all their Mac software needs, built into the OS and tied to their existing Apple accounts. For developers, the MAS provided a venue where buyers could discover apps they might never have run across before and then buy them with just a couple of clicks.
But the reality hasn’t always matched expectations. In fact, many developers decided not to put their apps in the store, and many who did later took them out. The latest example of the latter: Bohemian Coding, which (as Federico Viticci reported) just removed its image-editing app Sketch from the MAS.
Sketch is hardly the first and almost certainly won’t be the last app to leave the store. Last year, one of the flagship apps for the Mac — BBEdit — pulled out. The list of apps that aren’t in the store is a long one, and it includes many I personally use every single day: Bartender, BBEdit, Dropbox, f.lux, Google Chrome, Hazel, Keyboard Maestro, Little Snitch, Microsoft Office, and TextExpander, among many others.
Why, when there’s a software storefront built into every copy of OS X, would developers opt out of that store? Talk to developers, and a few main reasons emerge.
App by app
The decision about whether or not to put an app in the store often depends on the app itself.
For example, Rob Griffiths of Many Tricks calls his roster a “befuddled mix. Its Butler and Leech utilities have never been in the MAS because they do things Apple doesn’t allow (more on that in a bit). But its Desktop Curtain, Keymo, Moom, Name Mangler, Time Sink, Usher, and Witch apps are all in the App Store.
(Image: Smile Software)
Smile Software is best known for two apps: TextExpander and PDFpen. TextExpander started out in the store but left after Apple changed some of the technical rules. PDFpen and PDFpenPro are both still there.
Running with Crayons, which makes the utility Alfred, cuts it even finer: The free version of Alfred 1 was available on the MAS from the get-go, and it still is. But the company sells the updated paid version — Alfred 2 — directly.
And for still other devs, the correct response to the “Sell it ourselves or on the MAS?” question is “both.” For example, the Omni Group (makers of OmniFocus, OmniOutliner, and other fine apps) sells its software both through the MAS (“letting you purchase, download, and install our apps with just one step,” says CEO Ken Case) and directly from its own site (where it can offer trial and beta downloads, pricing upgrades, and discounts for volume purchases).
The deal breaker
The choice of whether to be in the store or not often comes down to what a developer wants a specific app to do. And that choice often hinges on one word: “sandboxing.”
In 2012, Apple introduced a new requirement for apps that would be sold from the Mac App Store: They had to be “sandboxed,” meaning they were given limited access to system files and resources. They were, metaphorically, each kept in their own separate “boxes.” Those restrictions were designed to reduce the risks of malware gaining access to your Mac’s most sensitive bits. But they effectively tied the hands of software developers.
How sandboxing works. (Image: Apple)
As Vero Pepperrell of Running with Crayons puts it, “Sandboxing naturally excludes apps that work within the heart of OS X, such as Alfred.” She points to the Web-editing tool Coda as a prime example of an app that “became far better once it left the MAS, by allowing people to interact with their file system without the quirkiness of the sandbox.”
Apple’s sandboxing requirements for the MAS left those developers with two options: Implement sandboxing so their apps could be sold in the MAS or ignore that requirement and sell the apps outside the store. Many chose the latter.
Not the only issue
But sandboxing isn’t the only reason app developers are opting out of the store.
They also cite the review process (under which Apple reviews all apps submitted “to ensure they are reliable, perform as expected, and are free of offensive material”). While the goal is noble, the results may not be. Those reviews can take a week or longer (in some cases much longer). That’s particularly bad when a developer wants to release an update to its app: Even if the new version contains a crucial bug fix, customers will have to wait for the review before they can download it.
Not the ideal venue for customer interaction. (Image: Apple)
Developers also cite the barriers Apple puts between them and their customers. Often, the only point of contact is in the store’s reviews section — hardly the ideal venue for one-to-one customer interaction. Selling direct makes for more direct conversations, which many developers prize.
The store also makes it hard — if not impossible — to provide trial pricing to new customers or special upgrade pricing to existing ones. And the MAS is lacking some features — including support for beta testing, video demos of apps, and data analytics — that Apple provides iOS developers in its iTunes Store. As one developer pithily put it, Apple is doing a half-assed job.
Where it’s headed
Developers point out that virtually all these problems are solvable — but they aren’t sure Apple has any desire to solve them.
But until it does, Apple can expect more developers to just say no. For Sketch, as for others, it was the breadth of problems in the MAS as much as their depth. “There are a number of reasons for Sketch leaving the Mac App Store, many of which in isolation wouldn’t cause us huge concern,” the company wrote on its blog. “However as with all gripes, when compounded they make it hard to justify staying.”
Still, Sketch says, nothing is forever. “If things change, we’re not ruling out a return.”
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