The Mac App Store and the future of indie development

If you’ve been keeping an eye on the Mac App Store over recent years, you will have noticed a couple of things; how little it has improved since its launch five years ago and secondly how a steady stream of big name developers from Barebones to Panic, have been forced to pull their apps due to its limitations. The most recent refugee being popular design app Sketch.

I was initially very enthusiastic about the Mac App Store (MAS), but as the years have ticked by with literally no improvements, that enthusiasm has waned to be replaced firstly by concern and now increasingly by anger and frustration.

I’ll give the briefest of summaries of the main pain points with the MAS, as you’ve probably heard them all before:

  • No demos or trials. Apple won’t even let us link to or mention that we offer these from our websites.
  • No upgrade pricing for existing customers.
  • No way of handling refunds or addressing support requests left in reviews.
  • No bundles (even though we have this on iOS!)
  • The huge 30% cut Apple takes of every sale.
  • Long delays in getting updates approved by Apple’s review team.
  • Mandatory stringent sandbox restrictions.

Having just one or two of these problems to deal with wouldn’t be insurmountable, but dealing with all of them, along with many others, just feels like death by a thousand cuts.

Now if you’re not a developer you probably appreciate the convenience and security of the App Store and all these other issues may seem fairly peripheral. You would like things like trials and discounts, if you remember what buying software used to be like, but it’s not the end of the world now that you don’t have them.

Indeed the problems almost all fall into the developer’s lap. We get the blame when Apple screws up and receipt checking fails spectacularly. We get the anonymous 1 star reviews we can’t respond to. We get the angry users who can’t download updates because they’ve been stuck in review for a month on some technicality. We watch our sales dip ever lower with no conventional means of reinvigorating them.

Developers and users ultimately have a symbiotic relationship, one can’t survive without the other. Eventually the pain inflicted on them will also impact on all of us. Either they give up because it’s no fun fighting with the platform owner for survival or they go bankrupt because business conditions have become so hostile. Then that shiny piece of software you invested in stops getting updates, there’s no one there to respond to your emails when something goes wrong. Your data is held hostage in a dead app. It’s on you to have to go through the troublesome task of finding a replacement, migrating your data and learning something new just to get back to where you started. All the time hoping the same fate doesn’t await this new app.

I’ve worked with a lot of Mac developers over the years and I’m sad to say a large number of them are no longer in business, or they’re just barely clinging on if they are.

In some cases like with Microsoft and Adobe or Barebones and Panic, they have enough clout to survive outside the MAS. But for smaller developers, including ThinkMac, the MAS has sucked so much oxygen out of the rest of the world, that it would be suicide to pull out. So we stick around, accruing cuts and counting down the days until we finally succumb to them.

I live in hope that Apple will announce some changes to improve the Mac App Store (and frankly the iOS store too) in 2016, but I have to confess I’m growing more pessimistic about the future of indie development on the Mac. The clock is ticking Apple, the ball is in your court and it’s getting dusty!

Further reading:

Too late to save the MAS? by Manton Reece
Bohemian Coding Pulls Hit App Sketch from Mac App Store by John Gruber
The Mac App Store: Not gone, but certainly forgotten by Macworld
The Mac App Store Needs Paid Upgrades by Wil Shipley
NSFW: Apple’s benign neglect of the Mac App Store by Peter Cohen
Mac App Store: The Subtle Exodus by Milen

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