Apple’s Mac App Store: Gateway for OS X Freemium?


In-app purchases on the iOS platform allowed free apps to become some of the best revenue-generators on the App Store, as Ryan noted in November. That kind of success can’t have escaped the notice of Apple, so might it open the floodgates for freemium on OS X with the Mac App Store?

The first condition required for a freemium model to blossom on OS X is that the Mac App Store allow in-app purchasing. I think Apple will make sure this is one of the first things they bring over from the iOS model. Why? Because it opens up a much wider range of revenue generating possibilities for Mac maker. Also, the whole point behind introducing a Mac App Store is controlling the distribution channel. Not including an in-app purchase method that also works through iTunes would limit that control by sending consumers elsewhere for plug-ins and downloadable content (DLC), which undermines Apple’s gatekeeper role.

Apple looks to be blocking trial and demo versions of applications from the Mac App Store, but that shouldn’t preclude the availability of full, ready-for-retail products that offer DLC or in-game upgrades and credits in exchange for in-app purchases. Technically and with regard to policy, there should be no barriers.

But would a freemium approach do as well on the desktop as it has on mobile? It’s a question that already has an answer, albeit a browser-based one. Looking at the success of FarmVille and other Zynga games, you can find many examples of the model already working very well on traditional, non-mobile platforms. Cashing in on the casual gaming space currently presided over by web-based content is probably a big motivating factor behind the introduction of a Mac App Store to begin with.

Unlike on the iOS platform, though, users will have an alternative when it comes to the Mac. They can avoid the App Store altogether and just continue using Facebook and other web-based venues for freemium gaming. There are no technical barriers preventing this on OS X, like the absence of Flash on iOS. I think despite this, people will still opt for, for example, a FarmVille app over the web-based experience when gaming on their Mac. Why? Because it’ll be easier once the Mac App Store is set up, because it’ll likely bear a closer resemblance and have more tie-ins with their iOS mobile experience, and because when OS X Lion eventually gets released, full-screen apps and other UI elements will be put in place to drive users away from the open web and towards Apple’s curated software library.

Despite their web-based success, Zynga and its ilk will likely be the same developers who initially help bring the freemium model to the Mac App Store, too. Apple has proven its ability to draw large audiences toward software and software purchases. Expansion-minded companies that live or die based on the size of their userbase won’t be able to resist.

As Ryan put it, free can pay the bills and more. When the Mac App Store arrives as early as January, we’ll see that’s no less true on the Mac than it is for mobile.

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