Casting a Critical Eye Over the Mac App Store

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We’re not even a week in, and the Mac App Store is, for the most part, a huge success. I’m not at all surprised the Mac App Store has proven to be so successful so quickly. If anything, I’m surprised it took Apple this long to release it!

But as the excitement wears off, it’s time to take a long, hard look at what the Mac App Store could mean for Mac users — not just now, but in the future, as the iOS-ification of the Mac continues.

First, the Good News

The Mac App Store improves personal computing in three huge areas; software discovery, security and maintenance.

Until now, the way most Mac users discovered new software was by word-of-mouth, labored research — or sheer serendipity. None of those are entirely bad things, but they’re far from the one-stop-shop ideal the Mac App Store represents. What’s more, it’s built right in to the Mac and it’s easy to use.

Security on Mac OS X has never been a headache, but that doesn’t mean Mac users should be careless. There’s no guarantee third-party software won’t do something naughty once it’s installed. With the Mac App Store, everything comes from Apple’s servers, and users can rest easy in the knowledge that it had to pass some sort of quality control before Apple approved it.

Finally, maintenance — a foreign word to most Mac users. Sometimes, updates are relatively painless and happen automatically. Other times, they require visiting websites, downloading and unzipping packages or messing about with disk images. The Mac App Store does away with all of this and replaces it with one-click updates, centrally located.

Inherited Flaws

That’s not to say there aren’t problems. Let’s first remember that the Mac App Store is modelled after the iOS App Store, which means that it inherits a few bad genes:

No Trial Software
Buy or don’t buy — there is no trial software on the App Store. And if you buy something you ultimately don’t like? Well, that’s tough. The money is gone. Better hope you didn’t spend a lot.

Flaky Reviews
iOS App Store reviews are often misleading and, sometimes, make entirely false (and detrimental) claims. Developers don’t have the option of turning off customer reviews (and imagine how suspicious it would appear if they did) but there has to be a better way for Apple to handle the review process.

Bumpy Approval Process
We’ve all heard stories about the painfully lengthy and opaque approval process developers sometimes face getting their apps (or updates) into the Store. Presumably, this will be no different for the Mac App Store, either.

Freedom

Let’s assume, though, that all of the above aside, the Mac App Store becomes the software repository of choice for developers and end users alike. In this case, it’s necessary to scrutinize the policies and ideologies of the App Store curators — Apple itself.

Foul language, nudity or sexuality, subversive or revolutionary political content — it’s all banned from the App Store, sometimes explicitly covered by the published guidelines, yet always ultimately at Apple’s discretion.

Sure, sure – this is Apple’s store, these are Apple’s policies and if we don’t like them … well, we don’t have to use Apple products, do we? But is that entirely fair? And where does it end?

(Un)Fair Exchange?

There is a difference between responsible curation and outright censorship, and while the former is applauded, the latter is generally considered reprehensible. Yet this is the situation we are in today, both with the iOS and now the Mac App Stores. In my opinion, Apple doesn’t just curate, it censors.

Are the benefits of software discovery, enhanced security and ease-of-use a fair trade for restrictive content policies? When Microsoft enjoyed its absolute power in the 1990s, we called it “The Borg” for exerting such dominance over businesses and end-users. Is Apple so different today in the way it regulates the iOS software ecosystem?

This can never happen on the Mac, some will argue. No Mac user is forced to use the Mac App Store. But what happens when a future version of Mac OS X makes the Mac App Store the only way to get software onto a Mac? It seems like a very real possibility, considering how supportive many developers are of the new marketplace.

Worried

Believe it or not, I’m no conspiracy theorist and, if I’m really honest, I wouldn’t mind if — in a future version of Mac OS X entirely dependent on the App Store for third-party software — Apple rejected certain titles on the grounds of insufficient quality, stability or power efficiency.

But I worry that what started as the cautious regulation of a novel software distribution platform might one day mutate into something far worse — absolute control of my beloved Mac by a company that has decided I shouldn’t be allowed to make it my own in the same way I once could.

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