Thursday, January 6, 2011

Mac App Store - A good idea with some rough edges

The Mac App Store went live today, and I have had a look around. In this post I  give some observations about pricing and usability.

In almost every detail, Apple has copied the iOS App Store that has proved so successful. This is both good and bad. The good is that it is a familiar interface; the bad is that it brings along some iOS app store weaknesses such as being too busy, and lacking in discoverability.

I think having an app store is fantastic. The ease of installation, purchase and update will make consumers install (and pay for) much more software. The benefits are clear for consumers and for new and small developers, or developers with inexpensive apps: the benefits for these developers will trump complaints such as the  fact that Apple reviews all submissions and gets a 30% cut.

Apple's cut on purchases as a disincentive for developers: Thankfully, it looks as though Apple does not intend to restrict alternative ways of installing apps, so developers can continue to use their own sales and installation channels. This is critical, since I predict that many existing app developers, and developers of expensive apps, will be reluctant to sell on the app store. The 30% cut apple charges is unreasonable when the price exceeds about $15. I think Apple should have a sliding scale that reduces its cut for more expensive apps. How about 30% of the first $15, 20% of the next $15 and 10% above this level. That would encourage developers to use this channel for their more expensive apps.

Flat pricing as a disincentive for consumers: There is the lack of a sensible way to 'try out' expensive apps. The price points of Mac apps are in general much higher than iOS apps. If all I have to spend is 99 cents each, I am willing to be bold and download a bunch of apps that may prove to be not very useful. But there is no way I will explore a bunch of $20-or-more apps. And even if I do want to use an app, I am highly reluctant to pay $40 or more for an app I might use only once or occasionally. Apple needs to do two things, both of which should be win-win propositions:
  • Firstly Apple needs to build into all its sales (above, say, $5) an automatic 'demo' mode, where you can use the app for a couple of days at no charge, and only be charged after that period if you don't 'return' the app. With the Digital Rights Management (DRM) Apple has built into its store, this should be quite easy to do.
  • Secondly, Apple needs to provide a capability to charge for the app on a metered basis, up to a certain maximum. For example, I might want to use a particular image-editing capability for just one small operation, and perhaps imagine I will use it 3 times ever. If an app for this costs $50, I would be reluctant to pay, especially if I am not even sure if the app can do precisely what I want. I would like to be able to buy the app on the understanding that I would only be charged $5 for every day that I make any use of it, up to a maximum of $60. This would cut my risk as a consumer, and would benefit developers since it would attract many more sales of their expensive apps. Apple has a micro-payments infrastructure in place, so this shouldn't cost Apple much. I think a 20% premium for this would be reasonable, hence my suggestion above that the cap is $60, whereas an outright initial purchase would only be $50. I would buy many, many apps on this basis, that I otherwise would never try.
Deletion and accidental installation: There is no obvious way to delete an app, even a free one. In your list of purchases the only choice available is to go to the app's page. I manually deleted an app from my Applications folder, but the app still appeared in the purchases list, now with an 'Install' button ready for you to reinstall it. Uninstalling has always been non-intuitive on iOS; now it seems impossible to do so without trace. Apple needs to provide a 'uninstall' and 'delete' menu items wherever it displays the word 'installed' in its interface (it should also have 'return' as an option for demo mode, as discussed above).

I also found it too easy to accidentally install apps. Like with the iOS app store, once you have signed in you can do several operations over a short period of time. Simply clicking on the word 'free' installs an app with no prompts. There should always be a confirmation before installing any app.

Discoverability and search: Even with only 1000 apps on opening day, navigation of the apps to find good ones was tricky. They are categorized into broad categories, and you can search by keyword. However, the interface is busy (like that of iTunes and the iOS app store). I would like the ability to list or search for 'tags' that would identify features within categories.

You can examine an app in the store by displaying the entire page describing the app, or you can show lists with just the short name and icon of each app. It would be much better if you could also see lists of apps with an intermediate level of description, perhaps 3-4 lines describing the key features.

Also when you search by keyword, the 'hits' that result don't show the context of the keyword, in other words, I want to know where in the app's listing the keyword appears. This is irritating at times. I would like search results to show me the sentence containing the keyword, as Google search does.

A final usability issue: The App Store was very fussy about allowing me to paste text into it when writing an app review. Beware of writing a review in an external text editor, you may not be able to paste it into the app store.

Incidentally, most of the above issues apply to the iOS store too 

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