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  • Newsletter Issue #1023

    October 25th, 2021

    APPLE AND THE APP STORE CONUNDRUM

    While Apple is often credited with being the first tech company to offer an in-house app store to buy software for its mobile gear, that’s not at all true. Other companies had done it before, though not as seamlessly. So I recall working on a client’s Palm Pilot probably before the year 2000. They wanted an app, a game as I recall, so I checked out the source.

    I would not be able to recount the steps required or what it cost, but a bare-bones game wasn’t cheap. I was able to make it work, well sort of. After a while, I simply told the client what it could and couldn’t do, and that was it.

    Long and short, being able to get apps for any mobile gadget wasn’t a user friendly process. The download and installation schemes appeared to have been cobbled together by developers without serious regard to what the end user would have to confront to get it to load on their gear. Obviously, this didn’t encourage people to buy apps, although the limited functionality often made the attempt frustrating even if you could get it to run properly.

    Now when the iPhone was released in 2007, Steve Jobs’ first app gambit was to let you use web apps. Supposedly he had to be convinced to allow you to install software in the traditional way, and thus came the App Store in 2008. Other companies, including Palm, while it lasted, and Google joined in on the action. The easier it was to find, select, buy and install apps, the more you’d buy. Keeping them cheap and adding lots of freebies kept traffic high.

    With tens of billions of dollars of sales each year, the App Store has proven a lucrative profit generator for Apple and its developer community. Indeed, even in the years where iPhone and iPad sales flagged, services kept increasing by the double digits. Apple has successfully turned its gear into continuing profit generators. So even if you haven’t upgraded as often as they’d like, you’ll still buy stuff from hem. Besides, profits from services are far higher than hardware for obvious reasons.

    I’ll take Apple’s word, for now, that it instituted severe protections on the App Store to ensure that all of the apps were secure and, in large part, did what they claimed to do. That was quite a difference from previous attempts at app stores, where you couldn’t be sure what you were getting was safe and reliable.

    Google Play does that too, though the controls are not as stringent.

    But Apple came in for a lot of criticism, in large part from developers who claimed their apps were rejected for incorrect or arbitrary reasons. Apple’s standards were also questioned and attacked as being too stringent.

    I am not going to blame anyone here. It is quite possible a lot of this was a learning experience, where Apple had to develop sets of rules and regulations from scratch, and hire possibly hundreds or thousands of people to follow the guidelines. No doubt they were subject to interpretation and were altered over time. I have no idea what level of discretion reviewers are given. But all of tha would explain mistakes.

    In the end, it may well be that Apple is treating its developer community unfairly. That’s what many say, although it may be because they can’t get their way. I’m not about to make a judgement.

    It is true that developers have profited to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars from developing apps for Apple. Hundreds of thousands or millions of people have been able to earn a decent living as a result, even though I grant many developers aren’t able to pay the bills.

    But that’s the mobile software community. When it comes to Macs, developers have been selling their product independently, or via third-party dealers, for decades. Having a Mac App Store may have seemed a good idea, where a level of simplicity similar to he mobile version ought to make it easier for customers to buy the apps they want and to upgrade them as needed.

    In theory.

    But there were complications. Some apps wouldn’t be eligible for the App Store because they do sometimes funky things with macOS to allow support for special features. A notable example of this is Rogue Amoeba’s Audio Hijack, an audio capture utility that I use to record episodes of The Paracast. For me, it’s a mission-critical tool, and the lack of a similar app on the iOS platform is one reason, among many, that I’ve never embraced the iPad as a productivity device.

    Now I am not going to deal with theory reasons why such apps don’t quality. More than likely, they are talking to system resources that Apple doesn’t want third-party apps to communicate with despite their importance for Mac users.

    In any case, Rogue Amoeba has now pulled its lone app that met Apple’s requires, Fission, a bare-bones editing app.

    Unfortunately, the reasoning, as expressed in the company’s blog, is just too vague:

    “For almost twenty years, we’ve sold our software directly to our customers via our online store. Our fast and secure purchase process has served our customers very well. Since the Mac App Store opened in 2011, we’ve also experimented there. However, despite a decade of feedback from countless developers and users, Apple has made scant few changes and the store remains beset with issues. When you couple the many shortcomings and issues with Apple’s restrictive policies that preclude most of our software from appearing there, the Mac App Store is clearly a poor fit for us. With the removal of Fission, we no longer have any products in the Mac App Store.”

    The reasoning is vague. Nowhere does the author of the blog, whom I presume to be company CEO Paul Kafasis, specify the “many shortcomings and issues with Apple’s restrictive policies that preclude most of our software from appearing there.” With Audio Hijack, the minimalist alternative, Piezo, and its sound control app, SoundSource, I can understand the reasoning, but I cannot understand why this isn’t just spelled out.

    I sent a letter to the company asking for specifics, but there’s been no response.

    Despite my concerns, I still depend on Audio Hijack, and I have for years. Sure, if another company comes up with something better — and nobody has come close — I fully expect to continue to use it for as long as I do a radio show.

    As to Apple, I don’t know if they’ve reached out to Rogue Amoeba about this, or perhaps the company is too small to make a reasonable dent on App Store income. At the very least, there ought to be ways to allow for these edge cases to exist in the App Store even if it requires changes to macOS to ensure what the company regards as he proper level of security for Mac users. Still I have never felt that Audio Hijack opens me up to the threat of malware injections, nor have I heard of any problems.

    Now when it comes to Mac apps, there is a ready solution for the exceptions. These developers can continue to sell their stuff via their own sites or through other vendors. It may make it more difficult for Mac users migrating from iOS or iPadOS, who aren’t used to buying apps from their parties, to find what they want. But otherwise, nothing has changed.

    The argument is whether Apple should also consider providing a legal or authorized method to buy mobile apps from other dealers. Yes, it would mean a more complicated environment for people who opt to leave the confines of the App Store, but I’d think that proper controls could be enforced to protect iPhone, iPad and Apple Watch users. That, and an easy way to switch back and forth or use both, would best serve the needs of customers who crave a greater variety of apps.

    I’d think the threat of antitrust action could force Apple to make such a move. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are already plans in place to make it possible if the need arises. For me, I don’t care. I have not had a problem finding the mobile apps I need. But for those who want more choices, Apple ought to consider its options before government regulators decide to take matters into their own hands, and make a mess of things.

    THE FINAL WORD

    Gene Steinberg’s Mac Radio Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible.

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