Mac App Store needs to do it better than Chrome OS

Dec 16, 2010

That Mac App Store that Steve Jobs and Apple announced back in October is set to become available on January 6, but not everybody is screaming like a teenage Beatles fan. While generally, it seems, software developers are happy with the idea of the Mac App Store, they’re worried it’ll spell the end of alternative […]

That Mac App Store that Steve Jobs and Apple announced back in October is set to become available on January 6, but not everybody is screaming like a teenage Beatles fan.

While generally, it seems, software developers are happy with the idea of the Mac App Store, they’re worried it’ll spell the end of alternative means of getting software to people. The desktop store supports all kinds of different software, but like the iOS App Store out of iTunes, makes it all available for download straight to your machine. Unlike iOS, you don’t have to buy stuff from the Mac App Store — it’s just a convenient way to get software and gives developers access to a lot of things that make distribution easier on their end, like Apple’s servers and the benefit of a streamlined online storefront. Of course, Apple (AAPL) keeps 30 percent of sales on things sold in the store for the privilege.

The problem, some developers think, is that the desktop app store will quickly replace other means of getting software to users — effectively creating a state in which people looking to buy applications are going to expect to find them in the app store, and leaving any developers who choose not to pay up to Apple for a slot in the store to suffer lost sales. They also worry it could spell the ends of discounts and software bundles and other cool marketing tactics that go with selling computer programs.

Still, the Mac App Store sounds like it’ll be just as cool as the iOS App Store, which is, in fact, very cool. Apple is trying to replicate the extremely successful mobile iOS model on its mainstream computers, and that should mean we customers get all the benefits of convenience (and hopefully price) that we enjoy in iTunes. Mobile apps are becoming more and more competitive and innovative all the time — you should see some of the games that just dropped for iPhone and iPad today — and one of the great things about the App Store is it levels the playing field substantially between big-time software developers and smaller independent ones. That leveling has meant a lot of new ideas getting pushed to the fore, snapped up and becoming lucrative. And money for good ideas means more good ideas.

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It’s interesting to consider, however, just what the Mac App Store will mean to the future of computing. We might have gotten a glimpse of it this week with the launch of Google’s Chrome OS — and it seems that a lot of people in the computing industry are saying, “Jeez, I hope the future isn’t Google’s (GOOG) Chrome OS.”

Right now, the Mac App Store sounds like the iOS App Store, but bigger and with more full programs coming to it: the kind you’d normally buy on disc or download, with lots of functionality. Chrome OS, on the other hand, is a whole lot more like Google’s Android operating system for mobile devices. You can buy programs, but they’re of the smaller, one-job only model. They’re also all web-based, as Chrome is made more for netbook-style computers. You buy Chrome apps to do your work, but you access them through a Wi-Fi or 3G connection. Everything you do on Chrome OS, basically, is out there in the cloud.

Chrome OS not warmly welcomed

The reception for Chrome OS has been a little chilly. There are a few issues with the cloud computing model, not the least of which is the dependence on an Internet connection to do absolutely anything. There’s also the fact that tiny, piecemeal apps can mean more to buy and a lot less power behind any one program. Imagine trying to do real, standard photo editing using a bunch of iOS apps on your computer — one specifically to deal with red eye, one to do burning and dodging, one for warping, one for color, and so on. While it’s not always the case, that’s a lot like the photo experience on the iPhone. That’s very likely the way things will work on Chrome OS, should it take off — but more than one person has speculated that it won’t.

So Chrome OS is a something of a portent of what the Mac App Store could become. As mobile apps continue to push forward with what can be done with less, it’ll be interesting to see if developers and Apple move toward the small-scale, cloud computing model of Chrome or away from it.

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It seems that, at least right now, Apple and consumers are going to be best suited by a middle ground. Yes, small-scale apps are great, as long as they provide value and functionality. Apple needs to take steps to make the Mac App Store distinct, and in many ways stronger and more regulated, than its iOS App Store, simply because the demands of desktop users are greater than those of mobile users.

Apple will need to keep quality high

To be honest, as much as there is great innovation going on with iOS apps, there’s equally as much garbage that makes it through the Apple approval process. The iOS App Store is filled with junk that users have to wade through and are sometimes stuck paying for. Reviews on iTunes are helpful, but being stuck with a junky app is painful. To circumvent that issue, Apple needs to greatly step up its app screening process, or it could see a natural shift as consumers start risking their cash only on small apps rather than big, more complex ones — and that’ll mean more small apps from developers, and that could quickly mean a repeat of the iOS/Chrome OS app store model.

And while Chrome OS and its web-based model might have its place, that place isn’t on today’s Macs. If Apple allows its shift to the Mac App Store model to compromise the kind of computing experience people have come to expect from the company, it could be in trouble. And that experience is more streamlined, more complex, and better managed than the hodgepodge that’s going on in the iOS App Store right now. It’s up to Apple to make smart decisions in shaping what the next generation of Mac computing will look like, or face the (possibly Chrome-plated) consequences.

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Phil Hornshaw

Phil Hornshaw is a freelance writer, editor and author living in Los Angeles, dividing his time between playing video games, playing video games on his cell phone, and writing about playing video games. He’s also the co-author of So You Created a Wormhole: The Time Traveler’s Guide to Time Travel, which attempts to mix time travel pop culture with some semblance of science, as well as tips on the appropriate means of riding dinosaurs. Check out his profile.

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