Is the Mac becoming a closed platform?

The big question everyone is asking is whether the Mac App Store is a step toward the closing of the Mac platform, making it a walled garden like iOS where you can only install applications by way of the App Store. This was the big worry when the iPad was originally released — is the closed model the future of personal computing? Migrating the App Store model to the Mac platform isn’t very comforting to those of us who like to be able to install and run any software we like on our computers.

Today the App Store Review Guidelines have been leaked, answering one of my big questions, which is whether Apple is going to exercise control over which Mac applications can be distributed via the store. The answer is yes, they will.

The next question is whether Apple is moving toward the App Store being the only way to distribute Mac applications and the only way to install them. I think the answer that is that Apple is not headed in that direction. Here’s one reason why:

Apps that use deprecated or optionally installed technologies (e.g., Java, Rosetta) will be rejected

Apple is stating flat out that Java applications will not be allowed in the app store. This is important because developers in general, and Java developers in particular, make up a substantial part of the market for Apple computers. Many people migrated to the Mac specifically because it was a nice place to set up a full Web development environment that mirrors what you might use in production — you can install Eclipse (or your favorite Java IDE), Tomcat, MySQL, and Apache and get work done. It doesn’t seem like you’ll be able to install any of those applications in the App Store.

So the question is, will Apple turn its back on developers who use OS X completely? That seems highly unlikely to me.

My sense is that we’re going to see people using App Store apps and traditionally installed apps side by side for a long time. The review requirements make it clear that users will be unable to install the kinds of applications they need for many kinds of work by way of the App Store, so the Mac will need to remain an open platform in order to accommodate those users.

Oddly enough, this gives me some hope for future opening of the iOS platform. The Mac platform is going to be an experiment in running App Store-style managed applications alongside applications that require open access to the operating system to install. If the combination works out very well, it seems like Apple may decide to further open iOS.

I can see a future where a sizable percentage of Mac users only use applications that they installed through the Mac App Store. But I don’t see a future where the Mac App Store becomes the only way to distribute OS X applications. Apple is foreclosing that possibility itself with its review policy.

16 thoughts on “Is the Mac becoming a closed platform?

  1. What I can completely see Apple doing in Lion is adding parental controls / user rights that would allow administrators to only allow SW from the App Store or disallow SW installation at all.

    I believe it’s enough they’re offering something simple for folks who might be accustomed to the iOS way and still get frustrated or into inadvertent trouble on a Mac. I don’t believe the presence of a simpler way turns into “Jobs is closing the Mac.” That’s somewhat orthogonal to what you’re talking through with the JDK deprecation.

    I’d welcome seeing more SW distributed this way. I doubt Adobe will jump into the Mac App Store, but I’d love to see them retire their custom installers/updaters. If I was a Rogue Amoeba, Panic or other smaller Mac SW shop, I’d be all over this.

    One interesting bit to consider: A few installers offer a lot of customizations of add-ons, languages, developer packages. I presume in the App Store model, those go away, or become in app “purchases” later.

  2. I own a macbook. The macbook air seems a great computer laptop. I’m waiting for the release of the notion ink adam tablet. If it meets expectations it’ll take a byte out of Apple. notionink.wordpress.com

  3. This is the most well reasoned and thought out analysis of where Apple is going with the Mac App Store I have read so far. I wish everyone who is freaking out and coming up with outlandish doom-and-gloom scenarios would read your post and just chill out!

  4. Jim: Noticed after I posted. I understand the concern, and hopefully Apple treats the initial publication of the guidelines as a draft, to be revised at some future point, likely after the store opens.

    My general point stands: If I was an independent Mac developer selling software licenses via PayPal, Kagi, Google checkout or some other means, I would be seriously evaluating the Mac App Store.

    I was slightly surprised to see that Wil Shipley is interested in the store, even though I know he’s pulled out the licensing/payment engine behind Delicious Library and tried to make a go of that as a separate business.

  5. Isn’t Apple deprecating Java on OS X a sign they might be willing to give up the Java developer market in a move towards more mainstream popularity?

  6. Seems pretty doubtful that Apple would close software installation to non-Market apps, ever. But their Market will be a huge social force, especially for incoming Mac users, one that could make it impractical for anyone to distribute their app in any other way.

    I’d love to see something like Ubuntu’s apt-based system done right – a full blown, beautiful App Store experience that’s decentralized enough so that you can add in “alternate sources” of apps to it. Can’t see Apple building something like that, though.

  7. It’s death by a thousand cuts. When 50% of the people owning a Mac install software primarily from the app store, your “other technology” software might as well not participate or be visible in the market at all.

    There is currently a “make a living or starve” difference between apps that are featured in the Top 25-list on the iOS Appstore and apps that are not. This is where this is headed.

    For me the question has long since become something else entirely: the only way to improve the awful installation experience on PCs today is to make the system less free. But this also means a very different market environment. If I have to scroll three pages down to find Paint.Net, how many people will buy a much more expensive Photoshop-package that’s within the first 5 results?

    I think you’re very very wrong if you don’t think that this shift the economics of the Mac ecosystem.

  8. I definitely agree that it will shift the economics. For one thing, I think it will lead to a lot more third party Mac software being sold, period. How many people buy a Mac at the Apple Store and use the bundled apps pretty much exclusively? My guess is a lot more than people would imagine. The App Store suddenly makes them more likely customers for third party software.

    At the same time, some existing app developers are probably going to be hurt by it. Existing developers are going to have to decide whether the potential gains to be had from being on the App Store outweigh the big cut you have to give to Apple to be on the App Store.

    Changes will abound. I just don’t think that Apple has any interest in making the App Store the only game in town.

  9. It’s runny how narrow people’s perspective can be. Over on reddit or hacker news, I saw someone suggest that the Java move was, perhaps, a strike against JRuby and in favor of MacRuby. Over here, I see someone suggesting that java developers are important enough to MacOS that they couldn’t possibly shut them out.

    I try to take a broad view, but I’m sure I have my own blinders. What strikes me about the Java move is that while Java developers may not be that important in terms of volume, they may be important due to influence. OS X won over a lot of young techies early in its life because it was so great for web development. It was also great for computer science undergrads.

    Part of the reason it was great for both groups was that it was UNIX with a great GUI, and a big part of what made it a useful UNIX is that they could run Java, both Java IDEs, like Netbeans and Eclipse, and server-side code. It’s not clear that either of those are going to be a good option on OS X soon, meanwhile, desktop Linux has been making huge strides. Apple could be loosing a lot of influence with young tech trendsetters and creating opportunities for other platforms.

  10. If Apple were to abandon the developer market, I think it would be a huge blow to the company’s prospects as a computer maker. I should write a separate post on that, I think.

  11. As someone whose Mac development has been exclusively on free software (Jumpcut, a clipboard buffer app), I don’t have any financial stake in the new app store, but I’m still awfully dubious as a Mac user, given the gaming of the iOS store that we’ve already seen. But I’m not the intended market for this; I think Rafe is right that this is targeted at low-information users who aren’t installing a truckload of third-party software at the moment, not the TextMate and Scrivener and Acorn users who are out there now.

  12. My guess is that they’ll keep an expensive OS X Pro which allows you to run apps from anywhere, for developers and graphics professionals and the like. It’ll only ship with the high end machines. All the low end machines like MacBooks and Mac Minis will get iOS 5 or 6. And the fanboys who bought into the iPhone and iPad will eat it up.

    As for the idea that a successful Mac App Store will encourage Apple to open up iOS–that’s some pretty wishful thinking. Why would they open up iOS, if making OS X less open is successful?

  13. What no one seems to have commented on though is this “position of arrogance” that Apple seems to take towards users. What I mean is that finding and installing Mac software has been, with few exceptions, an easy and pain free experience. Users aren’t idiots and don’t need a “for dummies” application environment. Anyone who switches from Windows to OS X will note how easy a drag and drop install is (and that is most software). Yes the Adobe installers are painful and I’m not a fan of .pkg installers but, that said, even the .pkg installers aren’t as bad as the installers I remember on Windows. Soo…the Mac App Store is a solution in search of a problem, or?

    Further to that the iPhone App Store walled garden approach exists primarily to protect Apple’s interests, not the customers. There was no market for software for the iPhone before the App Store and so as the only game in town you either play by their rules or you don’t play. Applying those same rules to a Mac App Store doesn’t seem to serve any purpose than test the waters for a locked down iOS for the Mac. Am I preaching doom and gloom? I don’t think so. Any developer who thinks today’s Apple has their interests in mind is foolish. Apple wants to be a consumer device company ala Sony in its heyday and not a computer company and the distinction between the two is a closed system where only applications anointed by Cupertino will be allowed to play versus what we had before the “Back to the Mac” keynote.

  14. I’m sure there will be developer-hackers who be glad to jailbreak a future OS X, so that we can install apps and functionality Apple doesn’t approve of, if the worst happens.

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