This is a golden age for tech commentary. It used to be that we only had one Evil Empire to write about. These days, expecting anything truly evil from Microsoft is like expecting one of the Rolling Stones to do anything worse to a hotel room than leave behind a phone charger.
Now? Please! It’s a movable feast. Apple wants to control every aspect of the user experience; yes, you get fantastic hardware and software, but under Apple’s terms. Google seems to be using its money and influence to turn the thrilling world of tech into a place where everything is free but heartbreakingly mediocre. Facebook executives lose sleep at night worrying that there’s some part of our personal life that they haven’t managed to turn into a metric and monetise. The fact that Facebook holds the title of The Tech World’s Most Obnoxious Busybody in the industry should attract the attention of the Nobel Committee and perhaps Interpol.
I’m saying all of this because I’m concerned about Apple’s new Mac App Store. As a tech columnist, I really ought to be about to spit venom on how bad this is going to be for everybody. I’m trying really hard to get worked up, honestly. But it’s just not happening.
Naturally, when the announcement came out during Apple’s latest media event I was diligently scribbling Concerned Questions along with my notes. I’ve defended the iOS App Store in the past by citing how mobile apps are different from desktop apps. As an iPhone or iPad user you give up freedoms (like the ability to arbitrarily drop a file onto the device and make it available to any app) but you get things in return, like stability and security.
There’s also the simple psychological detail that “I’ve never used an iPhone that allowed me to do arbitrary things with apps and files.” Whereas I’ve never had a Mac that put any limits on those things whatsoever.
After Apple’s live presentation, I cracked my knuckles and prepared to crank out a quick 1,000 words of outrage and concern about what Apple was about to do to the Mac by turning its app library into a managed, curated golden cage like on iOS. Then (damn, damn, damn) I realised that I needed to find out more. Which, of course, ruined everything.
(Provisionally) not evil
I’m willing to provisionally – provisionally – state that the Mac App Store is not evil. All of my major “Uh-oh” notes have been cleared up. Apps won’t be under DRM; the mechanism for certifying that they’ve been paid for is little different from what happens when you register a shareware app. They aren’t a special kind of app in a different container; they’re just apps. Developers aren’t required to sell their apps through the App Store, nor must they sell through the App Store exclusively.
Most importantly: if I want to use a piece of software that Apple doesn’t like, I’m still free to do so.
I reiterate that the Store is Provisionally Not Evil at this stage; we won’t know the full score until it’s been up and running for a few months. But it does seem like my life as a user will go on as usual, which is all I really care about. I think the Store will become the de facto place to buy ‘middleware’ apps. Expensive professional apps from the biggest and most established companies will still be sold the old way, and the simplest and most trivial apps will still come from the developer’s website. But I reckon the Store will be a huge boon to apps like Scrivener. It’s the Greatest Word Processor On The Planet and it’s just $45 (£28), but, like most third-party apps, the average user won’t come across it unless someone specifically recommends it to them. Discoverability is clearly an issue that the Store is meant to solve.
As is the dull drudgery of managing desktop apps. At the same event in which Apple unveiled the new App Store, it also announced the new MacBook Air. My sample unit arrived the next day and I immediately started to install my usual apps. I found my Aperture install DVD, but couldn’t find the activation serial number. I had the box that Photoshop came in, but not the discs. I could redownload Scrivener, but had to search my email for the activation.
With the new App Store, I would conceivably have been able to redownload and recertify all of my apps just by logging into iTunes. Neat.
But let’s get back to fearmongering, please. While developers won’t be required to submit their Mac OS software to the App Store for Apple’s approval, it’s obvious that getting into the Store will become a functional imperative for anyone who wants to have success with a mid-range app. It’s going to be the first and maybe even the only place that Mac users turn to when they need an app.
And the thing is, Apple has never hesitated to make the Big Play when it think’s it’ll increase the user experience. Will Apple still allow desktop users to retain their freedoms a year or two from now, when the Store controls 95 per cent of individual app sales and the company has come up with a Great Idea for improving the Mac OS user experience that requires everybody to give something up in return?
Well, if Apple ever truly earns the title of Evil Company, at least we can be sure that it’ll only be evil like the machines in The Matrix as opposed to the aliens in Alien. Apple wants us to be blissful and happy like a babe in a womb. Google and Facebook want to lay their eggs inside our chests until their next product tears its way through our sternums.