Mac App Store vs Buying Direct

Since the launch of the Mac App Store, a common question potential customers ask developers is “Should I buy your app directly or through the Mac App Store?”

Developers have been remarkably cagey, mostly replying with the non-answer “choose whichever is better for you”.

Fortunately Apple now only accepts sandboxed Mac apps, clarifying the situation: customers should buy Mac apps directly unless there’s a good reason not to.

Here are some reasons why it’s preferable to buy non-sandboxed apps directly from developers:

  • Better App User Experience: Non-sandboxed apps can auto-navigate the user to correct folders in Open/Save panels, run user-written AppleScripts, control iTunes* and install PDF Services automatically.

  • More features: Non-sandboxed BBEdit can directly edit files that require administrator privileges, non-sandboxed OmniFocus can automatically determine the selected document in the Finder when creating a clipping. There’s lots more.

  • Better Data Integrity: Document-based Core Data apps are incompatible with Sandboxing. One work-around is to disable disk-based journaling, increasing the risk of data corruption. It appears sandboxed Core Data Mac apps will need to switch to packages for a long-term solution, changing file formats for no good reason (and packages are less convenient for data sharing than flat files).

  • More and Faster Updates: Different developers follow different update schedules, but typically direct apps get updated more often and with less latency than Mac App Store apps. Some developers intentionally throttle down their direct update schedule to match Apple’s delays and avoid customer confusion, but that’s the developer’s decision.

  • Less Risk of Losing Your Software Investments: I bought Divvy via the Mac App Store. Unfortunately Divvy relies on Apple’s Accessibility APIs, which aren’t allowed for sandboxed apps. That means aside from minor bug fixes, I will no longer receive updates for the application I purchased.

    Some developers are going out of their way to allow seamless cross-grading from Mac App Store versions of their apps to direct apps, which is commendable and helps alleviate somewhat the situation Apple has created.

    Sandboxing is just the latest App Store rule change, I’m sure there’s more to come. All things being equal, it’s safer to buy directly instead of being cut off from your own software based on an arbitrary Apple policy change.

  • More Money Goes to the Developer: For a $10 application, only $7 goes to the developer when you buy it through the Mac App Store. For a direct purchase, it’s more on the order of $9.

    The fact more developers weren’t encouraging customers to buy directly is a testament to how much Mac developers care about User Experience — they’re willing to forego the extra profit of selling direct to make things easier for their customers.

However, as alluded to above, there are downsides to buying directly. Buying through the Mac App Store offers these benefits:

  • Better Purchasing Experience: Apple probably already has the customer’s credit card on file. No .zip to unpackage and drag into the right place. It Just Works.

  • Better Maintenance Experience: Buy a new Mac, launch App Store.app and enter your Apple credentials. Ta-da, a list of the apps you purchased ready to reinstall. No trying to remember what apps you previously had installed, who wrote them, what the developer’s website is or what your license key was.

  • iCloud Access: Apple has decided only Mac App Store apps (and thus now sandboxed apps) can access iCloud. Fortunately this isn’t much of an issue since the smart folks at SmileOnMyMac have already demonstrated a work-around of having a “bridge" Mac App Store application which allows its directly-sold PDFPen to access iCloud as well.

  • Vetted By Apple: I don’t hold this benefit in very high regard, but it does add a safety net versus downloading and running arbitrary software off the web. For example, I’m looking forward to 10.8’s Gatekeeper as a way of limiting the software my mother downloads and attempts to run on her Mac (though this is apparently possible since 10.6).

The bottom line is that sandboxing has effectively collapsed the ambiguity and customers should now purchase their apps directly instead of through the Mac App Store.

* Update: Originally I wrote here “send Growl notifications”. I was corrected by Growl Project CEO Chris Forsythe that the version of Growl in the Mac App Store appears to now listen on a machine-local network port, which works around sandbox-disallowed Mach messaging.

appstore Jun 4 2012