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Apple's Mac App Store Brings Changes, Worries

Before it has even launched, the Mac App Store has prompted calls for competition.

The Mac App Store announced last week at Apple's 'Back to the Mac' event has developers worried about restrictions.

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Apple plans to make the Mac App Store available in 90 days. Modeled after the iTunes App Store, the Mac App Store will operate through a Mac OS X store application. It will allow users to discover, purchase, download Mac OS X software, at a cost to developers of 30% of the sale price. That fee buys hosting, bandwidth, payment processing, and automated update distribution.

"My biggest problem is with the restrictions," said Ambrosia Software president Andrew Welch in an e-mail. "In addition to missing out on the publicity that being in the Mac App Store would bring, there's the potential for anything not in the app store being viewed as 'rogue' or 'suspect.'"

There are many restrictions listed in Apple's Mac App Store Guidelines. One rule says that apps in the Mac App Store cannot install kernel extensions, or kexts. But Welch observes that there are legitimate reasons to use kexts, plugins, and downloadable extensions in Mac OS X applications.

"Desktop machines are not the same as mobile devices in terms of the needs and expectations of users and developers," he said. "The way Apple has outlined what will be rejected, there are an awful lot of really useful applications that will never make the cut."

Welch stresses that he is not opposed to a the idea of a centralized app store, but he questions the implementation. "As they say, the devil is in the details," he said.

The Mac App Store will also bring changes to the way software is licenced. Apple plans to make software downloaded through the Mac App Store available on all of the user's computers. Traditionally, software licenses have allowed the user to maintain a single copy of an application at any given time. In practice, however, many people install copies of applications they've acquired on several machines.

Cabel Sasser, founder of Panic Software, thinks Apple's more flexible licensing scheme makes sense. "Panic has always had flexible licensing -- we've allowed people to install a single license of our software on both their laptop and desktop, for example," he explained in an e-mail. "So, I'm not too concerned about it -- there definitely comes a point where greed can overshadow your users, and we always try to land on the side of user happiness."

Sasser says he's withholding judgment on the Mac App Store until he sees how everything works out.

Uncertainty about the impact of the Mac App Store have led some to call for competition. In a blog post last week, Anil Dash, director of Expert Labs, suggested that those concerned about the health of the Mac OS ecosystem should consider developing an open alternative to the Mac App Store. He urged the developers behind the Sparkle and Growl projects -- which provide automatic updating and notifications -- to combine their efforts and for independent Mac developers to defend their independence.

While the Mac App Store's impact won't be clear until it has been functional for a while, Al Hilwa, program director for application software development at IDC, believes it's a smart move for Apple. "The Mac App Store solves an important problem for PC platforms in general, namely the ability to discover in a trusted place new applications and interactively try and buy them in an efficient way," he said in an e-mail. "Applications are born digital and to have them be distributed on disks is probably an idea whose time has come and gone."

Hilwa points to Adobe's InMarket app distribution system, which will span multiple Web stores, as a sign that app stores are the future. "We appear to be getting into a new era of innovation with app stores and I am sure there is more to come.

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