Apple’s Controlled Experiment

Stuffit Expander (and some parasites) in the App Store
Stuffit Expander (and some parasites) in the App Store

It occurs to me that Apple has created, perhaps by accident, something of a controlled experiment in terms of determining the pros and cons of different approaches to managing the user experience on a platform.

On the one side we have the Mac App Store, where users can choose to get their apps through Apple’s channel or any other way they please, and developers can choose to distribute their wares through the Mac App Store or any other way they please.

On the other side we have the iOS App Store, where users can (modulo “jail-breaking”) only get their apps through Apple’s channel, and developers can only distribute their wares through Apple’s channel.

Obviously this isn’t a perfect experiment — it’s the real world after all. iOS and Mac OS X are different platforms with different users, different use-cases, and very different use-histories. But I suspect it’s a good enough experiment that the outcomes are guaranteed to impact both platforms.

I think it’s safe to say that if the iOS ecosystem worked the way the Mac ecosystem did, then pretty much all the complaints about the App Store would disappear. (This doesn’t mean a whole bunch of new complaints wouldn’t appear, of course.) Right now, the Mac ecosystem seems like an ideal world. You can opt in to the “walled garden” or go hog wild with warez downloaded by bittorrent. As a parent, I’d love to have OS-level support for keeping your computers in the walled garden. And, as someone working in a library, I’d love public access computers to allow users to download and use their apps legally, and then remove them when the user logged out.

So, let’s suppose that the Mac App Store turns out to “vacuum up” more-or-less all of indy development community. If we see a huge proportion of developers voluntarily opting in to the App Store because the revenues are so much better there (which in turn would mean that users are flocking to it), Apple might be encouraged to either (a) make the walled garden mandatory on Mac OS X, or (b) relax the walled garden for iOS. Or some combination of the two — e.g. AppleCare might require you to stay inside the walled garden.

Apple doesn’t need to “vacuum up” the big guys because it’s fairly easy to deal with a few large vendors (e.g. create specific technical or legal exceptions for them). It’s the long tail of software developers that are difficult to deal with. Apple isn’t worried, for example, that Adobe might produce a version of Photoshop that is actually a trojan. (OK, maybe it’s a little worried.) But there’s no way to keep track of hundreds of thousands of tiny developers who might, at any time, either create a trojan or have a trojan made to look like one of their programs, e.g. a long, long time ago — when indy software was largely distributed on floppy disks by user groups — there was a trojan purporting to be Stuffit 2.0. The developer — a high school student at the time — hadn’t released an update for a long time because he was studying for exams, and ended up having to make announcements that there would never be a legitimate Stuffit 2.0.

So: watch this space. OS X and iOS are destined to merge or just look a lot more similar as time goes on. The question is whether (and in what respects) iOS becomes more like OS X and vice versa.

Childhood’s End

Today, the App Store is live. Simply update your Mac to 10.6.6 and then select App Store from the Apple Menu.

First Impressions

  • A lot of very polished “name brand” software and very little obvious junk. This is not Android marketplace or even the iOS App Store. A pretty good selection for day one.
  • Yes, the icon does suck.
  • Yes, Angry Birds is the bestselling App (apparently the $4.99 intro price is “50% off”).
  • Twitter is free, so I grabbed that as my first test. Seamless. It just works. No password required. (Note that there’s no clean uninstall process yet!)
  • I also found the Penny Arcade games selling for $3.99 each so I grabbed them. (I have to say my first impressions are very positive; I’ve never seen 3d toon-rendering and 2d cartoons so well integrated before.) Again, both installed quickly and worked perfectly.

Transitioning

There’s no way, right now, to upgrade an existing license by going to the App Store. For that matter, the iOS App Store has been around for a couple of years now and there’s still no mechanism for version upgrades there, either. (Or free trials.) What the iOS App Store does have is “in App purchases” which, I think, represent a superior model for handling upgrades (since I don’t think you should have to pay for compatibility or bug fixes, just new features). We shall see how existing developers adapt.

Right now, I see several different approaches to the transition:

  • Stick it in the App Store at the same price. Things, Omnigraffle Pro, Fake.app, and a bunch of other well-known programs are simply the same price in the App Store as online (plus or minus a few cents in some cases). I can’t tell what the prices of products I already have installed are (e.g. Coda, BBEdit.) but I assume most are priced identically to the existing online price.
  • Offer free upgrade to next major version. Cheetah 3D is $149.99 on both the App Store and the website, but anyone buying C3D now gets a free upgrade to v6.
  • Reduce Price. Autodesk Sketchbook Pro is $29.99 in the App Store. The Windows version is around $70 from Amazon. Aperture 3 is $79.99 in the App Store (take that, Lightroom and Photoshop Elements). And the iLife Apps are $14.99 individually, while the iWork Apps are $19.99 individually. (Not only is this cheaper than buying them bundled as boxed sets, it may be even better since App Store licenses are probably like Family Packs — but I can’t confirm this.)
  • Reduce Price and Abandon Online Sales. Pixelmator is simply moving to the App Store and it’s reducing its price to $29.99 and promising 2.0 will be a free upgrade — $29.99 is the kind of price you’d have expected the upgrade to 2.0 to cost, so this is a pretty canny way of dealing with the App Store’s limitations.

Some other observations:

  • I own a BBEdit license, and BBEdit is available via the App Store. The App Store detects I have it installed but won’t let me rate or review it since I didn’t buy it through the App Store. I’m guessing it won’t let me update it via the App Store either. (In fact, Barebones just replied to my tweet on the subject informing me that BBEdit’s in-app updater will continue to work as normal, which is exactly what I expected.)
  • I own a Cheetah 3D license but it’s in a subdirectory I’ve named and versioned and the App Store doesn’t detect it.
  • There really needs to be a free trial mechanism for pricier apps and I don’t mean in-app purchases.

Interesting things to look out for

Will we see prominent free/open source projects, such as Firefox, Chrome, Blender, Inkscape, The GIMP, and OpenOffice.org appear in the App Store?

When will we see some interesting market share plays in the App Store? For example might we see a trailing contender in a market (e.g. Lightwave in the 3D market) perform some kind of big gamble and stick their product in the App Store at a dramatically reduced price? Arguably pricing Aperture 3 at $79.99 is an example of such a play, and I can easily imagine Apple putting a lot of its software products into the App Store at very aggressive prices (Final Cut Express/Pro, Logic Express/Pro, and so on spring to mind).

What else will Apple unbundle? Will I be able to buy Motion separately from Final Cut Studio?

Waiting for Jobso

I’ve commented on the App Store approval process before from the position of a potential future App Store supplicant, but now that theory has become practice my feelings have changed. But this doesn’t mean I’m completely in the App Store is broken camp (paulgraham.com).

Apparently Apple’s attitude is that developers should be more careful when they submit a new version to the App Store. They would say that. But powerful as they are, they’re not powerful enough to turn back the evolution of technology. Programmers don’t use launch-fast-and-iterate out of laziness. They use it because it yields the best results. By obstructing that process, Apple is making them do bad work, and programmers hate that as much as Apple would.

Paul Graham (my emphasis)

From the point of view of a developer, the App Store approval process is just horrible. You basically submit your app and wait. And wait. And eventually you either get rejected with some kind of set of suggested changes (my wife’s experiences in Academia have led us to refer to this as “revise and resubmit”), rejected outright, or (you hope) accepted. In the best of all possible worlds, you produce a new or updated app and … some time later … it appears online.

The worst case scenarios are, in large part, well-known. Apps left in limbo. Bizarre and inconsistent rejections. Apps made with annoyingly conservative content or feature sets to avoid potential rejection or handle insufficiently specific rejections. Yuck.

Also annoying is the idea that, say, an App has a problem, the problem has been fixed, but there’s a bureaucratic snarl between me and the solution. The developer is ticked off because he/she looks bad. The customer is annoyed because he/she is living with a problem. And Apple looks bad because of both of the above.

So I reread Paul Graham’s (as usual) thoughtful take on the whole thing the other day when I was trawling his site for new essays (there were several, Paul is a super smart guy and a very good writer) and his issues with the App Store approval process seemed suddenly much more compelling. But as I was turning it all over in my head this morning, it struck me that (a) Apple knows all this, (b) Apple isn’t stupid, (c) the App Store approval process is obviously quite complex and expensive to administer; so why was Apple persisting with this obviously broken model?

Let’s take a step back for a moment and think about how the App Store submission process affects both developers and customers:

Developer

  • If I fix a bug in my program, I can’t just recompile and stick it on my website where one of the various automatic update mechanisms can send it straight out to all my customers as their apps “phone home”. This sucks, because I like fixing stuff and my customers really appreciate getting quick fixes.
  • If my app is in the submission queue and I discover a bug and fix it, I need to trade off waiting for the current version to get approved/rejected or reject my own submission and lose my spot in the queue. This sucks because it creates an incentive for me to leave buggy apps in the queue rather than send out my latest, greatest binary.
  • It’s unfair for me to have to invest in developing an App not knowing if I’ll even be allowed to sell it.

Customer

  • I want good software that Just Works and is easy to use.
  • I don’t want apps that update themselves every time I launch them. On the other hand, I don’t like using out-of-date apps not knowing if I’m missing out on some really great new feature or risking running into some horrible bug that’s already been fixed.
  • I don’t want to buy an app and then discover it doesn’t work any more or isn’t supported on the latest version of the OS.

It may seem like there’s an obvious win-win here that Apple is perversely ignoring. Let developers ship product when and where they want. Let customers buy the products they like. But actually that’s not true at all.

Here’s what the Wild West has delivered:

  • Big Commercial Apps that treat OS updates as an opportunity to sell largely worthless version upgrades (I’m looking at you Adobe, Avid, Autodesk, Microsoft, et al.)
  • Small Indie Apps that rev constantly so that every time you launch them it seems you need a new version. (“Install and Launch” is practically the equivalent of saying “good morning” to Acorn, GraphicConverter, etc.).
  • Small Indie Apps that seem really great but never get to version 1.0, even after charging people for registration (The Hit List), or suddenly become unsupported with no word from the vendor (Silo 3d, Textmate).

Apple can’t do much about the last one except make it easier to track developers by reputation, but the App Store submission process is an attempt — a deeply flawed attempt, to be sure — to address the first two.

So here I am, Manta is in the queue, and I have a list of known bugs I am slowly working through. If I want to update my submission I will lose my place in the queue, so I am holding back my fixes until I get approved or rejected (since any issues leading to rejection will clearly be higher in priority than various things I think might need polishing). If I found a show-stopping issue, there’d be no point but to reject my own submission, but as things stand I think on balance I will stick it out.

Am I being “forced” to do “bad work”? No, I’m being forced into thinking of releases as being something I need to think about and not “whatever last compiled cleanly”. I’ve been selling software online since before it was terribly sensible to do so (e.g. when we sold Prince of Destruction online, we couldn’t handle credit card payments and most people had no idea what a website was) and the App Store submission process has certainly been useful and educational (and frustrating and scary) for me.

Arguably some developers don’t need to have this discipline enforced on them by Apple, but I don’t hear any of the likely candidates complaining (Omnigroup? Panic? Electronic Arts?). There are over 100,000 would-be App developers out there, and I’m guessing being forced to think in terms of concrete, well-defined, tested releases is going to be a big win for 99+% of them.

Stop whining and do a little QA.

Post Script

Manta has been approved and is now on sale in the App Store. Also, I added an image to the post.

Some iPad Apps

ArtStudio

If you want to draw on the iPad it’s hard to miss Brushes ($9.99) or Autodesk Sketchbook Pro ($7.99), but it’s rather easy to overlook ArtStudio ($0.99). I’m quoting prices from memory (and they’re liable to change as well) so don’t shoot me if I’m not exactly right.

I think Sketchbook Pro has a better “feel” than ArtStudio (I can’t comment on Brushes because I paid $4.99 for the iPhone app and refuse to give the developer any more money until I see significant UI improvements) but ArtStudio wins big on user interface. First off, Sketchbook reduces its UI to a single dot which lets you tweak your current brush, and access the rest of the UI. ArtStudio puts hidden undo and redo in corners of the screen, and has a better located “show me the UI” button. As a result, ArtStudio is my go-to app for doodling, while Sketchbook Pro looks pretty and sits in the corner.

ArtStudio does have some UI blemishes — its more advanced function buttons are just ugly — but it gives quicker access to common functions (complete with press and hold to grab colors from your image). I love it.

If I had to pick one, I’d definitely pick ArtStudio over Sketchbook Pro right now — and at one dollar it’s an absolute steal right now, although I know the latter is very popular among digital artists, and I expect the program to improve over time.

Freeform

The other day I needed a drawing program badly, and the first one that occurred to me was Omnigraffle — for which I have a license somewhere. Then I remembered that Omni is porting everything to the iPad and searched for it. $49.99. Um, OK. Look, I love you guys but that’s absurd. (And the reviews are pretty damning too.)

Eventually I found Freeform ($2.99 I think) which is a really good UI looking for a bit more functionality. All this program needs is some (better? any?) way to delete stuff, text blocks, rotate objects, snap to grid, precise beziers, gradient fill, arrows, and slightly better palette management (it’s quite good already) and it would be pretty much perfect.

Kindle

Amazon’s Kindle app for the iPad is free. So you can have your cake and eat it. Enough said. It’s missing some of iBooks’s sizzle (e.g. page-turn animations) and cleverness (e.g. adjustable brightness) but beats it on practical considerations (e.g. you can view books as white on black, which is handy if you’re reading in bed next to a sleeping spouse). It’s early days yet, but the iPad is already a better Kindle than the Kindle.

Numbers

Alone among the Apple offerings on the iPad, Numbers is kind of broken. Some of its quirks are simply infuriating. E.g. stretching a selection doesn’t fill the way it does in the desktop version (e.g. if you want to fill-right or fill-down with a formula), and exactly how scrolling works in grids has me mystified. Insofar as it works, it works quite well, but compared to Pages and Keynote it’s a very unpolished.

Pages

My big gripe with Pages is that you can’t modify styles, which is very annoying when you bring in a document and discover some style has been reassigned to an inappropriate font. There’s simply no way to say “make bullet paragraphs Times please”. Aside from that, it’s very well done. Unfortunately, I’m not running iWork 09 on my Macs yet, making it a bit of a pain for interoperability.

Speaking of which: the system for moving files to and from the iPad is horrible (I’m hardly the first to opine thus) and needs to be fixed. Also, when will I be able to drag a PDF onto my iPad (or download one) and read it in iBooks or some other built-in app? (Heck, Safari is pretty decent, but won’t explicitly download files.)

Which leads to:

GoodReader

I was pretty desperate to have a PDF viewer on the iPad and willing to pay anything up to… $0.99 as it happened. GoodReader is a solid app with a cluttered UI and a ridiculous number of features. You can send files to it wirelessly (it pretends to be a server) or use its built-in browser to navigate to pages containing PDFs and download them. (Again, can we please have a file system of some kind? Thanks.) The PDF viewing component is pretty decent, albeit cluttered and perversely pages “down” and “up” rather than “left” and “right” which is not only inconsistent with iBooks (with which the developer may not, at the time, have been familiar) but pretty annoying in general (I generally don’t have any fingers near the center-bottom of the screen when reading).

Note: I just updated my apps and the developer of Goodreader has acknowledged the page-turning issue and promised a fix imminently.

So, a pretty darn nice app (functionally speaking) wrapped in a slipshod UI.

Cat in the Hat & Seuss ABC

Aside from draining my iPad’s battery faster than any other app (including GTA: Chinatown Wars and Pocket Legends) I’ve tried, these are really very nicely done. You can have the books read themselves, read on demand, or read them yourself. If you touch objects the word “puffs” out of them and is spoken. If you touch the text it gets read aloud. And the drawings look incredibly sharp. Very, very nice stuff.

Doodle Buddy

I got this $0.99 (or was it $1.99) drawing app with stamps and sound effects for my twins, and they love it (a little too much). It’s essentially Kid Pix for the iPad (only better and insanely cheap).

JamPad

There are tons of apps like this out there, but this one was free with a $0.99 internal upgrade (darn I got suckered!). It’s a simple app that gives you a piano keyboard (good multitouch support, but no way to stop the keyboard from scrolling around as you play and no way to hit a note hard or soft), and the ability to play percussion and guitar backing tracks, or hit electric guitar chords. For a $0.99 it’s a fine musical “doodling” tool (well, it is for me — my father would probably wince were he alive to hear it).

Labyrinth Lite

I never bought the full version on the iPhone, although I liked the lite version well enough. The iPad version is prettier (beyond the extra screen real estate) and has almost too many gimmicks, but none of the free content is terribly compelling, nor does it seem to promise enough to hook me into paying. Lovely piece of software though.

Touchpad

Touchpad uses VNC to let your iPhone (and now iPad) act as a remote mouse/keyboard for any Mac running 10.6 (not sure if it works for 10.5, and not really bothered to find out given the immense upgrade cost). We’ve been using it on our iPads to control the Mac that drives the HD TV in our bedroom, and this just makes it more useful (especially since, on the iPhone, it’s a bit of a battery drain).

Pocket Legends

This MORPG  (it’s not massive, at least not yet, so just one M) deserves a review of its own. In almost every sense except perhaps the most important one this is a truly brilliant piece of work. The big problem is gameplay, which is 75% of the way there, but has no flaws that can’t fairly easily be addressed. A slightly lesser problem is a business model that appears to preclude trading items with friends (or anyone else).

Here are the salient features from my point of view:

  • It’s essentially instanced. Your character lives on a server, but games are essentially group-level or solo. So it’s more like Diablo than World of Warcraft. The one difference is you can go to “town” and experience the lag of lots of players all in one place spamming emotes.
  • The game architecture and base assumptions mean that you can play it as a single-player game, or just with friends, or you can just join random games and silently cooperate with strangers (you can chat in game but no-one seems to bother).
  • The business model is essentially Zynga but — I think — better. Instead of spending money on useless doohickeys or simply to gain a leg up on people who don’t waste money, you basically spend money to gain access to more content. This means you pay for what you do, not for how long you keep an account. (World of Warcraft is great value for people playing it 4h/day, but kind of a ripoff for casual players who only log on now and then. Why?) You can also spend real money to buy game money or special gear, but neither seems necessary. I approve.
  • The game itself is very simple. You touch the ground to move. You touch bad guys to target them. You attack enemies by touching an attack button or firing off an expensive special ability. There are three character options: archer (a bird thing who uses bows), mage (human girl), and warrior (a bear thing). The graphics are low poly but stylish, so if you like World of Warcraft’s aesthetic, you’ll probably like Legends. If not, not.
  • The content is also very simple. So far all I’ve seen have been simple mazes with monsters and treasure chests scattered around them. The monsters wander back and forth. The only real challenge in the game is pulling (getting single or small groups of monsters to attack you without drawing any of their friends to help), and it’s not much of a challenge.
  • It works pretty well, although lag can be terrible and sometimes things mysteriously won’t work (e.g. you can’t target a monster, or your wife’s mage’s spells don’t show up on your screen). It also took us quite a while to figure out how to loot chests (you point yourself near them facing towards them and attack).
  • You can’t trade items — which is particularly infuriating if the loot system allocates you a piece of loot your companion can use and you can’t.
  • There’s no sense of a “world”. Dungeons are small, flat mazes. You start at one end, go to the other, kill everything, and you’re done. This opens up the next dungeon. You don’t travel overland (except inside a “dungeon”). There’s no world map.

Anyway, it’s free and the stuff in-game is cheap (and we haven’t paid for anything yet). It’s mildly diverting, and it gives the iPad a coop game that doesn’t suck — which is no bad thing. I think I’ll try out Dungeon Hunter before I spend any money on Legends, though.

Tiny Freecell (iPhone)

The $0.99 iPhone solitaire game implements Freecell and Eight Off very nicely, and it works just dandy on my iPad (and looks great pixel-doubled). It hasn’t been updated in years, so I’m not holding my breath for a native iPad version.

GTA: Chinatown Wars (iPhone)

It hasn’t been updated to support the iPad yet, but the “glass joystick” works better on the iPad than the iPhone (more screen real estate, I think). Even so, I think this app really needs a more “native” interface.

Phil Schiller defends App Store Policies

Businessweek discusses App Store issues and quotes Phil Schiller. The writer comes down — barely — on Apple’s side. Interesting article, but a disappointingly superficial.

I think this falls under the category of “complicated problems for which there’s a simple solution, which is wrong”.

Post Script

Ars Technica doesn’t think much of Schiller’s “spin”.

Jeff Lamarche (whose blog is called iphonedevelopment) thinks that Rogue Amoeba was treated perfectly fairly.