Apple’s Walled Garden a Big Barrier for Developers

| Analysis

Apple's Mac App Store is a great one-stop-shop for finding new apps, but for developers the experience can be an exercise in frustration. Take, for example, The Omni Group's clever solution for working around the lack of app upgrade pricing, and the way Apple shot down the scheme.

The problem The Omni Group tried to work around was Apple's lack of an upgrade pricing feature, which means whenever a major app release rolls out customers must pay full price instead of a discounted upgrade price. Upgrade pricing isn't a new concept; it's something that companies have done for years as a customer loyalty incentive and as a way to help get the latest versions of their apps out into the wild.

Blocking OmniKeymaster underscores App Store developer headachesBlocking OmniKeymaster underscores App Store developer headaches

The Omni Group's solution was an app called OmniKeymaster. The app scanned your Mac's hard drive for Omni apps like OmniFocus, OmniOutliner, and OmniGraffle, checked to see if they were purchased through the Mac App Store, and if they were it generated equivalent activation keys that could be used at the company's website for upgrade-priced versions of those apps.

The solution was clever and easy for customers, and it gave them the option of paying upgrade pricing instead of full price when big updates come out. That solution, however, wasn't long for this world. Apple told Omni that if apps are purchased through its online store they can't offer updates through other channels, and that effectively killed OmniKeymaster.

I've already called the lack of upgrade pricing options the Mac App Store's Achilles Heel, and now it looks like Apple is intent on making sure that heel is very exposed. Apple vets apps before they're released, and that review process is something of a lottery since developers never know for sure how long it will take. Now they're faced with Apple telling them how they can price their apps, too.

Ken Case, The Omni Group's CEO, said in a blog post,

We still feel upgrade pricing is important for customers purchasing serious productivity software, since the initial value received from purchasing an app like OmniGraffle or OmniPlan is much different from the incremental value of upgrading that app from version 5.0 to version 6.0. We will continue to ask Apple to support upgrade pricing in the App Store, and I would encourage others to do the same—but until that happens, upgrade pricing will only be available to customers who buy our apps direct from our online store.

For the Omni team, the whole deal has to sting. They publicly announced their OmniKeymaster plans back in January, and it's hard to believe that Apple wasn't aware of what the company was doing. Dropping a note to Omni saying they can't do that would've saved months of development time and resources, but instead Apple waited until after OmniKeymaster was finished and publicly available.

That has to send a strong message to other developers, especially those that have already been dealing with headaches related to selling through the Mac App Store. Along with limited control as to when their new apps and app updates are released, no way to offer upgrade pricing, and the gamble of not knowing for sure whether or not you're app complies with Apple's interpretation of App Store policies, there's a pretty big wall around the App Store garden.

Developers must decide if they want to scale that wall, and so far they seem willing to do so. The Mac App Store is the first place many new Mac owners go when searching for apps, and the convenience of finding all of your app updates in a single place is very compelling.

Still, it would be nice if Apple could offer an environment that didn't feel quite so antagonistic to developers. Since that isn't in the cards, developers are left to find creative ways to work around App Store limitations, and sometimes that doesn't work out so well -- just as The Omni Group has learned.


Lee Dronick

It is also a big barrier for those who develop malware. There is probably a simple solution to the upgrade situation.


People commented in the last article that Apple seems to want developers to offer lower prices instead of upgrade pricing. It’s a different business model that the older development companies like Omni Group aren’t used to.


Companies are also used to paying programmers a living wage, but I guess that’s going to change also. Apple makes money off hardware, so they can afford to look at software as the prize in a box of cracker-jacks.

As a developer, I hate the Mac App Store with a passion. The sand-boxing, all the rules, the arbitrary enforcement of those rules, the lack of direct connection with the customer. The whole thing is horrible. Apple has single-handedly devalued software, and I may never forgive them for it.


If a software company offers a buy direct from them option, that’s always what I do. I find the app store a PITA.

Lee Dronick

As an end user I like the App Store. I am buying from a source I know and trust. I can use prepaid cards instead of my credit card account, the license covers serval Macs. Now that being said I do understand the concerns of you developers. Hopefully Apple is working you with you all to address the issues.

Aug. 28th, 2013mjtomlin said: “Apple is trying to kill “upgrade” pricing by making software affordable in the first place and releasing regular update/maintenance updates for free. This is how software should’ve been written in the first place. Way back when, software was priced through the roof because there was no volume. Developers had to recoup costs ASAP. The PC market has plateau’d - the volume is there now. Sell more for cheaper, provide regular fixes. Develop next version sell that for cheap as well. In the end the amount the customer spends probably ends up being the same.”

I sympathize with graxspoo, but I suspect he may be quite mistaken about what the consequences of these Apple pricing & upgrading policies might actually be to developer’s incomes.

I suspect mjtomlin and brett_x are probably quite right that Apple seems to be fighting to eradicate the practice of charging for upgrades, and also the practice of charging more than $50-100 for ANY software (eg. Omni’s, Adobe’s, M$‘s, etc.) in the first place, and I also agree that it seems most reasonable to expect that switching over to this pricing strategy of Apple’s would in fact prove very financially more beneficial to all such developers than the pricing strategies they’ve been accustomed to & reliant upon.


I think it’s people trying to make a mountain out of a molehill.  The Mac App store is a great place to buy software for the end user.  It’s a one-stop shop for consumers and a much better guarantee that anything they buy there will adhere to Apple’s guidelines and prevent the introduction of malware.  That’s a good thing in general.

I think when it comes to more “expensive” software, those folks will usually still go to the company’s website to determine pricing and options.  I would certainly not purchase Adobe Photoshop (for example) via the Mac Store.

If it’s Apple’s intention to simply do away with the old retail/upgrade pricing schema and have a lower, consistent price for all, let’s see what happens in the future.


First there were the fart apps which can’t get into the App Store and the pundits made a big sting out of it.

Then they got in and the android fansbois have a great time ridiculing the App Store.

The funny thing is anyone who complain about Apple always get a sympathetic ear from many a blogger.

Why can’t they give a free upgrade instead of charging for them.


I think the larger issue with developers not wanting to charge full boat for upgrades is that if the customer has to pay full price for a new version, they expect something that feels like a completely new version.  When modern software is updated, it’s usually down piecemeal, updating small collections of code that (in most instances) cooperate with each other, but are functionally isolated from each other.  This makes it easier to manage your codebase, prevents one bug from always crashing the entire application, and encourages you to update specific functions instead of having to rewrite the entire application from scratch.  Update pricing is a way customers have grown to expect a few significant changes without wholesale changes to the entire application.  By forcing them to buy a new app, it trains them to expect significant changes to all aspects of of the software - which, requires far more effort, increases the likelihood of new bugs, and introduces change for the sake of change, which is rarely a good development strategy.  It means new versions are far less frequent, and new functionality has to wait for developers to rewrite perfectly good and well accepted boilerplate code.  It also prevents incremental income between major rewrites of the codebase, which means many development companies won’t have enough capital to keep their doors open long enough to a significantly improved version 2.


The problem is, there is software that will never had a large audience, which fills a niche, and will never sell many copies, simply because of what it does. Some of what the Omni Group does, for instance, will never sell millions of copies, so the App Store model doesn’t work well—yet, perversely enough, over time, such apps will have an even harder time getting customers to discover them outside of the app store. What are such developers to do? the Omni Group thought they had a partial solution, but Apple shut that down. At some point, Apple will need to address this, because it will push some of the most creative and, IMO, necessary developers from both the App Store and the Mac market in general.


The developer used the Mac App Store for exposure and customer acquisition and then attempted to transfer those customers to their own platform.
Of course Apple couldn’t allow this scheme.

Apple will not implement upgrade pricing in any store because they want to have a competitive software market for their platforms. The lock-in effect of upgrade pricing makes that almost impossible.

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