Apple's Walled Garden a Big Barrier for Developers

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.