The Mac App Store: First Take

For me, the Mac App Store started off with two strikes against it before it even stepped up to the plate.

First, there are its similarities to the iOS App Store. The bad similarities. It has annoyed me since Day 1 that I cannot install apps on my iOS devices unless they have Apple’s approval. I am “old school.” I think of my iOS devices as computers. I no more want Steve Jobs in charge of what I can do with my iPhone than I do with my Mac. Wait a minute! With the Mac App Store, the tables have tilted the other way: Rather than hoping for the iPhone to become more like the Mac, I’m watching the Mac become more like the iPhone. Although I recognize it’s a slippery slope, and one that we may never slide down, I don’t look forward to a day when the only way to acquire software for a Mac is via the Mac App Store.

This brings me to the second strike: Apps that are already missing-in-action from the Store because they were (or would be) rejected. Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen several examples of quality apps that have run afoul of Apple’s guidelines. Default Folder comes immediately to mind (rejected for reasons best explained by the developer himself). Even for apps that are accepted, and again just as with the iOS App Store, there is no accommodation for trial versions, demo versions or beta versions.

One more strike and the Mac App Store would be out. At least in my ball park.

But a funny thing happened once the Mac App Store was open for business and had a chance to swing its bat. The third strike never happened. Instead, the Mac App Store got a hit. A solid single. Not a home run. But enough to keep the Store very much in the game (and, not surprisingly, the Store has already exceeded one million downloads).

Mac App Store splash

What’s behind the Store’s success? Simple. It’s the same things that make the iOS App Store such a powerhouse. It turns out that it’s quite convenient to be able to search for, and purchase, Mac software in one attractively-designed location. It’s helpful that, once you make purchases, the Mac App Store keeps track of them for you and alerts you to when there are updates. And, for cost-conscious Mac users, the Store offers what may be the best most-accessible list of free Mac software available. Even paid apps tend to be cheaper in the Mac App Store than what the same or similar apps would cost outside.

It’s especially sweet that, once you purchase an app on any of your Macs, you can install that app for free on any of your other Macs that use the same purchasing account. The Store even shows you what apps you own that are waiting to be installed.

As an aside, I have to wonder what all of this will mean for websites, such as MacUpdate, that have long offered some of these same options. Although the Mac App Store does not duplicate all of the features of these websites, it’s close enough that these sites should be worried.

In the end, despite my pre-existing reservations, I enjoy using the Mac App Store. It’s not without flaws. But I never expected perfection. I do expect it to become my preferred method for acquiring new software. I just hope it never becomes the only way I can do so.

Digging in…

So much for editorializing. I’ve also been investigating details about how the Mac App Store works. What follows is an initial collection of tips and hints, gleaned from my first several hours of experimenting and searching. I suspect there will be more such collections to come.

Dock bloat. After you purchase an app, its icon catapults from the App Store to your Dock. From here, you can watch a progress bar tracking the app’s installation (much like on the iPhone’s Home screen). A potential downside is that an installed app’s icon is added as a “permanent” addition to the Dock. This can quickly lead to an overstuffed Dock. Imagine that you decided to purchase thirty apps on your first day in the Mac App Store. Do you really want 30 more icons on your Dock? I don’t think so. True, you can drag the app icons off the Dock. But I’d prefer an option to have this behavior turned off. I’d rather decide for myself what apps I want to keep on my Dock.

Inconsistency alert! If you select to install purchased software that that is not yet on your drive (because you purchased it on another Mac, for example), and you do so via the Install button in the Purchased section of the Mac App Store, the icon of the new app does not get added to the Dock.

Relocating works. Downloaded apps are installed in the Applications folder by default. However, if you move an application from that folder, the Mac App Store is able to keep track of it. That is, if you later need to update or reinstall the app, the Mac App Store will do so — and place the app in the same non-default location where the prior version was stored. Very nice.

 OS X dialog updated. To get the App Store on your Mac, you need to install Mac OS X 10.6.6. With the new OS installed, there’s a change to the dialog that pops up when the Finder can’t locate an application to open a document. As shown in the TUAW article, it now offers to search the App Store for a viable app.

Signs of trouble. If you want to update or replace a program that is already on your drive with the Mac App Store version — you may well run into trouble. In some cases, the only way you can do it is by repurchasing the app. For a free app, that doesn’t matter. For a paid app, it’s a different story. I cover this and related quirks in my latest Bugs & Fixes column at Macworld. You’ll find related coverage in recent articles at TidBITS and Macworld.

Mac App Store Purchases

Looking for support files? Looking for where apps from the App Store place their support data? You’ll generally find them in familiar locations, the same places where existing apps store such data. Plist files are in the Library/Preferences folder of your Home directory. Most other data files will be in the same Library’s Application Support folder.

For example, for Angry Birds, you’ll find a Rovio > Angry Birds folder in Application Support. Here is where the game’s high-scores data file (highscores.lua) is located. Via copy-and-paste and a utility such as iPhone Explorer, you can replace this file with the same-named file from your iOS version of the game, thereby transferring the high scores. Chris Breen provides more detail in his recent Mac 911 column.

Playing games. The gameplay for Angry Birds on the Mac compares favorably to the iOS version — especially if you use a trackpad. The only thing I didn’t like is that any single finger touching on the Trackpad instantly loads/fires the slingshot. With iOS devices, the slingshot is not active until you have to touch the screen near the slingshot to activate it. The difference is that I am much more likely to take an unintended shot on the Mac.

Getting Help. If you select Help from the App Store’s Help menu, you get a useful collection of tutorial information. If you wish, you can extract this information so that you can access it outside of the App Store app. To do so: Select Show Package Contents for the App Store app. Once the window is open, navigate to Contents > Resources. From here, Option-drag to your Desktop. Open this folder and drill down again to Contents > Resources. From here, double-click index.html. The Help files will open in your web browser. If you want, you can make an alias of the index.html file so you can more easily open it on future occasions.

Utility apps. While utility apps that modify the system software are mainly off-limits to the Mac App Store, there are encouraging minor exceptions. One is Caffeine, which allows you to temporarily override the Sleep settings in Energy Saver. I assume Caffeine somehow pulls this off without violating any App Store guidelines. Regardless, I hope we see more of this type of utility going forward.

Updates. The Apple menu now includes a Mac App Store item in the Apple menu, right below Software Update. I assume updates from these two sources are entirely independent. That is, if you purchased a copy of iLife from, you’ll update it via Software Update. If you purchased it via the Mac App Store, you’ll update it from the Store.

• Already on my wish list. I’d like the Purchases list in the Mac App Store to include a Show in Finder option. That way I can easily locate any apps that I’ve moved from the Applications folder.

Piracy? I’ve read several articles noting that, if a developer did not correctly handle receipt checking for their app, the app is vulnerable to a simple piracy hack. That is, you will be able to install the app on a Mac that did not purchase the program. Expect such holes to be plugged in updates to the relevant apps.