The iOS Mac: App Store and MacBook Air

Now we know the true meaning of “Back to the Mac” (the name of today’s Apple Special Event). It didn’t mean a return to an emphasis on the Mac. Rather, it meant a looping back of features from iOS (which is based on Mac OS X) to the Mac itself.

All those who predicted that the next version of Mac OS X would somehow incorporate features from iOS were right — if not always in the details. I, for example, suggested that Apple would put iOS features into a revised version of Front Row. While I missed the bull’s-eye here, the new Launchpad and MissionControl features come close to what I was imagining.

Of all the iOS features migrating to Mac OS X, there is one that looms above the rest — the Mac App Store. That’s right, for better or worse, you’ll now be able to purchase Mac software from an App Store, just as you now do on your iPhone. 

Although announced as a new feature of Mac OS X Lion (coming this summer), Apple considered it to be such a big deal that they are making it available for Snow Leopard in only 90 days. Developers can start submitting apps to the Store next month and start learning about it (on Apple’s Developer site) today.

We’ll all be learning much more about this new App Store in the days ahead. Which is good. Because what Apple showed us today amounts to little more than a tease. There remain numerous as-yet unanswered questions, from the mundane to the philosophical. For some of them, I can take a good stab at the answer. For others, my crystal ball remains cloudy.

Will Mac users be required to use the App Store to get software?

This is an easy one. It was answered definitively during the Keynote. The answer is…no. Thankfully.

You’ll still be able to download software from the Web or install it from a disc — and run it from the Finder. While there was Web chatter fretting about whether Apple might introduce a required App Store…I never took this seriously. Apple would not risk such a dramatic…and certainly unwelcome…change. At least not yet.

I am quite certain that if Steve Jobs thought a required App Store would be greeted with unanimous applause, we’d be seeing it tomorrow. It may yet come to pass…after we’ve all had a few years to get comfortable with the idea. But that’s a concern for another day.

This doesn’t mean the App Store’s immediate influence will be minimal. Assuming the App Store is a success (which seems likely), developers may soon feel compelled to sell the programs via the Store — because non-Store sales will have fallen off a cliff. Before too long, the user’s option to purchase software not in the Mac App Store could be sharply curtailed.

Will software sold via the App Store be available only from the App Store?

This seems likely — although not certain. At least for Apple software, it would make sense for Apple to limit sales to their own App Store. What better way to promote the Store’s use? This means you would no longer be able to go to a retail Apple Store and buy a copy of iWork. You’d have to get it from the App Store instead, just as you now have to do with all iOS software.

Third-party software may be able to swing both ways. But as Apple is taking a 30% cut of all software sold from the Store, does it really want developers to compete with that by selling the software outside of the Store as well? We’ll see.

How will the App Store and Launchpad integrate with the existing Finder?

This is one of the biggest unanswered questions. It breaks down to several smaller ones:

If you install an app via the App Store, will you be able to access and open it via the traditional Finder — or only via the Launchpad? Conversely, if you download a program from the Web, will you be able to install it so that you can access it from Launchpad? Or will Launchpad only be for App Store apps?

Similar to the question about a required App Store, might Apple eventually dispense with the Finder altogether, making Launchpad the only interface for accessing documents and apps (duplicating what is already true for iOS devices)? Not in Lion. But down the road? Why not? If so, it’s at this point that the Mac truly becomes an iOS device rather than a Mac.

Will App Store apps and traditional apps be fundamentally different in structure?

On iOS devices, all documents created by or imported to an app are saved within the sandbox of that app. There is no way to have a single document locally stored on an iPhone that is accessible by multiple documents. Will Mac App Store apps have this same structure? I’d be surprised, as this would be too radical a departure from how Mac OS X works now. It would add too many unwanted problems…such as what if you wanted to open a document in Word sometimes and TextEdit other times? Actually, I’d prefer to see iOS devices become more like Macs here, rather than the other way around.

There are other structural differences whose fate is unknown as yet. For example, iOS users have no ability to decide where on the device’s drive apps are stored. Will App Store apps have similar location restrictions? I believe so, but I’m not sure.

Will the Mac App Store avoid undesired limitations of the iOS App Store?

Major Mac software often ships as a package, with several programs included on a single disc. For example, Toast Titanium ships with Toast plus an assortment of utilities (CD Spin Doctor etc.). How will this be handled with Mac App Store software? Will everything need to be broken down into single purchases (as Apple did with its iWork software for the iPad)? Probably.

What if a user wants to save an older version of an app, so that they can revert to it later. For example, after installing Office 2011, I might want to return to Office 2008 on occasion. You can’t do this with apps on iOS devices. Will this function similarly be lost on the Mac for software purchased via the App Store? I hope not, but I suspect it will be.

Will shareware, demos, and beta versions (none of which are available via the iOS App Store) get lost in this new emphasis on the Mac App Store? Almost certainly yes — at least within the App Store itself.

Will Mac App Store apps have to be approved by Apple, as is now the case for iOS apps?

The answer is almost a toss-up for me. I’m guessing yes, although the rules may be more lenient than for iOS devices. I hope so. I don’t look forward to a series of “horror stories” about unfairly rejected Mac apps. [See update at end of article.]

How might all of this affect the iOS App Store?

The Mac App Store is a separate program on the Mac. It doesn’t work via iTunes. This is great, as iTunes is already overburdened with too many things to do. Might Apple eventually separate out the iOS Store from iTunes as well — perhaps unifying the two Stores into one App Store program? 

This doesn’t seem likely right away — as iOS apps still have to sync with iOS devices and syncing is done via iTunes. But it could be done; it’s is not out of the question. It certainly would be convenient to be able to do all your software purchases via one interface. 

More generally, the arrival of a Mac App Store establishes that a device (namely the Mac) can support both a “closed” system (the Mac App Store) and an open system (the traditional method of obtaining Mac software). This weakens Apple’s argument that it has to be all one way or the other. I would argue that the Mac App Store supports the notion that Apple could add a “beyond-the-App-Store” method of adding apps to iPhones and iPads — eliminating any need for “jailbreaking.” I would welcome this. But that’s just my wishful thinking. I doubt that Steve sees things this way.

What does all of this portend for the future of the Mac? Overall, is the arrival of the Mac App Store more of a good thing or a bad thing?

These are the bottom line questions. For me, the answers are not yet clear. They won’t be until the prior unanswered questions have been resolved. If the answers all go the “wrong” way, I would say the Mac App Store is a bad thing — for endusers (maybe not so much for Apple).

On the upside, there are many benefits of a Mac App Store. I especially look forward to the ease of one-click installations and updates — instantly available for all of my Macs. This will be a good thing.

In either case, Apple is on its way to converting the Mac to an iOS-like device and Mac OS X to an iOS-like system. As someone who has never been a fan of Apple’s “control” over what I can do with or install on my iPhone, I don’t look forward to a future where Apple has the same level of control over my Mac. As I’ve already said, I know this isn’t going to happen with Lion. With luck, it may never happen. However, I suspect it may well happen eventually. Today’s event made it clear that this is the direction Apple is heading.

One More Thing: The MacBook Air

The new MacBook Air nicely complements the iOS direction that Apple is heading with the Mac App Store in specific and Lion in general. As Steve Jobs said during the Keynote, the new Air represents the melding of the iPad and the MacBook.

While there is no iOS-like touchscreen on the Air (Steve claimed that vertically-oriented touchscreens are ergonomically bad news), Lion’s expanded use of Multi-Touch gestures  clearly are meant to be the next closest thing. For example, to move through multiple Launchpad screens, you swipe your fingers across the Trackpad — almost duplicating what you now do in the Home Screen of an iPad or iPhone.

Will this mean that Mac OS X Lion will require a trackpad interface? My guess is not exactly; there will be (less convenient) keyboard shortcuts to accomplish the same effects. But the Trackpad is clearly the future of all Macs. The traditional mouse is on its way out the door.

More generally, Steve claimed that the MacBook Air represents the future direction of all notebooks. With instant on, much better battery life, and no hard drives — it sounds pretty good to me. However, this leads to the next obvious question: How will the next generation of MacBooks and MacBook Pros continue the transition to more iOS-like devices? I don’t know. But I suspect we’ll all know before too long. These days, Apple’s pace of change is turbocharged. Fasten your seat belts and hang on!

[Update: As noted by Bosco (in reader comments below), Apple’s initial guidelines for developers are now available. They answer a few of the questions posed here. As expected, there will be a review process. Apps must be self-contained, single application installation bundles. Similarly, apps that download other standalone apps or that install kexts (kernel extensions) will be rejected, etc. etc.]