Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Smart Shoppers Guide to the Mac App Store

Follow these tips to find the best deals and avoid paying for Apps that aren't right for you.
  1. Check out the developers website. Many Apps have free trial version or generous return policies if you prefer to try before you buy.

  2. Most small developers are happy to answer questions directly, but are restricted in what they are allowed to say in the Mac App Store. Mac App Store reviews may contain inaccurate or incomplete information. Since developers are not permitted to respond in this forum, show your good judgement by not posting questions or rants here.

  3. If you are unsure about how an app will work for you, please reach out to the developer before rating it poorly for not working the way you expected. That's why the developer's Website and Support link are provided.

  4. The Mac App Store may issue refunds in response to reasonable requests that explain why the App failed to work and what you have done to resolve the problem (such as contacting the developer).

Mac App Store developers want you to be happy with your purchase and will go out of their way to help, but you have to take the first step since Apple is there to protect your privacy and streamline the process.


Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Sandboxing and the Mac App Store

In a recent Macworld Editorial, The App Culture, Jason Snell argues that an overly restrictive approach to App security "risks dumbing down the Mac app ecosystem as a whole".

A good example is system preference panes or plugins which are not permitted [Apple guidelines 2.15 Apps must be self-contained, single application installation bundles, and cannot install code or resources in shared locations].

In recent months, I've seen two former system preferences panes rewritten as status bar items to the consternation of their existing users (PinPoint and Growl). The right hand side of the system menu bar is being over-crowded with "status items" that don't easily fit anywhere else. The status bar is intended for items that need to present system status and be available at all times without disrupting other applications, not as a mechanism for accessing system preferences. Unfortunately, the mechanism designed for accessing 3rd party system preferences is no longer permitted.

My own Phone Amego for example is a status bar item because I don't want to interrupt whatever else the user might be working on each time the phone rings or you want to make a call. Keyclick on the other hand is a System Preference pane because it reflects a system wide preference that runs in the background, not an application you need to interact with frequently.

The problem Apple is trying to solve is how to make finding and installing software safe for non-tech savvy users, but the challenge is how to apply this without dumbing down the Mac user experience.

By limiting what applications are allowed to do, their security exposure is greatly reduced. But some applications need or want to do more, and this is where things get interesting. Apple has already defined a set of "Entitlements" that allow applications to declare specific types of system access or privileges they need to do their job, so the application can be granted just enough access without exposing any more of the system than is necessary. The combination of sandboxing and entitlements defines a contract between the application and the system, so that even if an application is compromised, it can only do the limited set of things it was designed to do and nothing more. The issue is what entitlements to allow in the Mac App Store and how to present this information in a way that allows users to grant their informed consent.

Apple's current policy is to disallow installing plugins of any type, but this might not be the best answer since users can already install any software they want directly. The effect of banning plugins or startup items is to dumb down applications and push developers and users outside the Mac App Store. My own Phone Amego for example points users to a web page where they can download a set of "Phone Amego Extras" to manually install the pieces the Mac App Store wouldn't allow.

The combination of application sandboxing and entitlements could provide a more elegant solution if it is applied carefully. Apple doesn't need to solve the entire problem all at once, but it does need to recognize there are important applications beyond self contained productivity or entertainment, and begin thinking about how to include some of them in the Mac App Store.

To help get the conversation started, I'd like to suggest a rating system similar to the already familiar film-rating system:

   "G"  for General use or everyone

"PG" for Parental Guidance suggested
(security implications should be noted,
such as anything that installs a plugin)

"R" for Restricted
(requires more extensive system access
such as a network or disk utility)

The point here is that Apple could offer a better user experience by allowing a broader range of integrated solutions to be offered in the Mac App Store.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

When Market Share is used to Mislead

I've noticed a number of blogs and forum posts that keep citing Android market share as evidence that Android is catching up to the iPhone, or even surpassing it. This is misleading so I'd like to put it in a broader context.

Back in the 1960s, when U.S. manufacturing was thriving, business studies showed that doubling production allowed one to reduce per widget cost by around 10%. If you were able to sell twice as many widgets as your next closest competitor, chances are you could produce them more efficiently and enjoy higher profits. The implication is that in each market, there is only room for a few producers with sufficient volume to be the most efficient and profitable manufacturers.

In the case of Android smartphones however, we are comparing a "free" operating system adopted by many manufacturers and carriers, with a specific product from a single vendor that is actually for sale. Any market share comparison that is not related to scale, efficient production, profitability, or customer satisfaction is largely meaningless.

The iPhone is by far the best selling smartphone, has the highest production volume, has the most efficient supply chain, has the greatest share of industry profits (to fuel ongoing development), and enjoys the highest customer satisfaction and brand loyalty. No other single product comes close.

But it goes deeper than this. Many reviewers don't even realize what the product is. They still believe the iPhone or iPad is mostly a hardware product defined by its specifications. Apple has invested 10 times more R&D resources to create the iOS software and supporting eco system than its hardware. Apple didn't design the hardware to match some feature checklist, they designed it to make their software amaze and delight customers, to create an emotional connection that effects peoples lives. To compare the iPhone or iPad to other products primarily on their hardware specifications is not representative of the quality of experience users are likely to have with the product.

What happens if you lose your phone or tablet or wish to upgrade to a newer model? Will all your applications and data move seamlessly? What if you want to share data with others or between your tablet and phone? Can your tablet be upgraded to the latest OS? Will the software you want be available and work smoothly on your new tablet? What about malware? What if something goes wrong? Is there a store where you can take your tablet to get help? These are important considerations consumers see clearly, but the tech press largely ignores. Is the iPad a next generation mobile computing platform, or just the latest cool gadget you're going to replace in a couple years?

Why is it so hard for the tech press to see the iPhone or iPad objectively, and why do they keep promoting the next most promising rival as serious competition when there isn't any?

First, there's the familiar archetype of rooting for the underdog. Apple has become a giant corporation with little need for sympathy to spread their message. Most people already know of Apple's success, what they are less likely know is where Apple has failed or been challenged. Highlighting Apple's weakness is an interesting angle that draws more attention.

Second, disruptive innovations take years to develop and unfold. Not every Apple product or event can meet the hopes and expectations some users have imagined.

While this might explain some of it, in many tech blogs and forums there's an element of resistance around Apple's success. A belief that Apple's customers are somehow being deceived into choosing Apple products over others that are just as good. Or that Apple's tight control over their software eco-system is a threat to user freedom. Or that Apple's singular success concentrates too much power in too few hands. There's an underlying meme that the market needs a worthy competitor, even if that means propping up weaker alternatives.

It's worth noting that Apple has deliberately chosen to serve the less techno-savvy consumer market. By carefully controlling their software eco-system, Apple has made it easier to find and buy computing solutions with less risk of malware or expensive complications. The IBM PC was originally conceived as a less expensive business computer, and more specifically to stop the Apple II from gaining a foothold in the corporate world. The popularity and rapid evolution of the PC meant that consumers were subsidizing cheap business computing. With the emergence of the Post PC era, that subsidy is ending. Nobody likes having their subsidy taken away, including nerds. IT departments are now being told to support iPhone and iPad regardless of their previous support policies. They are losing control over their employees choice of technology.

But there's a deeper reason. As a developer, I've invested years of my life and livelihood in Apple's vision of computing. I left my day job in 1996 to become a Mac developer back when Apple was doomed. For nearly two decades, Mac users and developers have believed their computers were better, while PC advocates argued successfully that their computers were good enough and offered a better selection of business software. It wasn't until Apple switched to Intel processors capable of running Windows that mainstream business users began to take notice.

If you have 10 years of your life invested in Microsoft technologies, the idea that Apple is 5 years ahead of the industry and could dominate the next wave of personal computing is frightening. To admit that you have been out-thought, out-maneuvered, out-marketed, out-executed, and are no longer able to compete effectively is unthinkable, yet this is the very real possibility that the PC industry faces if it concedes portable music and gaming (iPod Touch), smartphones, tablets, and the ultra notebook category to Apple. It simply can't afford to do this without a fight. You have to believe there is a consortium of vendors that can challenge Apple. Otherwise your business and career are at risk.

These factors combined help explain why the tech press is reluctant to embrace Apple's Post PC era. With Apple doing so many things right, the best defense may be to sow market confusion until a worthy challenger can arise.

There is a way to challenge Apple, but most of the industry still doesn't see it. They think Apple is competing on hardware features and price, but they are wrong. What Apple has done is they have gotten serious about creating a portfolio of great software products that delight customers in ways they haven't seen, and then combined this with elegant mobile hardware. Apple is winning in music, photography, home video, phone, App store, mobile gaming, and video conferencing. The iPhone 4S and iOS 5 will add Cards, text messaging, and Siri voice interaction on top of that. You will not be able to challenge this portfolio with more megahertz, pixels, or bytes. Consumers are smarter than that.

When Tim Cook says "Apple loves music", the subtext is that Apple makes the best music players on the planet. If you love music, you should have an iPod, iPhone, or Mac (and once you've tried one, you won't look back).

Android may be strong in mobile web, GPS navigation, and Google app integration, but none of these have the emotional appeal of music. Amazon is starting to figure it out. If you love books and reading, you should have a Kindle. Microsoft is re-imagining windows for mobile, but it's less clear if they realize they need a portfolio of consumer applications with emotional appeal to challenge Apple's. Focussing on the enterprise won't be enough. The next generation of mobile business software is already starting to be written for iPad.

If you don't agree with Steve Jobs approach of serving consumers first, you are free to design a better alternative and let the market decide. For more background, see Thoughts on the "Post PC" Era.