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Making More Outside The App Store (rogueamoeba.com)
119 points by shawndumas on Feb 12, 2017 | hide | past | favorite | 55 comments

I think there is an elephant in the room here, which is that app stores (Mac, iOS or otherwise), besides all the requirements for inclusion (sandboxing, approvals, etc.) have become massively unmanageable dumping grounds, full of junk that is very hard to sift through for the normal customer.

Yes, they afford some credibility, trust and security (even though evil devs are constantly pushing the envelope), but even simple mechanisms like search are fundamentally broken on Apple's stores.

And it's not just about devs gaming the keyword rankings (I see enough of that when my kids search for games). It's just hopeless.

So no wonder RogueAmoeba makes more money off the App Store. Even discounting other factors, their (rather specialized and very, very cool) apps are just easier to find via web search.

There is a massive irony in the fact that Google yields better search results for iOS and Mac apps than the AppStore.

I've gotten to the point where I use the AppStore only in absence of alternatives.

If Apple wanted to get more into services, the AppStores would be an obvious and easy way to demonstrate their ability and willingness to provide, if not valuable, then at least usable services. And all they do is botch it.

Agreed 100%. The only time I use the App Store is after I know which app I want to install. Discovery is still very poor if you want to find something that wasn't featured.

Agree with the general sentiment here. AppStore search is badly broken and the system has been gamed to the point of being nearly useless.

A site that helps me (no affiliation whatsoever) that at least allows filtering based on release date and "star rating" is https://theappstore.org/

Completely agree. AppStore search is now in the same sorry state as web search before Google existed. It desperately needs an innovation that does for app search what PageRank did for web search. Unfortunately, Apple isn't going to let anybody else build it, and I see no indication that Apple is building it themselves.

> [...] very hard to sift through for the normal customer.

Maybe it's just me but I find it completely impossible to sift through it. The search is completely broken, there is no catalog worth going through. The only think worth looking at are the lists curated by Apple but then again usually I'm looking for something more specific.

In practice the only reliable way to find a good App, is going to be searching with Google, reading reviews outside of the App Store and eventually following a direct link to the App.

It's incomprehensible to me how anyone not just a normal customer would out of their own free will sift through this virtual garbage can. Many of the apps you'll see in search are so obviously scammy and questionable looking, you'll even get the disgust you'd get from sifting through actual garbage.

Easy. A normal customer would download the first result and just deal with it.

Most people can't really tell a quality app from something made in a batch — or they don't mind using a just-ok app.

I would imagine a "normal customer" gets a direct referral to an application via a friend (someone who already went through the hell of searching), a television show, an review in a newspaper/magazine, or an ad on another website they are reading (or, these days, another app, quite possibly Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat). At best, the only thing they are going to care about from Apple are, as you say, the extremey short curated lists (which are like the store front displays at a retail store, which you walk past on the way to your destination) and maybe the automated recommendations (which are supposed to be similar to the person helping you at the store making a suggestion based on having seen you before and knowing the kinds of things you like to buy, but in too many cases look more like the "impulse buy" section of a grocery store, showing you high-margin, general-audience items for which the entire rest of the store might be a "loss leader").

This is how "normal customers" bought video games when the primary distribution channel was "a massive wall of games at Toys R' Us, sorted by title", and this is how they still buy video games in the world of Steam (which people also complain is used as a dumping ground). This is how "normal customers" rent movies (only a cinephile is sifting through the mountain of low quality titles to find the diamond in the rough); and this is even how most "normal customers" watch movies at the cinema despite the relative lack of selection: in practice people go to a theater quite rarely, and so rely on trailers seen before previous movies (which are a combination of recommendations from the theater and the production company as well as paid placements), ads on television, reviews in the Entertainment section of their local newspaper, and referrals from friends... this is why independent films flop even when they get wide distribution, as they don't do much marketing.

This is how "normal customers" buy food, and I don't just mean at restaurants (where the closest thing people have to search is Yelp, which is comically bad for most use cases--it doesn't even understand the concept "bar is open, but kitchen is closed"--and maintains the same fiction that averaging five star ratings has any meaning at all): my friends think I am extremely weird for occasionally spending multiple hours at a grocery store "browsing" to discover the moral equivalents of "new releases" and "older titles I might have missed". In fact, the only other people I know who do this are foodies and cooks: "normal customers" know what they want to buy and minimize their time at the store, and at best are persuaded by a "related product" while putting an item into their shopping cart, an "impulse buy" at the point of checkout, or something at the endcap showcases that are effectively just curated lists; I'd bet TV commercials and coupons dominate.

App developers find this surprising only because they care so much about apps and are so sure their app is so much better than all the other apps that they are totally shocked other people are not appaphiles and that there are not better tools to find their app. The "normal customer", though, finds this no more surprising than how difficult it is to find literally anything else they want to buy, and the really successful companies either came with knowledge of or take the time to learn about marketing in order to reach the "normal customer" (which includes stuff like "how to make an app "viral", but also is a lot of classic "get the word out" effort). Expecting the Apple App Store, or any any-store, to solve discoverability problems is naive: if people really believe this they should take their expertise and go revolutionize retail (though in practice tons of people think they can do this, and then try to do this by building a low quality app, adding to the noise ;P).

> my friends think I am extremely weird for occasionally spending multiple hours at a grocery store "browsing"

How do you evaluate your investment in that? (Just amusement is fine ;-)

If it helps answer the question, while most people say "you don't look that fat...", I'm technically still "clinically obese", and I used to weight 30 pounds more than I do now... so, yeah: I like food ;P. I also live in California, and thereby ;p have tons of friends who have random dietary restrictions, so it is fun to be able to know about random alternative ingredients.

I once bought every single kind of "alternative milk" (soy, rice, almond, cashew, etc.), trying multiple brands of each, in order to determine that the only one I like is Blue Diamond brand unsweetened almond milk. This was actually an insanely high-value investment, and one I've been able to occasionally give as recommendations to friends who were very happy.

But yeah; I mean, the only thing it has classically not been considered a "geeky" thing to actually spend hours looking for is clothing, and I'd argue that, minus "most people don't see my food choices but they do see my clothing choices (which is why clothing is a "normal" thing to care about), some of the effects are the same: you get some esoteric knowledge, you can occasionally impress someone you go on a date with, and it provides some level of variety to find and try new things.

The cycle looks more like this:

1. Google what they want.

2. Download the first link they find.

3. If it's crap, they search again and download the second link they find. Or they just give up.

4. Repeat 3 until they find a decent app or they give up.

Most "normal customers" don't realize they can search through an app store specifically. I find that, even on mobile, they'll simply google to find something and often get confused when the app store or play store pops up.

I find we're nearing an age where the venerable tradition of the librarian may find a resurgence in the area of digital goods like apps, games, music, movies and yes, books too; which become available in such volume that human intervention in terms of cataloguing into a useful search system becomes necessary.

This is an intriguing idea, but I feel Deep Blue and kin may beat them to it.

App stores for mobile phones were very convenient at start because they provided a safe gateway to curated content, and globally enhanced the quality of what independant developpers released. But now it's clearly a hindrance. I wish the european union would force Apple to enable the installation of other app store (distributing legal software of course) on their device.

Actually, a good start would be to have the "don't distribute an app that has the same feature as a preinstalled one" clause declared illegal.

And I hate that idea.

I get people in my life to buy ios devices precisely because, even when they try, they are unable to install malware. That is not a feature any other OS has. Particularly the over-easy access to sideloading on android.

Just last month my MIL managed to get her bank account password stolen because she used it on her PC and installed who knows what from one of those fake Microsoft support pop-over ads. The solution is to only access bank accounts on ios.

It's really a major selling point of the devices.

I think you're both right.

IOS (and to a large extent, android) have genuinely found an OS paradigm that works for unsophisticated users and put more power and confidence in their hands. The appstore is a big part of that. The icon=app rule is another part, where removing an icon removes the app. Users have a much improved understanding of their phone's software on an iphone relative to a windows/osx PC.

That said, it also limits the more sophisticated user and puts more power into Apple/Google's hands than I'd like.

It's 10 years later now and it's time to fill in some of the holes. Allowing alternative appstores would be a good start and wouldn't affect most users who are happy with the app store as is. Removing anti-competitive curation rules and practices would be good too.

Why would Apple give up their 30% margins? It makes no sense. Not until they're somehow forced into it, anyway.

I completely agree with that point, and make the same recommendations to people around me for the exact same reason.

However, you could very well imagine apple creating a sort of "third party app store guidelines" that would make it compulsory for third party app store to check apps for security violations prior to publishing an app.

Apple would then move one layer up. Instead of directly enforcing and distributing apps, it would enforce store basic rules, and leave some rules to others. Pretty much like what you'd do if you were to create a franchise.

There are intermediate grounds between "we control everything, and are the only one allowed to push apps" to "we allow everyone to install anything they want".

The idea is just to open this part of the market (app distribution) to competition.

I'm not sure why you were downvoted. This is legitimate reasoning and you are contributing to the conversation in a civilized manner.

There are absolutely tradeoffs of buying into a walled garden. I personally have mixed feelings. An open ecosystem sounds nice in ways. For example, on my mac, I would be very frustrated if I were locked into only being able to buy software from Apple's App Store. It would be a deal-breaker. However, I've never really found myself frustrated with the iPhone app ecosystem. However, I've definitely been saved hours and hours of family IT support by family members being on iOS.

The only thing required for that is no malware in the app store, not any of Apple's other restrictions on what you can put there.

It doesn't even require prohibiting independent app stores, all it requires is that adding one prompt for a separate password which you don't give to your MIL.

What if an independent app store, fails at adequately stopping malware from getting through? Is Apple going to ban the entire store then? Does Apple get to do that job for those stores instead? If the latter, does the App get reviewed both by Apple and the independent store? Does Apple get a cut in that scenario?

How do you install independent app stores to begin with? Do you install them with he App Store? That would put them at a disadvantage similar to how Microsoft put other Browsers at a disadvantage with IE. Do you provide a choice then when you setup the phone?

Purely from an anti-trust perspective I can see why the idea of independent app stores might seem appealing at first glance. Thinking about this just for a moment brings up so many questions though and I don't see how you can possibly come up with satisfying answers that lead to good security and a good user experience.

> What if an independent app store, fails at adequately stopping malware from getting through?

Then don't use that one. You don't have to use any but Apple's if you don't want to.

> How do you install independent app stores to begin with? Do you install them with he App Store? That would put them at a disadvantage similar to how Microsoft put other Browsers at a disadvantage with IE.

As opposed to the status quo?

One way to balance choice and safety is for Apple to share the data in their store and let people create app stores only as long as the store links within Apple's ecosystem. This really would just mean a different skin of sorts but perhaps there's a means of different approaches to app discovery possible.

Perhaps a middle ground is like what you can do on Android, by default is a walled garden without the capability of installing from third party sources but you can enable it with a very big and scary warning

The solution is education.

She should be thankful, not so long ago people would loose their life being stupid and those genes wouldn't pass on. I guess idiocracy is inevitable.

Any explanation for the downvotes?

Not a downvoter but the reasoning that criminal action means we should give up the promise of general computation and freedom to use devices we "own" as we choose for walled gardens that massively enrich corporate gatekeepers is repugnant. We should catch criminals, fix security problems, maximise openness of platforms and competition and distribute wealth to a multitude of small independent creators instead of middlemen rent-seekers.

So, hypothetically, if Apple/Google decided to reduce their 30% cut to 0%, would you still perceive them as "repugnant" "middlemen rent-seekers"?

Somehow, typical prices for software on app stores are considerably lower than independently distributed software was. Apple seems to have succeeded at commoditizing their complements, even ignoring the cut they take. I'm not sure how this got established as the equilibrium, but as a developer I don't want to participate in that role, and as a user I wish there was more great software, and suspect there would be if it hadn't become so commoditized.

(I also agree that walled gardens are bad for freedom.)

This is definitely the case on mobile where everything has been driven to 99c or free, but the Mac App Store still has a healthy range of prices, including a bunch of desktop software in the $20-$100 range.

The argument above for walled-gardens is repugnant because its an argument for a totalitarian police state. Removing rent-seeking does not address anti-competitiveness or destruction of fundamental computational freedoms.

Gardens (safe curated places) are nice things to have but if you erect walls preventing us from leaving they become abusive. Rent-seeking is one of those abuses. Let us have many gardens and let them compete for our presence by the value they can bring.

Our industry's unparalleled track record of success catching criminals, fixing security problems, creating usable and secure software, and so forth continue to provide a great platform for end users. That's why online account theft, hacking, and malware are increasingly small problems.

Abject failure for 20+ years is no reason to believe this won't work any day now.

For context, the app (Piezo) in question was removed from the Mac App Store (not the iOS App Store, as I first assumed on reading!) by its developers.

It's an audio recorder which can record audio from other apps. The App Store introduced a sandbox which prevented the app from working, but they got around that by simply not updating the app and thus retaining the ability to work outside the sandbox. However, other apps introduced changes which broke Piezo, and which needed a fix which couldn't be distributed via App Store, finally killing that methods of distribution.


I still search for apps with Google instead of in the App Store, even for iOS apps, since the App Store is such a terrible user experience (poor search, slow loading, glitchy, limited information compared to websites)

App Store sometimes fails to find the app I am looking for, even if I know the name of the app.

I think one thing that might make a difference in this regard is inclusion in the brew Caskroom list .. I've installed more apps through 'brew cask' than through the Mac App Store, that is for sure, and usually its because I was able to quickly and easily search, locate and discover apps very rapidly with a simple 'brew search' .. its at the point where I consider inclusion in the Caskroom repo's more important than App Store submission at this point. I trust the community software collections a lot more than the 'official Apple' channels, for some reason - I'm sure its not rational, but more just a fear of corporate control and the ultimate denigrating effect it has on the quality of software.

Plus there's the whole 'brew update && brew upgrade && brew cleanup && brew doctor' factor, that gives me - rightly or wrongly so - the impression that I have far more control over the software on my system than that granted me by the graces of Apple.

I use Cask a ton too. But we have to be in the huge minority. No one I've shown Cask to has ended up using it. I'm mainly talking about slightly above average techies or a few people who are comfortable with the cli. I doubt any paid software listed in Cask has their download numbers change by more than a few percent, if that.

This post is about the Mac App Store, not the iOS App Store.

It took me several paragraphs of wondering how they circumvented the iOS restriction until I realized that. They really should have added "Mac" to the title.

Thank you. Many many things have now been made clear.

Someone mentioned it in the page's comments, but I'm really surprised they didn't even caveat what they get for paying Apple 30% (much of this is redundant if they already sold outside of the App Store); download/update infrastructure, payment (and refunds), security (serial numbers and piracy protection), customer support and service support for those things. At least as an individual developer, that's all stuff I wouldn't want to deal with if I was shipping something.

Clearly, Apple has dropped the ball on making the App Store compelling. It's sad that a classic indie Mac app brand like Rogue Amoeba only offers one app (Fission) for sale in it.

While I certainly didn't go into depth on this, this line acknowledges the cost of both direct and App Store sales:

“Direct sales cost us just a few percent, so each direct sale of Piezo earns almost $5 more than a sale through the Mac App Store.”

That “few percent” takes into account the cost of our site and our downloads, as well as handling payment.

As far as acknowledging what Apple provides, it's simply not worth very much. The cost of infrastructure is incredibly low (nowhere near the 30% they take), and none of what you list is difficult to manage. Further, any developer who's looking to earn money is going to want to replicate most of that anyway. You should have a website you control to provide information and promote the product (see the many comments about Googling for apps, rather than using the App Store). You also ought to provide customer support for the product itself - Apple certainly doesn't help you there. Once you've got a web site, adding direct downloads is easy. Payment processing and license keys are certainly the most difficult pieces, but anyone making a Mac app can manage them as well. It can all be set up in a manner of days, if not hours. I wouldn't tell a developer that they must steer clear of the Mac App Store, but I absolutely would say they're doing themselves (and their customers) a disservice if they don't also sell their product directly.

I think Rogue Amoeba was already doing serial numbers etc. for their other products.

re Payments: Have you ever seen how easy Stripe is?

I did mention that selling apps both in and out of the store requires you to set up many of those things. I was just surprised they didn't even mention it as a caveat because the way the article is worded it sounds like not being in the App Store equals 30% extra profit.

I haven't used Stripe (but have heard good things), but it's still not free. With the App store you don't necessarily need a webpage and all of the costs associated with designing, deploying, and maintaining.

My main concern about releasing outside the app store is the security of licensing. The App Store takes care of that for you, but common licensing systems for Mac and Windows Desktop (like Nalpeiron) are quite expensive. And there would be significant developer time integrating them. Are there better alternatives? Perhaps it is not as hard as I imagine it to be to roll your own payment and licensing service?

The App Store is also good if you want to sell app subscriptions. That too would seem complicated to do on your own.

PWAs are the future :)

Have you seen what kind of software Rogue Amoeba produces? They can barely make it work without kernel extensions, let alone browser APIs that would take years to develop and mature.

Sure, but apps like that aren't the majority :)

the mac is dead. i said it. downvote. i don't care. but it's dead and so is the app store.

i hear they're rewriting the entire app store backend, ditching web objects. but i'm having a hard time seeing them rebooting the bloody thing in some serious manner to adress the issues.

$200b to spend and just a few things don't get better. it's sad.

They have to compete with brew cask, in my opinion, and that's just not going to happen in a way that pushes the homebrew developers out of the market.

Much better to have community-curation than corporate-curation in my opinion.

What is competing with brew exactly ?

Having an open community which curates apps on a regular and consistent basis instead of a closed hegemony which doesn't have its users interests as a priority.

Not sure about this. I feel safe and secure thanks to App Store. Won't download any app outside it.

I wouldn't feel safe and secure without "Little Snitch" installed. Don't look for it on the App Store, it will never be there.

I'd say that you're greatly limiting your choices, the App Store sandbox greatly limits what you app can do.

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