Since the advent of the Mac App Store, Mac users have found an easy and practical way to buy software. Instead of flitting around from web site to web site, following links sent by friends or from reviews, the Mac App Store is a one-stop-shop for all sorts of Mac software. No need to worry about giving out your credit card number; you can trust Apple. No need to pay through different fulfillment companies; it all goes through Apple. And licensing is much simpler; instead of worrying about a license for one Mac, two or an entire family, software sold through the Mac App Store works on as many Macs as you own.
But all this comes with restrictions. Apple approves all apps, and there are limits as to how apps can work and what they can do. But these limits were, up until now, acceptable, at least in most cases. As of tomorrow, June 1, a new limitation is being imposed: sandboxing.
Sandboxing is simply a process that ensures that apps cannot access things they are not supposed to. But that “not supposed to” has different definitions for different applications. For example, the launcher LaunchBar – the first application I install on any new Mac – can be used to launch files, run searches, and act on files. Some of these features – such as telling a specific file to open with a selected application, or moving a file – will likely not be allowed under sandboxing. Moom, a window “move and zoom” tool, certainly won’t be allowed, as it adds its own menu to windows when you move your cursor over their green zoom buttons. And any app that needs access to the entire file system – say to search for files, scan for duplicates, etc., will be refused.
It’s fair to say that many users won’t be affected by this. “Casual” Mac users, who do only basic tasks on their computers, will find that most of what they do is unaffected. But those of us who go further, who use more advanced tools – many of which save time and improve productivity – will bump up against this limit.
The Mac App Store is good for developers. The exposure it gives to software is hard to equal in the competitive landscape of Mac applications. Even though Apple gets a 30% cut, I know many developers whose sales increased substantially following its introduction, and these sales have remained well above their pre-Mac App Store numbers. Many of these independent developers sell directly from their web sites, and will continue to do so. The difference is that if they have programs that won’t work with sandboxing, they’ll lose the Mac App Store sales.
In addition, the Mac App Store led to a drastic decrease in the price of most Mac applications. While a handful of apps are still above the $20 or $30 price point, most are $10 or less. Many of these apps slashed their prices because of the downward price pressure in the Mac App Store, and if they are forced to leave Apple’s store, they may have to increase their prices.
While sandboxing makes sense – it does protect users from rogue apps, or from apps that, simply because of bugs, can harm the operating system or essential files – users should be able to choose whether it is active or not. Apple’s Gatekeeper, to be part of the next version of OS X, Mountain Lion, has this type of feature. Users get three choices: they can allow any application to run on their Macs, they can allow only those applications purchased from the Mac App Store to run, or they can choose a middle way and allow any application that has been purchased from the Mac App Store or has been signed with an Apple Developer ID (which would be downloaded from outside the Mac App Store).
Why not do the same for sandboxing? Let users know what apps are going to do, and give them the option to purchase an app that goes beyond the bounds of the “sandbox” if they so desire.
In my work as a reviewer for Macworld, I look at lots of Mac software. Many of these programs will be affected by sandboxing. For example, AudioHijack Pro, an application that records your Skype calls, which I use when I record podcasts, wouldn’t get into the sandboxed Mac App Store. Most system utilities – notably security software, or even backup software that backs up more than just your home folder – will be excluded. Many categories of Mac software will be kept out of the Mac App Store, and developers will find it much more difficult to find customers.
But what is worse, this move may stifle innovation. In order to retain visibility in the Mac App Store, many developers will “dumb down” their apps, or give up trying to introduce innovative features that need to go outside the box. Since the amount of revenue indie developers can get from the Mac App Store with a popular app can be much higher than direct sales, many will be tempted to just follow the rules instead of creating apps that really matter.
In the long run, sandboxing will have negative effects. Great apps won’t disappear, but I think it is likely that fewer new, innovative apps will appear. It will be an uphill battle for independent developers, who offer unique ways to make Macs more productive.