Apple’s Mac App Store Opens for Business With 1,000 Programs

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Back on October 20th, Apple held a press event it called “Back to the Mac.” CEO Steve Jobs explained that the title referred to the company’s desire to take ideas that worked on the iPhone and iPad and bring them to its Mac personal computers. Today, it’s rolling out the most striking reflection of this goal so far: The Mac App Store, which gives its OS X operating system a streamlined, one-stop destination for finding, buying, and installing software that’s just about identical to the one for the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad.

As with the iOS App Store, the Mac version is built right into the operating system. (It’s part of an OS X update–version 10.6.6–that’s available as a free upgrade starting today.) The store lets you search for apps or browse categories such as Games, Education, Productivity, and Utilities, all of which will feature lists of their most popular programs. When you find a program you want, you click to buy it, enter your OS X password–and you’re done. The app downloads, installs itself, and appears in the OS X Dock, ready for use.

Apps you buy from the App Store are licensed to run on all your Macs; Apple keeps track of upgrades, allowing you to download and install all available updates in one fell swoop. And if you buy a new Mac you can replicate the apps you already own onto it.

All of this is an alternative to the traditional means of finding, installing, and managing Mac software, which involve figuring out where to find an application you need; downloading a compressed version; decompressing that file; dragging the decompressed file to Applications folder and then dragging its icon to the Dock; putting the compressed file into the Trash; and checking periodically for updates. All the same work is getting done, but the App Store masks as much of the complexity as it possibly can.

Behind the scenes, Apple takes a 30 percent cut of the price of an app in return for hosting it, marketing it, and handling the financial transaction. (For free apps, its services are free.) The company is being its usual picky self and has published guidelines for software it won’t let into the store–everything from apps that tamper with the OS X interface to “mean-spirited ones.”  It’s also checking everything for security flaws and other issues that could cause problems.

Apple VP of Internet Services Eddy Cue told me that the store is launching with a thousand programs–a bit more than the 800 that were in the iOS App Store when it premiered in 2008, but a small fraction of the Mac apps available from other sources. A variety of popular programs will be part of the first wave, including Autodesk SketchBook Pro, Evernote, Pixelmator, and software from The Omni Group. Apple is also putting some of its own programs on the store: It’s unbundling the iLife apps iPhoto, iMovie, and Garage Band and selling them separately for $15 apiece, along with the Aperture image editor ($79) and unbundled versions of the programs in its iWork office suite ($20 each). (More on Apple’s Hits and Misses So Far)

But the biggest names in third-party Mac software–companies such as Adobe and Microsoft–are taking a wait-and-see attitude rather than rushing their wares onto the App Store. Until they dive in, the store may prove a well-chosen selection of high-grade products–that’s certainly Apple’s stated goal–but it will have noticeable holes. Mac owners with an interest in software will continue to find at least some of their apps elsewhere.

With iOS apps, Apple’s acceptance policies have been fodder for plenty of controversy–in part because the App Store is the sole authorized source of software for iDevices. The Mac App Store, however, is an alternative to venerable means of software distribution–including other Web sites and retail sales–that aren’t going anywhere. Developers who don’t find it appealing are free to ignore it. And Apple is doing its best to explain the ropes of submitting and selling apps clearly, having published guidelines for developers shortly after announcing that the App Store was in the works.

“We’ve got a couple of years under our belt,” Cue told me. “We don’t want to make any of the same mistakes twice, and we’ve learned a lot. I’m sure we’ll learn more things, and we’ll adjust.”

Who will like the App Store? It’ll clearly be a boon to casual users who might not know the better-established methods of acquiring and installing software, or who may intimidated by the prospect of downloading apps elsewhere that are poor in quality or downright unsafe. But Cue told me that Apple thinks the store will be a hit with experienced Mac owners as well.

“This is appealing for everyone,” he said. “Every customer, no matter how savvy, has an interest in one-click shopping–if for no other reason than the time factor.”

In the end, the best benchmark of the App Store’s success, at least at first, will be how quickly it grows. The iOS App Store may have started with 800 apps, but it quickly attracted tens of thousands of them, and then hundreds of thousands. With the Mac App Store, software companies that are biding their time rather than jumping on board may end up finding it irresistible if it’s a hit with millions of software-buying consumers. And the more software that’s available on the store, the more likely Mac owners are to use it early and often.

Stay tuned: Apple loves to report impressive numbers relating to its products and services, and if there are any associated with the Mac App Store, we’ll hear them soon enough. Whatever happens, the company isn’t done bringing ideas from the iPhone and iPad back to the Mac. Next summer, it plans to release OS X 10.7 Lion, an upgrade with even more iOS-like features, including a full-screen mode and a Launchpad for apps that looks much like the iPhone/iPad home screen.

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