One of the more-popular questions we receive is “should I buy your app directly from you, or from the Mac App Store?” The factual no-opinion-involved answer to this question is that it’s your money, so you should buy from whichever source you prefer to use. That has been, and will always be, our “corporate” answer to that question.
With that said, if you ask either of us for our opinion on the best place to buy Mac software, here’s our opinionated answer:
At a personal level, we both always try to buy direct, using the App Store only when there’s no direct alternative.
Why do we think you should buy direct? Because we feel the advantages of buying from the Mac App Store are greatly outweighed by the disadvantages of buying from the Mac App Store.
Here’s a comparison of the two methods of buying, with what we view as some of the pros and cons of each.
Mac App Store – Pros
- No need to manage serial numbers and/or license files, or disk images containing the apps. Buy from the store, install and reinstall from the store, and never worry about where you saved that last-used-six-years-ago license number or file when you need it again.
- App updates for all App Store purchases are handled by one app, simplifying update management.
- You remain anonymous to the developer, as Apple provides no customer information to them. 1Based on emails we receive, many App Store customers believe we do get their info. That is not the case.
- Apple is collecting your money and credit card information, not some developer and/or a payment processor you’ve never heard of and know nothing about.
- Apps are sandboxed for your protection. A sandboxed app is limited in the damage it can cause, even if it’s malicious.
In summary, the App Store makes it really easy to install, update, and reinstall apps on one or more Macs. Everything is done through one program, you don’t need to visit developers’ web sites, you don’t have to deal with licensing issues, and the sandbox protects you from dangerous code.
Mac App Store – Cons
Apple’s official position is “no refunds.” If you try, you may get an occasional refund, depending on the mood of the person who reviews the request, and how many other times you’ve asked.
- No free trials. Some developers may offer a ‘lite’ version for free, but the App Store doesn’t support trial use of the actual app you will be buying.
- No upgrade path: Existing users of an app aren’t given any credit when a new version comes out; they either have to buy it at full price, keep using the current version, or hope the developer has a launch sale, which rewards everyone, not just current customers.
- You cannot transfer purchased apps to another country’s App Store if you move. Macworld has all the details, and they’re not pretty.
Applications must be sandboxed, which limits their ability to function with other apps. Moom, for instance, cannot work within a sandbox,2If Moom isn’t sandboxed, how is it still in the App Store? When Apple added the sandbox requirement, they let any existing apps remain, even if not sandboxed. But we cannot add features to these non-sandboxed apps, we can only fix bugs. so the next major release will not be in the App Store.
It’s not just Moom. Most major apps—Fusion, Office, Parallels, Photoshop, etc.—aren’t sandboxed, and as such, cannot be in the App Store.
The sandbox requirement is what’s driven most App Store apps to fall into very narrow single-use categories: Games, Photography, Drawing, etc. Utilities that work only within themselves are still there, but apps that need cross-app communication and interaction are gone.
- Apple can pull any app from the App Store, at any time, for any reason. If they do, you’ll never get another update for that app, and may not be able to download it again (for instance, on a new Mac). It doesn’t matter how long an app has been in the store; if Apple changes their mind, the app will disappear.
- In addition to Apple, the developer may also remove the app from the App Store. If they do, you will not be able to download it again in the future. 3A developer could also remove an app from their direct sales channel. But in that case, you have the app and can copy it (assuming you kept the installer, which we recommend) to your other Macs.
That’s a long list of cons, and many of them are onerous. No refunds, when coupled with no trials, means that you’re buying before trying without a chance at getting your money back—and buying solely based on a handful of screenshots and other users’ reviews.
If Apple offered refunds or trial versions, things wouldn’t be quite so bad. But when neither are offered, that’s a possibly expensive hit to your pocketbook.
Note: The data for the following Direct pros and cons is based on Many Tricks’ own policies—although most other indie developers have similar policies, we’re not trying to speak for them here.
Direct – Pros
- Money back guarantee—our site says 60 days, because that’s what our payment processor offers. But if you’re unhappy beyond that for some reason, talk to us and we’ll work something out.
- Free trials of all our apps. There’s no need to buy before you try, you can download fully functional versions of every program we sell, so you can give them a good test run before you plunk down your money.
- Upgrade pricing for existing customers. Generally, if we release a major new version, existing customers will be able to buy it at a discount. (This isn’t true for some of our really inexpensive programs, like Leech at $6.) Existing customers are rewarded for being customers, and save some money on the new version.
- Developers get more of your money. Apple charges 30% of the list price for each unit sold in their store. Direct sales are notably less expensive, typically in the 8% to 15% range. More money to the developer means they’re more likely to be in business in the future, and if you like their apps, that’s a good thing for you, too.
- Our apps can be installed on as many Macs as you personally use, with just one purchased license file.
- We don’t care what country you live in, nor what country you move to, when using our apps. If you own our apps and manage to get on the first Mars colonization flight, you’re welcome to use our apps on Mars, too.
- The apps we sell direct are not sandboxed, even if (as with Leech and Name Mangler) their App Store counterparts are. And while we do our best to make the two versions functionally equivalent, the sandbox sometimes makes that impossible. For example, there are some differences with Name Mangler that we couldn’t avoid.
- We have no way to remove or disable an app you’ve purchased from us. Once you’ve bought it, you can use it for as long as it works. Even if we decide to discontinue an app, you’ll still be able to install and use it (assuming it runs on whatever version of macOS is current at that time). Just keep a copy of the download somewhere, and you can use it for a very long time.
Direct – Cons
- License management. No doubt about it, this is the biggie. We send you a license file for our apps, and you need to keep track of it. You need to copy it to other Macs you use. You need to back it up. You need to restore it when you get a new Mac. You need to be able to find it when you rebuild your hard drive, and you’re hard up against a work deadline. If you bought an upgrade, you need to track both the original and the upgrade license.
It’s a complex-enough task that we have a blog post that deals just with the subject of saving license files. The App Store definitely wins this one.
Updates are per-app, not all-in-one-app. Granted, our apps will check for updates and inform you of when they’re out, but you still have to update them each separately.
Add in a handful of other non-App Store apps, and suddenly it seems like all you’re doing is updating apps. So yes, the App Store makes this simpler, too. (The good news is that our updates aren’t a rapid-fire affair, so it’s not like updating is a non-stop project.)
Anonymity lost. When you buy direct, we know who you are. We have your name, email, and other data. (We do not have any of your financial data; that’s all handled by our cart provider.)
In the six years I’ve worked here, though, we have never contacted our customers en masse for any reason. We’ve never even emailed the customer base to inform them of a new major release. Should we? We probably should; it would probably help sales. But we both dislike direct email marketing, so we don’t do any of it.
- Possible exposure to payment fraud. Indie developers need to have a system for collecting payment for their apps. We use FastSpring, which in turn lets buyers use a credit card, PayPal, Amazon, and a few other sources. But other developers may try to host this process themselves, or use a provider you’ve never heard of an know nothing about … and that’s scary, as you’re trusting the developer’s processor with your financial data.
Unknown security issues with the developers’ apps. When you buy direct from a developer, there’s usually no third party who has reviewed the app to make sure it does what it says it does, and that it doesn’t do anything malicious.
In theory, you do get that protection in the App Store, as every app must pass Apple’s review. Yet we’ve still seen some undesirable apps make it into the App Store, because it’s possible to hide malicious behavior quite deeply. But when buying direct, you’re almost always on your own.
To help mitigate these risks before you buy (or even try) an indie developer’s apps, find public reviews of the developers’ apps. See how long they’ve been in business, and what other apps they sell. See how much they reveal of themselves and their company on their web site. Check out their payment processor—how long have they been in business, and what partners (i.e. PayPal, etc.) do they work with? Do the developers disclose their names, company mailing address and/or phone number on their web site? Do they tell you anything of their background, or the company’s background? After finding answers to these questions, if you’re not comfortable with what you’ve discovered, then don’t try or buy the app.
By buying direct, you’re taking a more active role in your software: You’re responsible for the license, and for installing updates for each app. You’re also responsible for doing your homework before you purchase. In exchange for these tasks, most developers offer free trials, money back guarantees, discounted upgrades, and fewer restrictions on where you use your purchased apps.
In the long run, buying direct helps developers stay in business, which is good for you and good for them. It gives you more control over your software, which is good for you. But it does require more work than does the App Store. In this case, though, it’s our opinion that buying direct is worth the extra hassles involved.