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Direct vs. Mac App Store: Where to buy Mac apps?

Friday, December 9th, 2016

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:

We strongly recommend buying direct over using the Mac App Store.

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

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.

Avoid download issues with App Store purchases

Monday, June 22nd, 2015

Over the last few days, several users let me know they were unable to download our apps from the Mac App Store. They reported that they were receiving this error message when trying to purchase or update:

App Store Error: Failed to verify the preflight file. It is not signed by Apple.

Emails like this are frustrating, because we have absolutely no official way to help such users—Apple handles everything related to the store after we submit our app. They test the app, hopefully approve the app, and then host it for downloading. If the app makes it through this process, it’s pretty clear the code itself is good, and any download issues are related to the user’s system.

In theory, Apple (in exchange for their 30% cut of our revenue) should be helping these users solve such problems. But based on what I’ve heard, that’s not usually the case, so they end up writing to me. After a bit of web searching, I found the cause and solution to the problem: Keychain Access.

In particular, the settings for OCSP and CRL in Keychain Access > Preferences > Certificates. For some apps, and for some users (but not for all apps, and not for all users; I don’t know why), these values must be set to “Best Attempt:”

Keychain Access' Certificates prefs

If these two values are set to anything else, it’s possible that some apps and/or updates will fail to download with the above-noted error message. I’ve never personally touched those settings, and I was curious why others might; a friend pointed out this thread, which recommends changing the settings to reduce background bandwidth usage by the ocsp process.

In any event, if you’re having troubles downloading apps and updates—not just ours, but from any developer—from the App Store, check these settings in your Keychain Access app.

How to: Migrate from App Store Witch to direct Witch

Tuesday, June 5th, 2012

As you may have heard, the App Store is now enforcing sandboxing. As such, apps that aren’t sandboxed cannot be updated with new features; only bug fix updates are acceptable.

Unfortunately, with the rules that are presently in place, Witch is not sandboxable, which means that today’s release of Witch 3.9.1 is the last with any new features in the App Store—unless Apple changes their mind, which has been known to happen if enough users let them know how they feel about things (hint hint!). We fully intend to continue updating Witch with new functionality, but all such updates will only be applicable to the direct sales version. That’s the bad news…

The good news is that we have a way for you to easily migrate to the direct sales version, and making this move is completely free. The process is actually quite simple, too.

  1. Make sure you’ve run the App Store version of Witch 3.9.1 (it must be the most-recently-updated version) at least once.
  2. After running once, quit the App Store version of Witch.
  3. Download Witch 3.9.1 from our site, and install it. (The direct sales version of Witch is a System Preferences panel, not an application; you’ll find it in the Other section of System Preferences after installation.)
  4. There is no step four. Just check the Enable Witch box in the Witch System Preferences panel, and you’re good to go.

You can tell you’ve successfully licensed your app by looking at the About tab; the license in the middle should look like this:

That’s really all there is to it, with one caveat: you must repeat this process for each Mac—or different user on the same Mac—that you would like to convert. That’s because the conversion is tied to a license file which is specific to each user on each Mac.

Desktop Curtain 2.2 released

Friday, June 24th, 2011

Today’s Desktop Curtain update adds two minor features, and includes a few bug fixes. The two new features are:

  • A ‘boss key’ to instantly bring the curtain to the foreground, covering absolutely everything (including the Dock and Command-Tab application switcher). It doesn’t, however, bring up a fake spreadsheet as did certain games of yore.
  • Image names are now shown while hovering over image thumbnails in the History menu.

Desktop Curtain is (as of now, at least) only available on the App Store, for $1.99 to new purchasers (the update is, of course, free to all current customers).

Touching things up on a Tuesday

Tuesday, April 26th, 2011

Yes, it’s another installment of Touch Up Tuesdays…this time out, Butler, Moom, and Name Mangler are getting the update treatment.

Butler 4.1.10: There are some nice fixes in this release, including making Butler work properly with Address Book’s Smart Folders feature, and pasting clipboard items as plain text into Mail. (Full release notes)

Moom 1.2.1: Mouse users can Option-click the full screen icon to center windows, Moom now works properly when running Dreamweaver and/or HyperDock, and we’ve reduced Moom’s CPU usage through a smarter activation algorithm. (Full release notes)

Name Mangler 2.4.3: You can now use Command-Z (multiple times) to undo changes in Advanced mode, and you can use the forward slash character in renaming actions. (Full release notes)

As always, you can get the new versions via in-app updates, or by downloading a fresh copy from our site. App Store users: the updates for Moom and Name Mangler should be available very soon, if not already, from the App Store application.

Witch 3.6.1 slides onto the scene

Thursday, February 17th, 2011

This latest Witch update—for both the Mac App Store and web site versions of Witch—includes two requested features and a number of minor bug fixes. (Note for App Store users: it may be anywhere from 15 minutes to a couple of hours until you see the update in the App Store.) The two new features are:

  • Witch can now “see” many more windows without titles than it previously could. In particular, if you save Mail drafts without Subject lines, Witch should now show those as (Untitled) windows.

    Of course, because they have no title, you’ll want to use the pop-up preview feature to see what’s actually in those untitled windows. Witch should also display untitled windows in Elgato’s applications, and Sparrow, the minimalist Gmail client.

  • There’s a new slider in the Behavior tab of Witch’s settings that controls how long Witch will wait to hear from an application before giving up on it.

    Witch works by polling all applications, asking for information about their windows. If an application is slow to respond, we’re forced to make a choice: wait to display the switcher panel, or display the switcher panel in a reasonable amount of time, but leave out the slow-responding application (because we can’t determine its window states).

    Witch is set to wait 0.2 seconds, which is typically more than enough time. Certain troublesome apps, though, may work better with a longer timeout. You can use this new slider—which will let you set a timeout of up to two seconds—to find a balancing point that you’re happy with. Note: Unless you’re having trouble with missing windows, we suggest leaving this slider where it is.

  • If you use Matrox products to use extra displays on your laptop Mac, Witch now has some hidden settings that greatly improve the appearance of the switcher panel on those machines. If you’re one of those users, write to me and I’ll provide the usage instructions.

Mac App Store users can update via the App Store application; users of the web site version of Witch should be notified of the available update. (Check the Update tab in settings to make sure you’re set up for automatic notification of new updates.)

Rethinking Time Sink

Monday, January 31st, 2011

What follows is a bit of backstory on Time Sink, our utility that tracks how you spend your time using your Mac. If you’d rather skip the backstory, here’s the executive summary version: effective immediately, we’re cutting the price of Time Sink to just $5 ($4.99 on the App Store).

Why are we doing this? In short, because we think Time Sink is a very cool little utility, and we’d love to see more people using it. For the longer version, read the details that follow.

Once upon a time, there was a little app named Time Sink. This handy utility tracks every open window on your Mac, recording both foreground and background time for those windows. After it’s been running for some time, Time Sink provides an excellent picture as to how you spend your time on your Mac. If you haven’t tried it yet, Time Sink really is an amazing little app—it answers the “where did my day go?” question with ease, even though you may not want to know the answer!

When we released Time Sink three months ago, we had a vision as to who the customer would be: those people who need to account for their time for billing or reporting purposes, as well as those who are just interested in the details of their technical lives. We intentionally kept the program light, with no integrated billing or defined project tracking tools, focusing on creating a clean interface and set-and-forget operation. (Time Sink does export data for use in spreadsheets and databases, which is how we saw users using its data if they needed to create invoices or do more with the data.)

Now, three months into its existence, we’re finding that Time Sink isn’t quite right for either of the groups we thought would be interested in it. Those who need to account for their time need more features than Time Sink provides—billing and project-centered features are the two big items that really need to be supported for these users.

For those interested in the technical details of their lives, $19 was simply too steep a price to pay for what was essentially a toy to them. It’s one thing to be curious about where your time goes, but another thing entirely to fork over $19 to answer the question when you really don’t need to know the answer.

So what are we planning on doing about Time Sink’s shortcomings? In the near term, adding both billing and project-centric features will be complex and time consuming, and we’re not yet ready (given Time Sink’s sales to date) to make that investment. However, we realize these features are a key element of a time tracking application for professional users. So we know we need to get them done if we’re going to reach this group of buyers.

As for the technical hobbyists just interested in where their time is going…that’s why we’ve dropped the price to $5. We think this strikes a fair balance between affordability and providing a decent return to help us fund the future investments we’d like to make in Time Sink.

So if you’ve been waffling about Time Sink, now’s the time to give it another look-see. If you’re a professional user, its features may not be perfect for you today, but perhaps what’s there now is worth $5 to you. If you’re a hobbyist, you may find it very enlightening to see just where your time does go—who knows, maybe you’ll identify a time sink that will free up time for additional activities. And now, it’ll only cost you $5 to find out.

Conversations with the App Store

Saturday, January 29th, 2011

We’re now roughly three weeks into the Mac App Store’s existence, and both Peter and I have been thrilled with how it’s gone. We’ve found it generally pleasant working with Apple (they’ve yet to reject one of our apps or updates), and the users we’ve chatted with have found the store to be a pleasant place to browse and shop.

With that said, there’s one feature missing from the store that impacts our ability to interact with customers and prospects: there’s no mechanism for developers to respond to questions or comments in users’ reviews. (We could modify our program’s descriptions, but using that space to answer questions seems like using a hammer to crack an egg.)

So we’ve decided to start an occasional series here on our blog, of which you’re reading the first installment: Conversations with the App Store. Each installment will address some of the questions and comments raised in reviews on the global (those we can read, at any rate!) Mac App Stores.

While this isn’t an ideal feedback mechanism—Apple should really allow developers to post responses directly—we hope it provides useful information to those who may have similar comments or questions about our programs. So without further ado, here’s the first edition of Conversations with the App Store.

Desktop Curtain

mikebenda [USA, Jan 26 2011] writes: The standard “curtain” backdrop is elegant and works well. For under $2 it’s a steal. I have a few small suggestions though. First, please give us to option for a black-and-white menu bar icon, to match the others already there.

We’ve submitted an update to the App Store that contains not one but two black and white icon choices.

mikebenda… Give us the option to change the color of the curtain. Green is nice but variety is better.

A future version may include a translucent curtain, so you can simply set the color behind the curtain. We may or may not include more colored curtains as well.

mikebenda… Animate the curtain opening and closing rather than having a static picture suddenly appear.

We’re not sure if we’ll animate the curtain—it presently fades in, which means it’s not really instant.

mikebenda… And if possible, keep the curtain in place when using Exposé (except the reveal desktop function of course)

The aforementioned update also provides options for how Desktop Curtain interacts with Exposé.

Nicholas Burch [USA, Jan 29 2011] writes: It would be great if all you had to do was to set what you want once and right when you press it, it would cover your screen not having to choose to do it is just shows up.

We’ve submitted an update to the App Store that offers this option—you’ll be able to optionally show or hide the settings panel at launch.

Name Mangler

Somerandomguy [UK, Jan 13 2011] writes: Fast and effective renamer — the option to populate with the FInder selection saves a lot of dragging, and the regular expression support actually works, unlike some other renaming apps I’ve tried. The help on the terms list could be a bit clearer, though — it says what it does, but doesn’t really explain how to use it.

Sorry about that, Somerandomguy. In the next update to Name Mangler, we’ll provide a clearer explanation of the terms list. Basically, Apply Terms List lets you repeatedly apply a list of terms to a group of files. So if you had a series of 12 files, each of which represented a three-part series, you could create a Terms List that read:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

When you use Apply Terms List with this list, and by specifying the prefix and/or suffix, all twelve files will be renamed to reflect their proper part numbers—the items in the Terms List will be repeated as necessary, in order, to rename all the files.


CoopAndy [USA, Jan 27 2011] writes: Very good tool for switching between open applications, more functionality than command/tab. Especially like being able to activate a window for an application that is active but has no open windows. One really big request: allow switching to any open tabs in the browser, currently only active tab is available.

We’d love to support all tabs in browsers (and in BBEdit, Coda, CS5, etc.). The big issue here is what information those programs can provide about their tabs. We’re investigating for Witch 4, and hopefully we’ll be able to display at least some programs’ tabs.

airic [USA, Jan 27 2011] writes: I’ve wanted this one for awhile now, love the preview mode. However, I would like to see previews in mail comp windows.

So would we, really! Unfortunately, the way Witch works, it’s heavily dependent on windows having titles—without window titles, those windows are essentially invisible to Witch. So what we really need is for the Mail team at Apple to assign some title to those composition windows—even something as simple as New message would let us show them in the switcher.

simtre [UK, Jan 28 2011] writes: Nice app, works well and makes life easier for those of us who switch between Windows & Mac (oddly enough, there are elemenets of Windows that are actually better than Mac OSX!!!) Don’t know if this is even technically possible but it would be even better if it could recognise the tabs in the popular browsers and allow you to switch between them.

See above; we’d love to support tabs if we can.

simtre…Also a touch expensive for what it does – even at their ‘on sale’ price. I’d have thought a price of $5/£3 would be closer to the mark

Unfortunately, at prices that low, we’d be unable to suport the app long term—no money to fund future development, or to hire support personnel to handle an increasingly-large user base. Sure, in a perfect world, everything is free…but that model simply doesn’t work for small shareware developers who rely on income from their apps to sustain their business, and to support their customers going forward.

And that’s a wrap on our first Conversations with the App Store—stay tuned for future installments, though, as other questions and comments arise. (Also, feel free to ask your own questions here in the comments!)