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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.

Steve Jobs: In memoriam

Wednesday, October 5th, 2011

As everyone knows by now, Steve Jobs died earlier today at the way-too-young age of 56. To honor his work, and to do a small bit to help others not suffer a similar fate, for the next seven days Many Tricks will donate 100% of our received revenue to the National Pancreatic Cancer Foundation. It’s a drop in the bucket, of course, but every little bit helps.

Here are some words on what Steve meant to each of us:

Rob Griffiths   The passing of Steve Jobs hit me deeply, even though I never met the man. From the time I first used an Apple ][, I knew I wanted to work for Apple. Being only 14 at the time, the dream had to wait a few years. But eventually, after college and graduate school, it was fulfilled: I found myself working for Apple in 1989. This was post-Steve, of course, and not necessarily the best time to be at Apple. Still, it was an incredible place to work, and I feel amazingly fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with such a talented group of people at an amazingly innovative company.

Things change, and I eventually found myself leaving California (and Apple) for Oregon in 1993. Still, Apple ran deep in my blood. For instance, I brought my home Mac to my office job, just so I wouldn’t have to use a Windows machine. Over the years, I managed to help “sneak” about a dozen Macs into the company; they were used in one of our most successful divisions.

When Steve came back in 1997, I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. But with the release of the first beta of OS X, my life changed, though I didn’t really know it at the time. I launched Mac OS X Hints in March of 2001, as a hobby outside my normal day job. Over the span of a few years, as OS X took off, my hobby quickly progressed into something that was eating 100% of my free time.

Thankfully, Macworld came along, purchased the site, and (most importantly) offered me a job. At that point, my career path made a 180 degree shift, from business guy to writer of all things Apple/Mac. Without Steve’s saving the Mac (and Apple), the site wouldn’t have grown as it did, nor would Macworld have come calling.

Also during this time, I “met” Peter Maurer online, and we struck up a friendship that has lasted through the years. After nearly five years at Macworld, Peter convinced me to take a shot at the software business with him; about 18 months ago, I did so, leaving Macworld for Many Tricks. Again, this never would have happened if Apple hadn’t recovered as it did.

So it’s with great sadness and tears in my eyes that I write this tonight; I still can’t believe such a great man has been taken from us at such a young age. I don’t swear much, but really, fuck cancer.

Steve, your presence cannot be replaced, but I believe your shaping of Apple and the products they create will last a lifetime. For my (personal sanity’s) sake, I hope that’s true, as I can’t imagine using any other platform for my work or my play. RIP, Steve Jobs.

Peter Maurer   There ultimately is no such thing as a self independent from the rest of the universe — this is one of the core beliefs of Steve Jobs’ religion, Buddhism, and what a great example of that doctrine Steve Jobs was.

I try to imagine what his outlook on death might have been and draw optimism from that, but even if you believe that he is merely ascending to another plane of existence right now, there’s no denying that an undoubtedly inconsolable family lost their father. And in a broader sense, so did I.

None of the things I do for a living today would have been possible without Steve Jobs. And since I’ve always believed that we are what we do, I as a person would be very different as well.

Steve Jobs paved the way by being instrumental in the ascension of the personal computer and ushering in the era of mobile devices. But more importantly, the way he tackled problems with an unbridled enthusiasm, optimism, and fervor helped me dare doing the same thing on a smaller scale. I quit an education that was almost finished, and I took the risk of being self-employed, because I knew there were people like him. I knew it was okay to take a risk and do something unexpected if deep down, you knew it was what you were here to do. That’s why I’ve always thought of Steve Jobs as one of the father figures in my life.

So thank you, Steve Jobs, for being one of those who gave me an opening for evolving into who I am today. There ultimately is no such thing as a self independent from the rest of the universe — I guess that’s why I feel like on October 5, 2011, a part of me died.