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

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.

11 Responses to “Direct vs. Mac App Store: Where to buy Mac apps?”

  1. Goodfellha says:

    No mention of iCloud support when buying from the App Store which is a huge advantage advantage over buying direct.

  2. Howard H. says:

    Generally, I agree with the article but one thing not touched on is payment. I for one am not comfortable providing a credit card number — particularly to an unfamiliar site or payment processor. I recently made a purchase choosing between two about equally rated backup programs based solely on one developers site indicating it accepted Paypal and the other did not. I believe Apple also accepts Paypal — or at least they do in their regular store.

    If a developer direct site does not have a provision for their payment method to accept Paypal, Amazon Pay or now that it is more widely available, Apple Pay in addition to a credit card I will pass them by in favor of someone who does. I wouldn’t be surprised if others did the same.

    • Rob Griffiths says:

      A very valid point; I’ll add it to the list. (Our provider, FastSpring supports PayPal, Amazon, direct credit card, and even checks (though I don’t know that we’ve ever gotten one of those. If/when they add Apple Pay, we’ll automatically get it, too.

      -rob.

  3. DV Henkel-Wallace says:

    I think the App store is much more convenient AND I like sandboxing (except for the few apps that by their very nature can’t function in a sandbox). BUT I always buy direct when I can (PCalc is an exception being App-store only) because more of the money goes to the developer. And I want the independent developers to do well.

    Unfortunately for political reasons most people feel it’s unwise to write an article like this (“Of course you should buy from the App Store or from our web site, whichever you prefer”) but the $$$ issue REALLY MATTERS.

    • Rob Griffiths says:

      The politics don’t really scare us—perhaps they should, but we trust Apple understands these issues. If they ever addressed some/many of them, we’d probably recommend the App Store equally. But no returns, no trials, and country lock are daunting issues for us personally.

      Thanks for the feedback. (I hadn’t realized PCalc went App Store only — I’m still happily using version three.)

      -rob.

  4. Paul Palinkas says:

    Re: License management. I keep track of my Licenses in 1Password. It’d be awesome if developers could work with AgileBits for some easy way to populate a 1Password entry with the pertinent license details. I know you can share 1Password entries via some sort of URL-based system.

  5. Michael says:

    Another App Store con: if a developer decides to stop selling through the App Store and only sell and update direct in the future, the user will never know. It just stops updating without notification. I had a buggy app that I didn’t know had gone direct until I messaged the director.

    • Rob Griffiths says:

      Yea, this ties into the one where we’re not told who you are, making it impossible to directly contact the buyers. For our apps, however, we have a News mechanism built in — it loads a screen of info about the app (which users can disable). We update it each time there’s a new release, and if/when we have to move an app out of the store (Moom 4 will be such a case), we intend to use that mechanism to let our customers know about the change. Not everyone will see it, of course, but it will reach many.

      -rob.

  6. Mark Moxon says:

    Great post. After reading it, I bought Moom direct from you – I just wish I’d discovered it sooner! What a great app; thank you.

    That said, I did get a little bit stung by the process (not your fault, I should add!). I’m in the UK, so while the App Store version currently sells for £7.99 all in, the direct price currently comes to £10.07, which is a good 26% more than on the App Store. The difference is down to the current exchange rate, plus an extra 20% Value Added Tax that gets applied to direct sales for us lucky UK folk.

    I’m fine with the extra cost for such a useful app, but it’s worth noting that for overseas buyers, buying direct may cost you quite a bit more than buying from the App Store. Still worth every penny, though!

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