What’s with all the vendors ditching the App Store?

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Many readers have noticed that software tools they’ve downloaded from the Mac App Store are alerting them that they will not be able to continue receiving updates via the App Store, but instead must switch to the non-App-Store version of the same software package. This has caused quite a bit of confusion, and has lead to two major questions:

1 – Why the switch?

2 – What happens if I don’t switch?

Let’s take them in turn:

1 Why the Switch?

Apple will be introducing several new technologies in the next generation of the App Store, currently scheduled to ship with Mountain Lion later this year, but the changes will also apply to Lion (the current version of OS X). Among these changes is a set of security technologies called sandboxing, which have actually been around for quite a while (See this Wikipedia article for the basics). The short story is that sandboxing will change the way apps may interact with OS X in general, and may block some critical functionality of apps you download and run. For the most part, the apps could be re-written to accept sandboxing, but that’s a process that would require a lot of development in some cases, and the vendors are unwilling or unable to make those changes. So, they will not be permitted to be purchased and downloaded via the App Store any longer.

The second reason many apps are now leaving the App Store is paid upgrades. For software on many platforms (Windows, Linux, OS X, etc.) the standard for upgrades is typically free upgrades within the same major version you purchase, and then a discounted but paid upgrade to get to the next major version. So going from version 4.1 to 4.3 would be free, but going from 4.3 to 5.0 would cost money. The Mac App Store has no method to permit previous version owners to buy the software at a lower price. If you build a new version, and don’t give it away as a free update, the App Store can only charge one set price to everyone. This means that vendors either have to give away major releases to current owners, or else charge everyone – including recent purchasers of the previous version – the full retail price.

Vendors would prefer to offer a discount to current owners, and even to give the new version away free to very recent purchasers, and only have new buyers pay the full retail price. That’s great for both vendors and end-users, but not possible at all in the App Store, so vendors are moving back to the more traditional methods for selling their software.

2 – What if I don’t switch?

You could, of course, follow your vendor’s instructions and use the version they make available to replace the one you have installed already. I’ve personally done that for about six apps so far, and they’ve worked quite well. But some vendors are not offering instructions, and others won’t allow you to “swap out” the App Store version for the commercial version. So what happens if you don’t switch?

First, a lot of this depends on your vendor. They will decide how much of the following applies to you. Be sure to reach out to them via their email/web contact information to find out how to proceed.

If you choose to stay on the App Store version of the app, Apple will allow vendors to continue making updates to the current version of that app only. This means that you can get critical patches, but you cannot ever upgrade via the App Store once the sandboxing comes into play. So if you choose to not switch to the commercial version, you’re stuck on the version you have now forever.

Note that this also means that – at some point – vendors may drop support for the App Store version completely. They’re under no obligation to continue supporting older versions after a period of time determined by Apple. The industry standard is about 2 versions ahead of the currently available version, but your mileage may vary.

As I’ve seen myself, vendors who are moving away from the App Store are working very hard to make the move as seamless as they can. For most of the apps I’ve upgraded to commercial versions there was no charge, and all I had to do was run the App Store version once, then launch the new version and the license transferred over. In one case, the vendor made the move with a new major release, and charged me a fraction of the cost of the full software like they would do for any customer who was buying a major upgrade from them.

So there you have it. You can choose to stay with the App Store version of a software product, but risk losing out on new features and non-critical updates. You may be able to move to the commercial version of the product, but it will require some steps on your part to make sure you do so correctly (as per the vendor in question). Either way, many apps will continue to be in the Mac App Store, so you might be lucky enough to not have to worry about it. Chances are, though, that at least one app you know and love will make the switch, so be ready.

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