Mac App Store Launches Thursday

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Apple's next App Store, the Mac App Store, launches on January 6, just in time for the Consumer Electronics Show-a show that Apple never attends but always casts a long shadow across.

What do we know so far about the App Store?

First, it works on your same iTunes account, with your same password.

"Enter the same iTunes password you use to buy apps on iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch," the company mentions on the current splash page for the Mac App Store.  "And within seconds, your new app flies to your Dock, ready to go." 

Second, there is profit sharing. Like the App Store for iPhone and iPad, Apple has announced that it will take a 30% cut for distribution, leaving the developer a 70% share. This is a much better deal than many software houses provide, especially when there are several middlemen involved in the form of resellers, distributors and even a master distributor.

Third, there are no free trials. In the traditional model, companies often offer a 30-day or multiple-use trial. In the Mac App Store, demoes and free trials are replaced by free apps and the horrific screen-shot-only "demo" approach from the iPhone and iPad that's the bane of usability testers everywhere. 

"You can browse Mac apps by category, such as games, productivity, music, and more," Apple states. "Or do a quick search for something specific. Read developer descriptions and user reviews. Flip through screenshots. When you find an app you like, click to buy it."

If you don't like the usability of the product after you buy it, the only resort seems to be to give a bad user review. I hope Apple realizes this is a desktop environment, where free trials are the norm for the big-ticket prices that desktop apps typically command. Even if the price is a much lower-cost, though, the screen shot "demo" just doesn't cut it on the desktop.

Finally, there's a big "what if?" that looms large. While we're not yet certain of how it will play out, the question of whether software bundles are dead is could drive the cost of digitally delivered software packages up, rather than down.

Are iLife and iWork software bundles dead? If the iPad is any indication, we're probably going to be paying more-much more-for the digital download versions of Apple applications.

In the iTunes store, one can buy a single song for a price between 99 cents to $1.29, or an entire album from $9.99-14.99.  There's even a "Complete My Album" feature for customers who want to fill out the rest of the album, typically set at a delta price. As an example, buy two songs off an album for 99 cents each, then later go back and complete the album for the difference between the album ($9.99) and the price you've already paid for the two songs ($1.98).

On the iPad, the iWork applications-Keynote, Pages, Numbers-are all sold separately and not as part of a bundle. Perhaps it can be argued that the iPad apps are unbundled since each may attract a different set of users, and iPad users won't want all three apps, but there's no "Complete My Album" equivalent on the iPad for those who do need the suite.

If the same is true on the Mac App Store, Apple will be creating a model that allows them to charge significantly more for apps delivered digitally than they did for apps delivered as part of a bundle. 

Early indications, from the screenshot Apple's placed on its website, is that the three iWork apps would each cost $19.99 to buy, or $59.97 total, compared to a physical disc bundle street price of $46 for a single user, or $80 for a five-person family pack. That means the family pack equivalent on the Mac App Store could cost a whopping $300 to match the current physical bundle.

Apple's move here could set off an industry trend of charging more for digital downloads across the board, including movies and online streaming, on the assumption that physical media is less convenient and customers are willing to pay for near-instant gratification. 

A line on the Mac App Store page, the day prior to the launch, reads: "Within seconds, your new app flies to your Dock, ready to go."

There may be one ray of hope for the "family pack" versions of the app bundles, though: Apple states that "you can install Mac apps on every Mac you use and even download them again."

While Apple goes on to state that this is "convenient when you buy a new Mac and want to load it with apps you already own," it also begs the question as to how many devices that you already own can be set up to use the same software. In other words, would the five-machine limit for song sharing on iTunes also apply to software packages? 

It's a question that many users will want the answer to, before clicking the "Buy" link in the new Mac App Store.

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