The App Store Problem
Starting with the iPhone and it's brethren the iPod touch and the iPad, Apple only allows you to download and purchase apps via their App Store, which requires approval from Apple to sell them. In the last year, Apple has also made it an option to buy apps for Mac OS X through their sanctioned App Store as well. This has some inherent benefits, most notably a level of security and a trust party to collect payment as well as an easy way to get updates to apps. But, in the end, there's still many shortcomings in the App Store model.
For example, take my recent purchase, the Reeder app. Over the last couple years, I'd tried out a couple apps, such as NetNewsWire, which used the Google Reader API to provide an app interface to reading your Google Reader subscriptions. (I've been a longtime Google Reader user and have been happy using the great web interface for reading RSS subscriptions both at home and one the go.) NetNewsWire, being free, seemed pretty full-featured, but there were a couple things that it didn't do, like not giving a way to mark an item as Unread in case I started reading and found I couldn't read it right now. Reeder's short list of features on the App Store on their website included that feature, so I was intrigued.
With the App Store, there's no way to try out the app. For the iPhone, the app is $2.99. Reeder for Mac has been heavily featured in related areas of the Mac App Store, which usually means it's a quality (or at least popular) product, but the desktop app is $9.99. In the era before the App Store, if this app existed, it would probably have a free trial for a week or two. Then, you'd have to purchase a license key from a sketchy website and hope that it worked to validate the product.
If there was a free trial, I would have found that besides the good looks that show up in the screenshots, there's also a plethora of customization options to customize the reading experience. You can customize the main text size, update the color scheme, and share posts with almost every service imaginable from Evernote to Delicious to Instapaper (and more). The iPhone app also seems to sync all your items to a local cache (including images), so that you can read your posts when you've got no internet connection. The features are all I wanted and the price isn't bad.
How did I find all this out without a free trial? I looked at the Reeder app a couple times over the last month or two but I didn't buy it. It was only this past week when tech podcaster Tom Merritt listed it as a "pick" when guest hosting on This Week in Google that I decided to take the $2.99 jump for the iPhone app. If it wasn't good enough, I was going to be out $3, but I figured it was a decent gamble. After 15 minutes of using the iPhone app and browsing through the extensive Preference panel for the app, I immediately purchased the Reeder for Mac app because I figured if the iPhone app was this good, it'd make my on-computer reading experience much better, which was definitely true.
Still, to make the App Store really beneficial, I think there should be a couple things to be done. First, Apple should give developers a way to allow users to try the app for free, if the developer chooses to do so. This would cut down on the number of negative reviews for an app because users didn't do their research and thought the app did something completely different than it actually does. Second, every app should have an extensive website that documents every feature of the app. Some videos of the app in action could be helpful too. A half-dozen screenshots and a dozen bullets in a "features" list don't give us an idea of what an app really does.
In the end, the Apple Mac/iOS App Store is a benefit to most users. But in streamlining the purchasing experience for the mainstream it has lost much of the details that more discerning buyers have expected and required for years.
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