Category Archives: MacOSX

App stores set to dominate future software sales?

Following the success of the iPhone app store (over 6 billion downloads to date), app stores are becoming more and more of a feature of the software landscape. In case you missed it, Apple announced yesterday that there will be an App Store for Macs  ‘within 90 days’. In summary:

  • The Mac app store will be tightly integrated with Mac OS X, including automatic install and update.
  • There will be restrictions on technology, for example Java apps will not be allowed.
  • Apple will keep 30% of any revenue from sales.
  • $99/year subscription for developers.
  • Developers will still be able to sell their software outside the App store.

It is easy to see why Apple would want to do this:

  • A potentially huge new revenue stream from third party Mac software sales.
  • They get even more control over the customer experience.

And this could have advantages for Mac users:

  • Simpler payment and installation.
  • Screening out of low quality apps and malware.

And potential advantages for Mac developers:

  • Mac users might buy more software if it is easier to do so.
  • One main channel to concentrate your marketing efforts on.
  • Some of the boring infrastructure of selling software (licensing, shopping cart etc) can be taken care of by Apple.

But the disadvantages are all too obvious:

  • Your app could be rejected outright. And you won’t know until you submit it for approval. Apple are judge, jury and executioner. The iPhone app store has been infamous its capricious and opaque approval process.
  • 30% is a huge chunk of revenue. Typical payment processors take 5-10% of revenue. Where the new app store cannibalises existing sales (and it is hard to see that it won’t) vendors will lose 20-25% of existing sales revenues.
  • New apps and updates will be delayed by days or weeks as they go through the app store approval process.
  • A single centralised app store is likely to make it harder for niche/long-tail apps to make any sort of living. Certainly this is what seems to be happening in the iPhone App store.
  • Apple are control freaks and have traditionally taken a rather heavy handed approach with developers, including the liberal use of NDAs. The app store will give them even more control.

And worse might follow:

  • Apple makes a lot of their money from selling over-priced hardware. It may be in their interest to drive software prices down so they can sell more hardware. $5 is considered expensive in the iPhone App Store.
  • This could be the first step to making Mac OS X a closed system, like iPhone, where only Apple approved apps can be installed.

I guess they can’t piss off developers too much – a computer without third party applications isn’t going to be very attractive to customers. But I am finding it hard to work up any enthusiasm for a Mac app store. If it is successful I can either be in the store and give up a lot of freedom and cannibalize exisiting sales at a much lower margin, or stay out and be shut out of a large chunk of the market. It isn’t an attractive choice. As my app is written in C++/Qt, rather than Objective-C/Cocoa, I am not even sure that it will be eligible for inclusion in the store. I could just abandon Mac OS X, but Microsoft is also rumoured to be working on their own app store (despite the failure of DigitalLocker). That is a truly terrifying prospect given the awfulness of their ‘Works with Vista’ approval process (I speak from personal experience).

Suddenly web apps are looking more interesting.

Qt visual artefacts on Mac OS X 10.6

deploy_nearly_everywhereThe release of Mac OS X 10.6 (Snow Leopard) snuck up on me while I have been working hard on a major new release of PerfectTablePlan plan. I didn’t really want to risk messing up my stable Mac development machine by installing it, so I asked testlab2.com (who have been doing some third party testing for me) to test my latest beta on it.

Bad news. All the combo boxes in my application (which work fine in Mac OS X 10.3, 10.4 and 10.5) have visual artefacts on Mac OS X 10.6. They work fine, but they don’t look right. I wondered if the artefact could be unique to some weird configuration on testlab2’s test machine, so I asked the fine folk on macsb mailing list to see if they could replicate it. 4 of them tried (thanks Cesar, Jon, Aaron and Pierre) and they all saw the visual artefacts. Damn.

I posted a question on the qt-interest forum. The single response (thanks Francesco) mentioned that this issue had been reported in the Qt development blog. I managed to find the blog post, applied the recommended single line code patch to Qt 4.4.2 and rebuilt everything. Cesar from macsb kindly re-tried the new binaries and reports that this improved things, but some artefacts are still visible the first time a combo box is shown. Perhaps the patch works better for Qt 4.5.

Note the artefacts at the top and bottom of the combo box drop-down list

Note the artefacts at the top and bottom of the combo box drop-down list

It looks like I am going to have to release it like this, unless someone knows of a better patch. This is very annoying after the months of hard work I have put into the new release. Aesthetics are important for commercial software, especially on the Mac. This could cost me quite a few sales.

I am not on the very latest release of Qt, but apparently this issue would still occur even if I was. Qt/Nokia have announced that they don’t expect to  support Mac OS X 10.6 until they release Qt 4.6, whenever that might be. What use is a cross-platform toolkit that doesn’t support the latest major OSs?

Developer releases of 10.6 have been available for a while – I believe the Qt team should have burnt the midnight oil to make sure they had a release that properly supported 10.6 as soon as it became generally available.  I know that isn’t easy given the size of the Qt framework and Apple’s penchant for secretiveness. But that is the game they are in and that is what I expect. I think they have seriously dropped the ball here, and this is coming from a longtime Qt fan-boy. Perhaps they have spread themselves a bit too thin by moving to LGPL licensing.

I have written this post as a quick heads up to other Qt developers. Thanks to everyone that helped me get this far.

Using a Mac mini for development

mac miniI have been using a Mac mini to port my C++/Qt based code to Mac OS X for the last 3.5 years. This is one of the early PowerPC based Mac minis, upgraded to 1GB of RAM. Being Apple hardware, it is expensive for what you get. But it has served me well. The small form factor (approx 17 x 17 x 5 cm) has also been useful in my cramped office, where I have it attached to the same monitor, mouse and keyboard as my Windows box through a KVM switch. But it is struggling to keep up with PerfectTablePlan’s ever increasing code base. A clean build of the PerfectTablePlan source into a Universal (fat) binary now takes an eye-watering 36 minutes to compile and link on the Mac mini. Building a PowerPC-only debug version still takes nearly half that time. That is painful, even just for occasional porting work.

As my main development environment is Windows, I can’t really justify the cost (or office space requirements) of a Mac Pro. So I decided to buy a new Mac mini, with an Intel Core 2 Duo processor. I did look around to see if I could find one at a discount. However, this being Apple hardware, no-one dares sell  at anything significantly less than Apple’s RRP. I bought the smaller (120GB) disk variant and had the dealer upgrade it to 2GB RAM, which tests on my old Mac mini indicated should be plenty for compiling and linking. I didn’t want to do the memory upgrade myself as I know, from experience with my first Mac mini, that removing the case involves putty knives and some very worrying cracking noises.

I had all sorts of problems trying to get the right cables. Firstly I wanted a Firewire cable so I could copy the set-up across from the old machine to the new machine using Apple’s Migration Assistant software. But it turns out that the old Mac Mini has a Firewire 400 6-pin socket, whereas the new Mac Mini has a Firewire 800 9-pin socket. I ordered a 6-pin to 9-pin Firewire cable cable. Then I discovered that there is more than one type of DVI cable. The old Mac mini was attached to my KVM switch with a DVI-I cable. The new Mac mini only accepts mini-DVI or (via a supplied adaptor) DVI-D. So I ordered a dual link DVI-D to DVI-D cable as well.

Once I had the right cables things went relatively smoothly. The Migration Assistant software copied almost all the apps and data across from the old machine to the new one. It even preserved settings for the apps, e.g. the email accounts in my Thunderbird email client. I just had to re-install XCode (which wasn’t copied across) and rebuild my Qt libraries (to avoid copious warnings due to the fact they had been built with an earlier version of XCode/gcc).

To use the migration assistant you simply:

  1. connect the 2 machines with a Firewire cable
  2. start-up the old machine with the ‘T’ key depresses to put it in ‘Target’ mode
  3. start-up the new machine
  4. follow the on-screen instructions

Nice. If only it was was that easy to set-up a new Windows machine.

A quick test shows that the new Mac mini is nearly 6 times faster at compiling and linking a Universal binary of PerfectTablePlan from scratch[1]:

mac mini performance

The time the new Mac mini takes to compile and link an Intel-only debug release of PerfectTablePlan also compares favourably with a similar build on my Windows 2.13 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo box with 4GB of RAM[2].

mac mini performance 2

This isn’t a fair hardware comparison, as the two machines are using completely different compilers and linkers and the Windows box was running various background services. But it certainly shows that Intel-based Mac minis are worth considering for use as development machines.

[1] The newer machine is using a newer version of XCode/gcc.

[2] The Windows box is using Visual Studio 2005.

GraphicDesignerToolbox

I launched my product a year ago, but so far haven’t had much luck selling it. I desperately needed advice from a person that could take a look at my situation and help figure out what’s wrong and how to move on. Andy Brice has been through all this and knew exactly what I was struggling with.

Simon Strandgaard, www.GraphicDesignerToolbox.com

gdt-screenshot

GraphicDesignerToolbox is a Mac OS X application for creating computer generated graphics. It allows users to snap together generative and filter blocks to create a vast range of different types of images, without any drawing or programming. It is an impressively slick and well engineered piece of software. But sales were unsatisfactory. I did some consulting for the author, Simon Strandgaard, focussed on improving the marketing and the user’s initial experience of the product. As a result he has made a lot of changes, including:

  • Re-thought the product positioning, marketing message and target customer.
  • Renamed the application to GraphicDesignerToolbox (from the less descriptive ToolboxApp).
  • Moved the website from ToolboxApp.com to GraphicDesignerToolbox.com.
  • Commissioned a new application icon.
  • Completely rewritten the website.
  • Improved the initial user experience with a quick tour and easy to load samples.
  • Improved the product documentation.
  • Changed the trial model.
  • Increased the price.
  • Released version 1.0.

You can see captures of old and new versions of the website below:

toolboxapp_cropped1

Old home page - click to enlarge

graphicdesignertoolbox

New home page - click to enlarge

It is has been very rewarding to see the product and marketing improve so much in just three months. Especially as someone else was doing all the hard work! I think the changes are a huge improvement all round and I wish Simon and GraphicDesignerToolbox every success. v1.0 was released today and Simon tells me he has sold as many licences today as in the previous 5 months.

If you have a Mac you can head over to GraphicDesignerToolbox.com and download the trial.

Mac OS X market share accelerates in 2008

2008 was a good year for Apple and Mac OS X. According to netapplications.com data (via sharewarepromotions blog) Mac OS X’s share of the OS market increased from 7.31% in Dec 2007 to 9.63% in Dec 2008. That is a 32% increase in market share during 2008, compared to a 22% increase during 2007.

macosx_market_share_2007_2008

Windows market share fell from 91.79% to 88.68% in the same time. While Mac OS X’s annual gains are impressive, it has a long way to go to catch Windows. 15 years if you project the 2008 gains forward.

macosx_vs_windows_market_share_2007_2008Of course, it is highly questionable to project 15 years from a single year of data, but it gives an idea how much work Apple still has to do.

I sell table planning software for Windows and Mac OS X. Mac visitors to my website have followed the general trend, up from 7.41% in 2007 to 8.5% in 2008 and accounting for around of 10% of visitors at the end of 2008.

macosx_visitor_percentage% Mac visitors to http://www.perfecttableplan.com

My data also shows that Mac users are twice as likely to purchase my software as Windows users (I have heard similar figures have reported by others). So Mac users currently account for 20% of my sales. I wouldn’t want to live off my Mac sales, but it is very useful additional income. Given the disparity in cost between Windows and Mac hardware it is hardly surprising that Mac users are more ready to reach for their credit card.

My software is built on top of the Qt cross-platform toolkit. The recent porting of Qt 4.5 to Cocoa gives me the opportunity to further improve PerfectTablePlan’s Mac look and feel and to release a 64 bit version. Hopefully this, coupled with increasing Mac market share, will further improve my Mac sales.

A beta of Windows 7 has just been released.  It will be interesting to see if it can repair some of the damage caused by Vista and slow the growth of Mac OS X. Personally, I doubt it – the Windows 7 feature list certainly doesn’t set my pulse racing.