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Friday Food for Thought: Why is the Mac App Store Different?

By Jason Grigsby

Published on March 18th, 2011


Yesterday, Distimo released research showing that revenue on the Mac App Store is already half that of iPad apps. This reminded me of a thought experiment I had posed to some friends recently.

Here’s the scenario:

Assume you either work for a major brand like Home Depot or consult with them on their digital initiatives. You see news that Pixelmator grossed $1 million on the Mac App Store in only 20 days. You read a Distimo report about how much revenue has been made on the Mac App Store.

Do you advise your brand to build an app for the Mac App Store or not?

I asked friends who are big advocates of native apps and their immediate answer was, “No, it probably doesn’t make sense for a company like Home Depot to build a Mac app.”

Yet, if you ask the same question when it comes to mobile, the advice would likely be very different. Even though I advocate that mobile web needs to be part of a company’s mobile strategy, I wouldn’t think twice about the fact that a big brand might decide to build an iPhone app.

Why is mobile different?

I’m not posing a false question here. I’m sincerely trying to figure out why if I take the scenario above and replace Mac with iPhone or iPad, we would evaluate the situation differently. And when I say “we” would evaluate it differently, I’m including myself.

An easy answer is to say that there is no difference and that we’re wasting a lot of money building apps for mobile.

But if we assume for a moment there is a valid reason that causes us to treat mobile differently in this scenario, then it seems understanding this reason could help us articulate some core differences between mobile and desktop.

Some food for thought.


Sasha Mace said:

Mobile is different for one simple reason – context. When you place a hugely powerful networked computer that is location aware onto a human being, the possibilities for context driven software (native or mobile-web) become more compelling to, well human beings. We’re social mobile animals (in the walking talking sense).

Desktop software has a context that rarely changes, even when on a laptop. It’s a market, but a fairly static one. The Mac App Store serves it.

Replies to Sasha Mace

Jason Grigsby (Article Author ) replied:

@sasha hmm… I don’t disagree with you. But it seems difficult to translate that abstract idea of context into a reason why Coca-Cola or Home Depot need apps on mobile but don’t on desktop.

I should also add that when I was talking about this with other folks, we talked about the fact that there is a big push to be in the App Store itself. That being in the App Store and having an icon on the home screen for mobile seems to have value that we don’t see as compelling for desktop.

I’m going to noodle on context a bit. It seems like it is part of the picture.

Michael Gorman said:

I had an iPhone 3G for a couple of years. The only “brand” app I installed was State Farm’s. I did so because, if I ever got in an accident (which I didn’t), that would be the first thing to come to mind. It would walk me through what to look at, what information to give and ask of the other driver, contact info for my agent, etc. I never needed it, but it was there in case I did.

Most companies, I think, decide to make a mobile app because (a) everybody else does, and (b) every time someone looks at their home screen, they see an ad for the company. The content could probably be developed more easily as a web app, but that doesn’t serve as an ad for the brand unless someone bookmarks it.

A desktop app, on the other hand, isn’t compelling for a company because (a) it’s unlikely that someone would keep the icon in their Dock after installing it, and (b) very few average users scroll through their /Applications/ directory on a regular basis. The marketing ROI is much lower.

steven hoober said:

I’m gonna go with context again. Not just because I think that is a key mobile attribute, but because I am in the midst of moving from discovery to execution on a multi-channel suite of products for a company… not dissimilar from your concept, let’s say.

Starting with no platform assumptions, we ended up with lots of mobile needs (even in home, the mobile moves about better) and, well, a website (and kiosks and cs portals and so on, yes). Given conceptually unlimited rein for months, we don’t need a desktop app.

Not sure who would.

Steven Hoober said:

Okay, that made me think, why is web good in one channel? Well, I think there’s a reason and it’s not context, but the last of mobile web’s ability to USE the contextual info.

Mobile web is (probably excessively) restricted from getting access to hardware like camera, location, accelerometer, different radios, etc. Yes, you can get some with carrier agreements, but that’s some effort, and not universal. Even iOS restricts some hardware access or expansion.

Desktop web (probably excessively) allows the browser to install plugins and otherwise get access to pretty much all the device hardware.

Hence, you can get away without a desktop app, as desktop web is an app portal. Mobile web is, much more just a website. If mobile web worked like desktop apps in this regard, I suspect apps would be much, much, much, much less prevalent. And there would be even more clamor about how we make money on mobile.

Elia Freedman said:

I think it is quite simple. I don’t think the average person wants to type on a smartphone and thus the idea of having an app feels right. I would argue that Apple could weed out half the app store if they just let many of the apps put an icon that links to a mobile safari web page in the app store instead.

I think there are some other potential factors as well: how we launch apps on the device versus launch them on the desktop, for instance, and how we were trained to use the web on the desktop versus on the device. But primarily I think it comes down to typing.

Craig Villamor said:

Purely speculation, but…

Perhaps it’s because exploration and discovery is more of a challenge on a mobile bowser. While the iOS App Store is not perfect, it does provide what is probably the most convenient means of discovering mobile applications. Once those applications are on the device, you just need to either locate the tile on your home screen or do a quick local search. Performing the same task on a mobile browser is challenging since you may need to try multiple searches before finding what you need and even then, most pages are not optimizes for mobile.

On the desktop, discovery seems less challenging. There are probably a few factors at work here that make the cost of discovery on the desktop lower:
1) Connection speeds are typically faster, so conducting multiple searches is less costly.
2) As Elia points out, typing is easier
3) Users are less distracted (typically)
4) Web pages are easier to consume

Elia Freedman said:

Actually, Craig’s comment made me wonder if it isn’t a single factor but a combination of them. For instance, combine the following and suddenly browser usage feels painful:
– Pain to type on
– Launch the browser
– Wait for the browser to become active
– Remember whether to type in the url or search bar
– Wait for the thing to pull up a page… waiting… waiting…
– Go to a page not optimized for my screen (assuming I find it right away)

As opposed to an app:
– Find it on my launch screen
– Select it

Quentin Pain said:

Isn’t just a simple case of cheap branding and PR? You wouldn’t want an app on iPad if it didn’t do anything useful, but a ‘branding’ app with all the follow up PR has some (dubious) value in the eyes of marketeers.