App Store First Impressions

Today Apple launched the App Store for Mac. The App Store on the Mac is a lot like the App store for the iPhone/iPad/iPod that is part of the iTunes Store. I’ve been spending some time today trying out the App Store, have downloaded a few of the free applications, and have made a few modest purchases. Here are some of my initial impressions.

The App Store is installed when you update your Mac operating software to 10.6.6 (by selecting “Software Update…” from the Apple Menu). It is not available to those running older versions of the Mac OS, like Leopard and Tiger. This is not much of a problem for me, as I almost always run the latest version of the operating system. But I do know people who are still running older versions of the Mac OS who won’t be able to attend the App Store party, at least not until they upgrade (assuming they have an Intel Mac and can upgrade to Snow Leopard).

Once installed, the App Store icon appears in the dock, by default right next to the Finder icon. A link to the App Store also appears in the first section of the Apple Menu, right below Software Update. And of course, the App Store application can be found in the Application folder. The App Store for Mac is not hard to miss, but It’s not built into iTunes, where I suppose it could be confused with the App Store for iOS.

Although the App Store is a separate application from iTunes, it borrows heavily from the App Store on iTunes in form and function. You use your Apple ID to login, and iTunes Store account information is used for any purchases. So if you got an iTunes Gift Card like I did over the holidays, you can now use it to pay for Apps from the App Store. This makes those iTunes Gift Cards quite versatile: I can use them in iTunes to purchase music and music videos, rent and/or purchase movies and TV shows, buy audiobooks and apps for my iOS devices, plus I can use them in iBooks to purchase books. And now I can use them to buy software for my Mac. Sweet.

One of the first things I noticed after I launched the App Store was that it recognized quite a few programs already installed on my Mac. For example, instead of a “Buy” button next to the description for iMovie, there was an “Installed” button. This was true for all of the programs in the iLife and iWork suites, as well as some third-party programs that I had on my computer, like MacFamily Tree from Synium Software and Transmit from Panic Software.

But interestingly, not all programs that are on my computer show up as installed in the App Store. For example, I own iStopMotion Home from Boinx Software, yet the App Store does not seem to recognize it. At first I thought this might be due to having a different version installed, but no, the version on my computer is the same version that is available from the App Store. This behavior is not unique to Boinx products, as I noticed the same thing with Compartments from LittleFin Software and TapeDeck from SuperMegaUltraGoovy (yes that really is the name of the developer of this fine audio recording app). I suspect that programmers need to include something in a a program’s code in order for the App Store to recognize it as installed, so perhaps these programs just need to include this code in future versions.

The first program I purchased on the App Store today was a game called Chopper 2 from Majic Jungle Software. I own the first version of Chopper, and thought this would be a good time to upgrade to Chopper 2. The price was certainly right: Chopper 2 is just 99 cents (for a “limited time” according to the App Store). Purchasing was easy, and proceeded much like a purchase in iTunes. Once I clicked the Buy button, I saw a cute animation of the Chopper 2 icon flying from the App Store to land in the dock, along with a download progress indicator below it. Once installed, the Buy button became an Installed button in the App Store. Unlike my other apps that the App Store recognizes as installed, Chopper 2 was listed in the App Store under the purchases tab. It seems that only apps purchased through the App Store show up on this list.

One of the most interesting things I noticed about the App Store was the dramatic reduction in prices on some of Apple’s products. Aperture, for example, retails in a physical box for $199, but costs just $79.99 as a download through the App Store. This is less than the price of the Academic version of Aperture, which unfortunately is not available for upgrade pricing. (I wonder if the App Store version of Aperture will be eligible for upgrade pricing when a new version comes out.) Even more dramatic is the cost reduction of Apple Remote Desktop. Yesterday this product cost $299 for the ten seat version and $499 for the unlimited seat version. But today it can be downloaded from the App Store for just $79.99. And since the App Store description doesn’t mention a seat limitation, this might be the unlimited version, which could make this a very tempting purchase. What is not clear to me, however, is whether the terms of the license for this product would allow me to use it to manage a small group of computers where I work. The license reads that I can install the software on computers that I “own or control,” so perhaps this might be permissible. In any case, it’s interesting that the version of ARD on the App Store makes no mention of a limit on how many clients one can control; I’m still not clear on why Apple decided to sell two different versions of ARD based on the number of clients anyway.

There are plenty of good apps available at good prices in the App Store. There are also quite a few not-so-good apps available, but I suspect the overall quality level of the software available will improve with time. Noticeably absent from the App Store are the big third-party software companies, like Adobe and Microsoft, which is perhaps not surprising. Staples like Roxio’s Toast and Parallels Desktop are also absent. Given the time of the year, I was really surprised not to find any of the major tax preparation programs available on the App Store. Neither Intuit’s TurboTax nor H&R Block at Home (formerly known as TaxCut) are currently available.

Another surprise was the absence of iBooks from the launch of the Mac App Store. Amazon’s Kindle app is on the App Store, so I suspect it won’t be long until we see iBooks released for Mac. But this raises an interesting possibility of having three programs on my Mac where I could spend my iTunes gift cards: iTunes, the App Store, and iBooks. Perhaps this is the start of a trend, and someday Apple will enable the use of iTunes cards in iPhoto for paying for cards and calendars.

In general, I think the App Store is off to a strong start. There are some inconsistencies in how it recognizes installed apps, and I hope Apple improves on this feature in a future update. I think the App Store could eventually move closer to the functionality of the MacUpdate Desktop App, recognizing all of the software on your computer and alerting you to any available updates. The current number of apps for sale in the Mac App Store is modest; at the moment, there are only 7 programs available in the news category, 8 programs in the Weather category, and 9 in the Medical category. But I suspect the number of available apps will grow quickly as developers recognize the potential of this new marketplace for Mac software.

Podcast Producer 2 and the iPad

Shortly after I got my iPad, I discovered something interesting. Whenever I visited one of the many web pages on my Snow Leopard Server with embedded videos created by Podcast Producer 2, the videos wouldn’t play. When I clicked the thumbnail, the image would just turn to a black square.

Some of you who read my blog know that I’ve written many posts about Podcast Producer 2, a key component of Snow Leopard Server. I’ve described various techniques for getting Podcast Producer 2 (PP2) to “play nice” with Windows Internet Explorer, and how I substituted the Quicktime plugin for the open source Flash player Flowplayer. Of course, Flash doesn’t work on the iPhone, but that wasn’t a major issue since Snow Leopard Server dishes up a different version of a PP2 page for iPhones. I had hacked together a solution that would serve PP2 videos inside Flowplayer when viewed on a computer browser, but serve PP2 videos inside the native H.264 player on the iPhone.

But my little cludge didn’t work on Mobile Safari on the iPad. That’s because Snow Leopard Server doesn’t serve up a different page for iPads like it does for iPhones. Perhaps this is deliberate, since the bigger screen real estate on the iPad doesn’t necessitate the compact presentation of an iPhone-optimized page. Or perhaps Apple didn’t include in the latest update to Snow Leopard Server specific user agent detection code to serve iPad-optimized pages.

Whatever the case may be, I reported this situation as a bug to Apple a few days ago. I had hoped that the most recent Snow Leopard Server update would include code that would produce PP2 pages that could be viewed on the iPad, but no such luck. Hopefully, this will come in an update down the road. But until then, I’ve developed a workaround.

Here’s how I got PP2 to play nice with the iPad…

First, I downloaded the open source javascript library Modernizr from This little gem allows one to detect whether a client’s web browser can handle HTML 5. Mobile Safari on the iPad can display HTML 5 video, and in fact, Apple explicitly recommends using the HTML 5 VIDEO tag to display video on an iPad optimized page in this technote.

I put the Modernizr javascript file in my web directory (I just put it at the root level). Then I added a line in the custom wiki theme that I use for PP2 pages. The line I added is just a simple SCRIPT tag that references the Modernizr javascript file. Essentially, every page the PP2/Wiki Server produces that uses this custom wiki theme will include a call to the Modernizr javascript library. This wasn’t hard to do; in fact, the process was very similar to what I did to add a call to the Flowplayer javascript library that I described in great detail in a previous post.

Next, I added the following bit of code in the expandMedia function found in wiki.js (and compressed_wiki.js)…

else if ( {
var objectHTML = '<video autoplay width="'+img.width+'" height="'+(img.height+(extendHeight?16:0))+'" src="'+fullSrc+'?sessionID='+server().sessionID+'" controls></video>';
embed.innerHTML = objectHTML;

Essentially what this code does is call on Modernizr to test whether a browser supports HTML 5, and if so, uses HTML 5 to display the PP2 video instead of presenting it with the Quicktime plugin. I use the autoplay attribute to cause the video to click when a user clicks on the thumbnail. And the controls attribute causes the video to be displayed with whatever playback control bar is provided by the browser.

Again, I describe in great detail in this previous post the process for editing the wiki.js and compressed_wiki.js files, since I used a similar technique for swapping out the Quicktime plugin for Flowplayer. I would certainly recommend making backups of the original wiki.js and compressed_wiki.js files, as well as any modifications, since these files will likely be overwritten by future Snow Leopard Server updates.

With these changes, the Podcast Producer 2 videos on my website can now be played on an iPad. Indeed, as an added bonus, these videos are now displayed using HTML 5 on any web browser that supports HTML 5, like Safari and Chrome. The Modernizr script detects whether the page is being viewed in an HTML 5 capable browser, and if so, my code swaps in the appropriate HTML 5 code.

My iPad is happy now. Here’s hoping that the folks at Apple who maintain the Snow Leopard Server code will produce an update that will work with an iPad someday. Until then, my little hack seems to do the trick.

iHave iPad…and iLove it

Yesterday morning, at around 11:15 a.m., the doorbell rang. It was a friendly UPS delivery man, handing me a package from Apple. Inside, was my new iPad.

I was in the middle of a Skype conversation with some friends from Germany, so I took the opportunity to give them an exclusive look at me unboxing my new pride and joy. They were quite impressed, especially with how thin and sleek it looked. I promised to give them a better look when I’m in Germany this summer to attend a friend’s wedding.

I’ve had just over a day now with the iPad. I’ve already downloaded a couple of dozen apps, including a bunch of free ones and a few that I purchased. One of the apps that I’ve downloaded is the WordPress application, which is what I’m using now to create this post. (I’m also using a bluetooth keyboard, which I find a bit easier to use than the onscreen keyboard for longer typing sessions.)

So far, I must say that I’m very happy with my purchase. The iPad is really a remarkable device. I had written earlier about how much I wanted one, and why. But now that I actually have one, I can honestly say it’s even better than I had imagined. Really. It’s that good.

What makes it so good? Let me mention my top three reasons why the iPad is my new favorite device. First, the iPad is super fast. Tap an icon, and BAM, you’re online. Tap another, and you’re looking at your email in one of the best email interfaces I’ve ever used. Tap another, and you’re reading a book, or watching a video, or listening to a tune, or playing a game. This thing is already making my laptop seem slow (and it’s a pretty fast laptop).

Second, the iPad is gorgeous. It’s aesthetically very pleasing. Elegant lines, with tastefully understated controls. Beautifully intuitive interface. Brilliant bright screen that’s easy on the eyes. It’s the kind of cool look you just want to show off to others. And yet for all its good looks, the iPad doesn’t get in the way of the content it displays, whether it’s a web page, a movie or an email. It just makes all of that content look great.

And third, the iPad is versatile. It does so many different things right out of the box. But when you start adding apps, and experiencing what developers have been able to do with the iPhone operating system on a bigger screen, you begin to realize this is so much more than a big iPod Touch. I like the iPod Touch, and I’ve owned a couple of them. But the iPad is so much more. And with more apps being added every day, this thing really does fill the niche between a laptop and an iPhone. And it does so very well.

Some people have compared the iPad to netbooks and Amazon’s Kindle, but really, there is NO comparison. I’ve used netbooks, and they are mostly underpowered mini-laptops. I’ve used the Kindle, and while it’s a fine ebook reader, it’s a one-trick pony. And with the iBooks app, that pony is looking like an old mare.

It won’t take long for the iPad imitators to appear. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and there is plenty to flatter about the iPad. There already is something called a “JooJoo”, which is probably the closest to an imitation iPad out there right now. We’ll probably see Google push out the Chrome OS to a slate. I could see Motorola releasing a king-sized Droid. And of course, Microsoft will undoubtedly copy Apple; they always have. But by then, we’ll be talking about iPad 2.0.

Once again, Apple has a hit on its hands. Once again, Apple has led the way toward a new paradigm in computing. And once again, I’m very glad I bought an Apple product.