On this, the eve of the release of Apple’s desktop version of its wildly popular iOS App Store, I find myself very excited. Not for me, but for the many new Mac users who don’t quite understand how things work.
You see, in my line of work, I encounter many people who have Macs. I don’t call them Mac users, but people who own an Apple computer. Just as I wouldn’t call them Windows users if they didn’t understand how that operating system works, I don’t feel they know enough about how to properly use, manage and maintain a Mac to be given the title. Perhaps the biggest issue I encounter is that they have no clue how to install software.
There’s two ways to add new software to a Mac, either through a dedicated installer as is the case with the MS Office and Adobe Creative suites, or by downloading an application, and dragging it to the Applications folder. The former is what most Windows users (and non computer people in general) are accustomed to. Download an .exe, double click it, and click ‘Next’ a few times. Delete the .exe and you’re done. The same holds true for package installers on OS X.
The latter however, is where the trouble comes in. In theory it sounds simple; download the Application, drag it to the Applications folder on your hard drive and you’re done. So what’s the problem? Delivery. In OS X, applications are really just special folders that contain all the files and code needed to run. You can even dig around in an application if you like (go ahead, try it…right click and app and select ‘Show Package Contents’). The funny thing about the Internet, is that it doesn’t really let you download an entire folder and its contents. That’s why many times, files will be packaged in some way, such as .zip file.
Mac applications are no exception. They are usually distributed in a Disk Image file. If you’re familiar with .iso files, it’s the same concept. You download a .dmg file, mount it, open it, and then access it’s contents. In OS X’s case, the content you access is the application itself. From there, you drag the application to your local hard drive, eject the mounted disk image, and then trash the .dmg file. Do you see how this could be confusing to the uninformed?
I usually explain it to people using the metaphor of buying something online. When your item is delivered to you, it’s inside of a brown cardboard shipping box (the .dmg file). You open that box to get to the shiny box from the manufacturer, with all of its attractive marketing (mounting the .dmg). You then open that shiny box and there’s your item (your application). When you’re done, you get rid of both the shiny box and the brown cardboard box since they were just for delivery and are no longer needed.
I cannot begin to tell you how many times I’ve sat down to work on someone’s Mac, and find that they’ve got the .dmg file in the trash, but mounted on the desktop, and they’re running the Application from there, rather than dropping it in the Applications folder. That’s like keeping your item in both the shiny and brown cardboard boxes, and only using it while it’s still in those boxes. Macs are supposed to just work, right? To quote those classic infomercials, “there’s got to be an easier way!”
There is, and it’s called the App Store.
As anyone who owns an iOS device will tell you, discovering, purchasing, installing and updating software has never been easier. Through one channel, all of these important functions can effortlessly be performed. During Apple’s Back to the Mac event this past fall, I was very nervous when Steve Jobs announced they’d be bringing some of the features of iOS to OS X on the desktop, specifically the App Store. However, my fears were eased when he said “it won’t be the only way to install software, but it will be the easiest.” More advanced users and system administrators like myself have very good reasons for wanting to continue with business as usual, but for the average user, the App Store will absolutely be the way to go. They won’t have to worry about finding a developer’s website, downloading the package or .dmg, installing, removing files, etc. It will all just work, the way it really should have from the beginning.
Some see this as the dumbing down of the operating system and Apple extending the grip it has over the iOS experience to the desktop, but I see it as a correction to one of the biggest oversights that has existed in OS X since the beginning. The reason this will succeed is that unlike in iOS, there will be a choice to use the Mac App Store or not, thus satisfying everyone. For the new members of our ever growing family, the App Store will feel like it’s always been there, and will be an extremely simple way of adding new functionality to their machine. For those of us who know our way around the OS, it will be a welcome addition to how we discover and install more great software on our Macs.