Releasing Outside the App Store

Mac App Store

Matt Gemmell:

I recently released a new little Mac app, Sticky Notifications. It’s not currently in the App Store, and accordingly I went through a process that many Mac developers face: deciding whether to release software on the App Store, or outside of it (or indeed both).

In recent months, the illusory appeal of the Mac App Store has steadily begun to deplete. Beyond its initial allure, Matt Gemmell has demonstrated that there are perfectly reasonable, accessible, and uncomplicated means for attaining similar levels of ease when distributing paid Mac apps. For all of this, however, Gemmell cautions that he is not explicitly opposed to the Mac App Store, but that there are simply scenarios in which its use is obviated by Apple’s strict guidelines.

Such ambivalence concerning the Mac App Store has come to characterize much of the critical response to the service. Although the guiding concept is affable, most serious Mac users have grown encumbered by Apple’s ruleset — with powerful apps like TextExpander forced into self-removal from Apple’s restrictive environment.

I tend to share such feelings regarding the Mac App Store. The ability to delve into a centralized list of apps — particularly when dealing with multiple Macs — is an absolute pleasure. Conversely, as a well-entrenched Mac user, I’m not particularly keen to subvert my workflow for the sake of Apple’s draconian guidelines.

At the end of the day, hypotheticals aside, I’m irrevocably in the business of supporting independent creators. If the Mac App Store inhibits my ability to do so, then I will simply forego the service altogether. For now, though, it’s — perhaps problematically — become a matter of discerning the best course of action on an app-by-app basis.

Paper by FiftyThree

Paper by FiftyThree

Introduced yesterday evening, Paper by FiftyThree is a fantastic new drawing app for iPad. Relying primarily upon touch — much like Realmac Software’s Clear for iPhone — Paper foregoes UI chrome in favor of a simple, intuitive interface.

Freely available and supported by in-app purchases, it has taken virtually no time at all for early drawings to usurp Twitter feeds across the world as more and more people began to experiment with the app.

John Gruber has gone as far as to write:

Exquisitely well-done new drawing app. Note the complete lack of persistent on-screen UI chrome — there is a fork in this regard between Apple and third-party iOS developers. Cf. Clear for another recent example.

The tension is between simplicity and obviousness. Eliminating on-screen chrome is simpler, more elegant and beautiful. But Apple’s use of minimal but persistent on-screen chrome makes things more obvious. Big differences can result from a slight shift in priorities: simple and obvious vs. obvious and simple.

If you own an iPad, Paper is definitely worth a download.

Sparrow for iPhone: A Review

Since the introduction of the App Store, few developers have truly dared to undermine the relevance and resident dominance of Apple's primary stock apps. Turning the iPhone on for the first time, Phone, Mail, Safari, and Music provide for a colorful welcome from the proverbial glass shelf at the base of the screen. This shelf, for Apple, represents a higher tier of app - the irreplaceable core of the iPhone experience. As such, not for a lack of repeated attempts, few developers have come close to usurping such a position. Whether by rejection or by poor attempt, these four apps have retained a veritable stranglehold upon the core functionality of the iPhone. Today, however, the dominance of Mail comes into question: Sparrow for iPhone has been released.

Built upon the foundational design tenets established by Sparrow for Mac, Sparrow for iPhone endeavors to undermine the increasing complexity of email. Sparrow for Mac, although somewhat shaky in its early iterations, has blossomed into a true email behemoth beneath an affable and approachable UI. CloudApp and Facebook integration, coupled with powerful functionality, characterize an experience unhindered by the nightmarish features typical of the token email interface. Sparrow for Mac has, hyperbole aside, entirely redefined the manner in which I contend with the tentacled beast that is my perpetually growing email inbox.

Thus, Sparrow's arrival in the iOS ecosystem is a welcome sight. Mail.app, although competent, has been utterly bereft of significant overhaul since the inception of iOS. Accordingly, the Google experience is fundamentally lacking, alternating between accounts is jarring, and threaded conversations are somewhat unintuitive. Sparrow, on the other hand, is a beauty to behold. 

Boasting a panel-driven layout akin to Facebook and Path, Sparrow for iPhone facilitates an environment unencumbered by granular settings, folders, and detail unless specifically called upon. Even then, the experience is a delight. Gesturally driving oneself through panels, emails, and even into the very depths of various accounts is truly fluid, simple, and intuitive. Unlike Mail.app, seeking out an older email is no longer an exercise in frustrating futility, archiving email is no longer mislabeled as a deletion (for Google Sync), and Facebook-integrated contacts are a pleasure to behold when addressing your messages.

Simply put, for much of what Mail.app does competently, Sparrow accomplishes brilliantly.

As the first iteration, however, Sparrow does have its fair helping of flaws. Most notably is the lack of push notifications. This exclusion, as Mr. Dominique Leca highlighted for me this morning, is not for a lack of trying. Under the current governing rules of the App Store, good security is a practical impossibility for Sparrow and, as a third party client, such an exclusion would spell disaster for the app. Accordingly, Sparrow's awareness of new emails is confined to when you open the app to check.

For many - despite the refreshingly mature accountability and reasoning beneath the decision - such an exclusion is likely (and unfortunately) a deal breaker. Having the capability to glance at the lock screen during a meeting or a dinner for a high-level overview of email is beneficial for many and, despite the increasing disdain felt for those incessant email vibrations, it allows the end-user to remain up-to-date and in touch with their working and personal lives. As a competitor for Mail.app's position, the lack of push is the largest remaining hurdle for Sparrow.

A second hurdle - although significantly less impactful for the vast majority - is the lack of Exchange compatibility. As the iPhone is increasingly adopted as the corporate smartphone of choice, Mail.app becomes further entrenched as the de facto mail client for the vast majority of users. Competent calendar and email management is of the utmost importance for the average corporate user - myself included - and Sparrow simply cannot contend in such an arena.

Perhaps such a statement sounds resoundingly negative, but that is certainly not my intent. In many ways, as a corporate user, Sparrow for iPhone is a truly blessed gift. Having transferred my Google accounts into Sparrow, I have successfully separated personal from corporate and I have likely regained an enormous amount of battery. Removing Google accounts set under Google Sync (Exchange) parameters from Settings relegates the unnecessary nagging of my personal accounts to Sparrow - an environment built upon the ideal of the personal experience. From within Sparrow, contending with my Google accounts - both personal and for ONE37 - reserves a warm and well-designed interface for a warmer environment than that of my corporate Exchange account.

Meanwhile, with Sparrow now nestled into my dock, Mail.app has now been shifted to my second home screen. From here, corporate email assumes its well-deserved space for ninety percent of my day - out of the way.

Looking to the future, there is plenty to feel optimistic about. Considering the introductory version of the app is already such a feature-packed rival to Mail.app, its dedicated progression promises to be intriguing indeed. On the topic of the future, given the widespread hype and chatter surrounding the device, I asked Mr. Leca about the likelihood of Sparrow for iPad in future. The answer was simple and unrevealing, "No plans yet."

Despite the disappointing lack of push, Sparrow is a phenomenal app and, moreover, an unbelievable first attempt. Apps that have been on the App Store for years struggle to achieve such a level of fluidity. Facilitating a delightful email experience is no small task and, given Sparrow for Mac's markedly accomplished evolution, I imagine the app is only going to improve from here. The app immediately gained a position of prominence in my workflow and, regardless of its flaws, Sparrow for iPhone is unquestionably one of the most promising apps I've had the pleasure of working with in quite some time.

Buy Sparrow for iPhone and give it a fair chance, sign the pseudo-petition for Apple to allow their secure push solution, and read Federico Viticci's review for further detail regarding the app.

Sparrow for iPhone is available here.