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Reflections on FastSpring vs. Mac App Store

Monday, August 20, 2012
What happens when you can’t use the Mac App Store to distribute your latest creation?
We recently released a new App, Cloud Mate. This time around we needed to use several OS X features that in order to make it “just work” for customers, we really couldn’t abide by the App Store rules (the whole point of the App is to remove the need for a user to have to manually find a hidden directory).

We thought it would be useful to describe the process of setting up another channel, and some of the oppertunities and challenges it poses both in terms of the technical and marketing work. We are not going to talk about the “business” side of it however. FastSpring have a very reasonable cut that they take (and two models you can adopt), but how the payments reach you will impact what finally arrives in your account. In our case, it works out about half what the App Store takes (so that’s 15%. Ish.) 

So is Apple making it any easier for their 15%?

FastSpring Product & Store Set-up

It’s easy enough to register and get an account set-up with FastSpring. The process is not instant however, you first register your interest, giving some details about your first product. They state a 36 hour turn around, but we had approval and the ability to start getting things set up within 24 hours. 

None of these tasks are any harder or more involved than setting up a developer account with Apple, and in general we breazed through it in a couple of hours. 

However there is an extra step. You need (at least, we would strongly recommend) to style the store to match your site. As our site is driven from a single CSS style sheet this didn’t take too long, but we did find that the templating system didn’t lend itself to tweaking and exploration. You have to make a style locally, creating an example HTML file with some carefully placed HTML comments indicating where the various elements of the store should be plugged in. That’s all fine, but you then must zip it up, upload it, test… and so the cycle continues. Being able to tweak this in Fastspring’s web-interface would have greatly reduced the number of interations. 

That said, within a few hours we had a reasonable faxsimile of the style in place. This isn’t something you have to do with the Mac App store, and I must admit I’d like to see an App Catalogue from Fastspring (or any other vendor). We are less interested in having our own store, and our own store branding. 

We’ll be looking at Steam when the Sept 5th announcement is made for this reason, but I’d have loved to see something similar from Fastspring. Everything else works so well.

Adding Licensing to your Application
To some extent the Mac App store deals with licensing… but not completely. The App developer is still responsible for validating the receipt, and that is non-trivial. 

We opted for CocoaFob for license keys, and Fastspring supports that “out of the box”. We simply gave them the right encryption key and everything worked. Obviously you need to add a bit of logic and UI to capture the user’s registration information, but again that took just a few hours to get in place and tested. 

In fact, this took a little less time than our receipt validation for iExpression Mac on the Mac App Store. Go figure. 

Going Live
Getting your app up to Fastspring and configuring the order fullfilment process to make sure a link was delivered was again very easy, well under an hour to get done. Now that’s all in place, updating the binary is very easy and certainly no harder than uploading a new build to the Mac App Store.

It’s worth noting that the final “go-live” is achieved by a support ticket request. I believe this is a “first-product” only task, but we weren’t expecting a 24 hour delay to be introduced. Perhaps our fault for not reading ahead, but it would be nice to see a little flow chart right at the beginning. 

Other Tasks & Next Steps
The one area we still haven’t addressed are updates. Obvoiusly Sparkle is easy enough to integrate, but we haven’t yet looked at the impact of Sparkle and Gatekeeper. Once that’s in place though we will have a complete “Mac App Store” experience… 

There is a certainly a burden of marketing on you, you can’t rely on App Shopper to highlight your newly introduced app. That said, we really believe the problem many app developers face is doing that regardless of the channel, so we believe that using a non App Store channel just casts a spot light on it, rather than being an additional task.

Conclusion
Actually it was much easier than we thought. We had budgeted 3 days to get it all done, and although the elapsed time was 3 days (with registrations and such), we probably only spent a woking day to get a solution we are very happy with. The marketing is just beginning to ramp up, but so far no complaints or funnel drops on the Fastspring side so we have to count this as a win. 

Our recommendation
We are still App Store only for iExpression, and will probably stay that way simply because we see iCloud as a significant feature, and to use that we need to be in the App Store. 

Anything that didn’t need that, we’d use Fastspring too. It’s easy to get in place, and it makes perfect sense to have a couple of channels. Go for it. 
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