Distribution via the Mac App Store is truly limiting. Imagine you shipped an update with a bug. What happens?
First, how'll you discover the bug? Of course you could discover the bug on your own. Or a friend who's using the app tells you about it. Or a loyal Twitter follower. The expectation is that most customers will not get in touch with you, though. Instead, they'll leave bad reviews in the store — if they take any action at all. Not very satisfying.
So now you know about the issue and you can go fix it. Compile, archive, and submit the binary to the App Store for review again.
At the time of this writing, app review times have improved dramatically. Still you'll have to wait for about 2 days. That's 2 days of customers running into problems, getting confused or even annoyed, again probably leaving bad reviews in the Mac App Store.
App doesn't work. 1 star. Will increase to 4 if fixed.
That sucks. On top of it, lots of them never will edit their review when an update arrives. So your overall rating is affected for quite some time. Angry users complain and leave bad reviews; happy users often don't think about leaving a rating at all.
The app's rating is a very important factor in the cluttered warehouse that is the Mac App Store. So that one bug which got people angry continues to bite you for a while.
Direct Distribution Heaven
If you don't distribute via the Mac App Store, most of the downsides I mentioned go away. It takes at least some time to set up your own infrastructure, sure. But the picture will change dramatically. Let's roll up the story backwards and compare.
There's no place annoyed users can vent their emotions. So there're no bad reviews which affect other customers later — at least not in one central place. They can tweet about the bug, but that'll hardly ruin your reputation. Your customers have to get in touch with you to resolve the problem. And that's exactly how it should be, since you're the person who can help them, after all.
Thanks to a personalized "thank you" e-mail customers receive through the order confirmation process mail, most of them will find your contact details very quickly. This will reduce the time it takes to make you aware of the bug, too.
The place where they purchased the app matters: direct customers know your website. Mac App Store customers may not even know what the developer is called. Only the app's name is highlighted in the store. All the meta-data are stuffed as small print in the sidebar. Nobody knows how many people have never looked at that. So there's a chance Mac App Store customers don't know what your website is. Or your e-mail address.
Worst thing that can happen is bad press on Twitter or other social media platforms, really. But even bad press is good press for you. Attention is the currency of the web. Indie developers can utilize that attention to their advantage: delight customers with super quick problem resolutions and a nice e-mail and they'll love you even more.
Speaking of quick updates: thanks to direct distribution, you can release a fix in a couple of minutes after compiling the new binary. Everyone will have access to the fix immediately. Not a single day is lost. This means less customers are affected by the bug.
Even if the bug was non-trivial and you know it'll take some time to fix: it's just as easy to remove the latest update from the pipeline to keep the damage to a minimum. It's like a product recall, only less painful.
Is the bug severe? Will affected customers have trouble doing their work at all now? Thanks to direct distribution you have their e-mail addresses. You can reach out to them and inform them about the bug. You can tell them that it's bad. That you're sorry. And that they can downgrade to the latest stable version using the link you send along. This way you can take ownership of your fault. You take total responsibility. That's the most impressive way to deal with mistakes.
Folks that download from the Mac App Store will not know that you care. They will not even know that you know the app is broken. They will not get any e-mail. Imagine how that situation feels: this app in your workflow has a severe problem. Maybe it crashes and you lose data - then you also lose trust in the app. You're worried that you'll not be able to do your work properly anymore. You want a resolution. In the worst of all cases it may feel like your livelihood depends on it because the app is so central to your work. And now you have to find the developer who did this to you and find out what happened and what you can do about it. Arrgh! (leaves 1-star review in anger)
On the other side, there's the direct distribution customer who just found this nice e-mail from you, the developer of this Very Important App, in her inbox. The e-mail says the update from yesterday broke the application and so on. She's glad she can get out of trouble quickly and continue to be productive. Things seem to be under control. What a relief!
Even though you had to admit the mistake and all, you are pro-actively getting in touch with customers and fix their problems. They'll have more trust in you afterwards. And chances are they recognize you're a human being, too, and forgive you with ease, because your actions showed high principles.
Again, compare that to the experience of anonymity on the Mac App Store where the only means to provide feedback is through refunds and reviews.
Making the Switch. Making Direct Distribution Work for You
Direct distribution closes the emotional security gap. You and your customers stay in touch from day one onward. You can build a trustful relationship with them. That doesn't mean you have to get on their nerves with spam mails. But you can make a good first impression when you design the order confirmation mails and continue to delight when you send them the occasional major update e-mail notice.
As Dov Seidman shows in his book How: Why How We Do Anything Means Everything, the highly interconnected world of today requires that businesses not only have to deliver working products. It matters how they behave. Indie developers will be judged on a personal level, too. How does your website copy read? How do you react to support e-mails? If you are a nice person and genuinely mean well, that might change the game completely.
Again, the Mac App Store raises a high wall between you, your app, and your customers. Good luck building a trusting relationship this way.
Direct distribution means you have to think about shipping updates and copy-protecting your app on your own. That's additional work; and it's work you likely don't enjoy as much as building software. Worrying about that stuff feels like doing taxes. I get it, I feel the same. It's yet another area you have to get good at, and being responsible is scary at first.
That's why us other indie developers want to help. To make the process less scary. Because nothing really bad can happen in the end anyway.
I wrote a guide called Make Money Outside the Mac App Store where I teach you how to set up the moving parts to make your application shippable. You can avoid days of research and fiddling with the details by following my instructions. It only takes a couple of hours of reading and care to set up everything for the first time. Then you're ready to sell your product on your own. That's possible when you have a guide who takes care of the details. Try direct distribution for a change — and if you should find that it just isn't your thing, you'll get your money back. Period.
You can get my book for a 29% discount until Sep. 11th, which happens to be my 29th birthday, using the code `DIRECTDIST`.
Also, remember our friends at MacPaw here created DevMate, a service and SDK which takes care of everything related to direct distribution for you. It's just a matter of importing the framework and setting up a few things in code to connect your app to their platform. Then you're ready to roll. Just take a look at the docs to see how easy it is.
In about a day, you can make the switch. There's no reason to be afraid of the unknown. We went through this, we figured out the roadblocks and dead-ends for you, and now we love doing direct distribution.