The App Store is the McDonald's of software distribution

By Nathaniel Mott , written on February 11, 2013

From The News Desk

McDonald's ruined restaurants for me. A trip through the golden arches isn't meant to be savored -- you go in, gorge yourself on shame nuggets and poverty fries, and then high-tail it out of there to go about your business. What's the point in "going out" if you can't order and eat food faster than you can at home?

The App Store is the technological equivalent to McDonald's. You launch the app, find what you want, and tap a screen a few times to get exactly what you want when you want it. An app that doesn't facilitate this fast-food approach to software shipment -- like, say, Mailbox -- is met with the same derision and impatience as a restaurant that dares to take longer than three minutes to prepare a meal.

Orchestra implemented a "take a number" approach to the release of its email app, Mailbox, "in order to provide a robust, world-class email service," according to the app's website. Translated from startup-speak to English, that same sentence would read: "We made you wait in line so Mailbox wouldn't crash on launch for the hundreds of thousands of people who have expressed interest in its debut." The company had to choose between making all of its customers angry and face the wrath of a consumer scorned or make a few of its customers kinda inconvenienced for a little while and prove that it was worth the wait later, and it chose the latter.

Whether or not Mailbox is worth the wait will vary from person to person. I, like The Verge's Ellis Hamburger, have found the app to be the best email experience I've had on any smartphone, let alone the good-email-app starved iPhone. Others, like PandoDaily contributor Bryan Goldberg, don't take issue with Mailbox the app so much as they do with Orchestra and its future as a company when its main product is "just a feature." (Sound familiar?)

Other services, like online banking startup Simple, have struggled with the App Store's distribution model in the past. Simple also limits the number of people who can utilize its banking solution, putting it in the same bind as Mailbox: How do you ship an app without attracting some unwanted users? It's easy enough to take care of this online.  All you need is a "by invitation only" warning and a bit of patience. The App Store requires a different approach.

Simple's solution was to add an ATM locator to its iPhone app. Anyone can use the Simple iOS app to find an ATM regardless of whether or not they've been invited to the service proper. This keeps Apple happy, allows Simple to serve its users and make good on its promise of mobile banking supremacy, and gives people waiting for an invite something better than a screen letting them know just how far they are from accessing the real service. It's the software equivalent to giving breadsticks to anyone who sits in a restaurant -- they aren't getting what they came for, but at least they're able to eat something.

Some apps can handle the sheer scale of the App Store and the rush of people waiting to download the latest and greatest piece of software. Apps that don't need to use the Web (or, at least, don't need to tax Web servers managed by a small company) can be downloaded millions of times without affecting their creators or their users. Other apps, like Mailbox and Simple, need to carefully manage their resources, turning the App Store's size into a hindrance instead of a boon.

There isn't a good way to distribute apps to a limited number of users. Services meant to allow beta tests of apps, including TestFlight and Hockey, are a good stopgap but are limited to a certain number of users and meant for beta tests, not full-blown app launches.

Call it the Sophie's Choice of app distribution. Is it better to get negative press and irritate consumers by limiting the number of people that can sign up for a service or by shipping something and hoping that your infrastructure is able to handle the influx of new users -- a risky bet, especially given how quickly apps can go viral on the App Store.

It will stay that way for as long as Apple and iOS users expect developers to offer five-star entrees in a fast-food restaurant. Mailbox asked users to get in line and wait their turn, and we've seen how that worked out. Simple laid out some appetizers and hoped that a morsel would diminish cravings for an entree. Others simply throw the doors open and allow fate to take its course. All three of these approaches take place in the same establishment. Does that really seem like the best solution?

[Image Credit: Stephen Shankland/CNET]