The App Store and the Death of the Suite

Looking forward to the next edition of iLife? Can't wait to wallow in the goodness of new versions of iMovie, GarageBand and iPhoto while lamenting that there are still no real changes to iDVD? You're not alone. You are, however, out of luck.

There will never be another iLife. It goes up to 11 — and no further.

Don't worry though, it's not a bad thing. In the end you'll thank Apple for simplifying things this way. It's just like Chariots of Fire.

The first album I ever bought with my own money was the soundtrack to Chariots of Fire by Vangelis. Like many folks back in 1981 I was rather taken with the main theme song (which, by the way, is called Titles, not just "The Theme From Chariots of Fire" as people seem to think). As the track was not available as a single I saved up my $6 (Canadian) and bought the whole album. That's how things worked back then — you bought whole albums even if only one or two tracks were even vaguely listenable.

As it happens, much of what's on that album is not particularly great. Not awful, but not as catchy as Titles. One track on it, Abraham's Theme I think, literally nauseates me when I hear it, but that's because of personal associations I'd rather not share. The short story is that I have, for many years, skipped that song if and when I listened to the album.

When it came time to add Chariots of Fire to my iTunes library, I elected not to transfer my old vinyl to digital format. Instead, I went to the iTunes Store and bought it. Well, I bought one track. You know which one.

That's what iTunes has done to the music industry. Artists no longer get paid for fair-to-middling work they slap onto an album alongside better stuff. For the most part, anyhow. Now that people can choose to buy only the few tracks that actually inspire them to part with money, that's what they do. It's a good thing for us — challenging for musicians, especially lazy ones, but good for us.

Which brings me to iWeb. iWeb, the WYSIWYG web-page-authoring application that has been included with iLife for some years now, has not been updated seriously through several updates of the suite. Indeed what updates there have been lately have generally made it less functional as Apple redefines its intentions for iTools/.Mac/MobileMe/whateveritisnextweek. And yet, every time Apple updates iPhoto or GarageBand, we buy a new copy of iWeb. It's the Abraham's Theme of iLife. Meanwhile new whizz-bang features of iPhoto don't find their way into our eager hands until Apple's happy with the "make your own fake trailers" feature of iMovie.

You see the problem.

Enter the App Store.

For the first time you can buy GarageBand on its own. You can buy iPhoto on its own. You can buy iMovie on its own. You can't buy iWeb. Most likely, you never will. You read it here first.

There hasn't yet been a major update to any of those applications since the launch of the App Store, but I would be (if I were a gambling man) willing to bet that their upgrade cycles no longer synchronise from now on. When there's something cool to add to iMovie you won't have to wait for a GarageBand update to see it.

Apple is no longer going to ask you to buy stuff you don't want to get stuff you do. This is known as a "good thing". But does it mean the end of iLife? Absolutely it does. Unless Apple wants to spend all the money involved in burning DVDs, boxing them and distributing them worldwide so that it can sell a boxed suite and somehow do so at a competitive price to the download, there is zero advantage in another version of iLife. (Hint: Apple doesn't want to do that stuff.)

It goes without saying (but I'll say it anyway) that this applies as well to the iWork suite. iWork has always felt a little bit incomplete, lacking as it does a database application like that found in the old AppleWorks suite. FileMaker's Bento more or less fills the bill but the issues preventing Apple adding Bento to iWork are more complex than I care to explore.

Of course Bento integrates with iLife and iWork as if it were part of the suite. The only reason it isn't part of the suite is because it isn't in the box. Obvious solution: get rid of the box.

Apple isn't the only company out there selling software suites, of course. Microsoft, for example, is charging enough for Office that it's still worthwhile selling that on discs. What's more, it's a terrific way to shift PowerPoint licences into the market. The number of people who have paid for PowerPoint is vastly larger than the number of people who want it, simply because it comes with Word.

Will Office stop? Eventually, but not soon. Just as "album only" holdouts have gradually become rarer and rarer on the iTunes Store, eventually the market will shift to the point where Microsoft has to start selling its applications as individual products. The more people can get software — proper software, not just little utilities and games — by download, the less they'll look for software on shelves in shops.

Which leads me to Adobe, the elephant in the suite shop. Adobe's suites don't contain one or two extra bits and bobs along with the main applications. They include dozens. Both Adobe and Macromedia had long been snowballing their suites — acquiring smaller companies' applications and rolling them in for a bigger "value proposition" — even before Adobe rolled over Macromedia. The attitude seems to be that it's better to have an application and not need it than to need it and not have it.

The result of this is a number of different suites with slightly different, often overlapping, sets of applications. Adobe designs the suites based on what it believes its customers want, but if none of them quite fit you you're welcome to purchase the Master Collection — thousands of dollars worth of literally dozens of applications big and small. Of course Adobe could have a larger number of subset suites to more finely match different customers' desires, but the complexity of doing so in terms of managing different SKUs in the retail channel (don't even start me on upgrade paths) is bewildering.

It would obviously be far more complicated for Adobe to split everything up and sell only individual apps, with all their various interdependencies and integrations. But the option to "build-your-own" Creative Suite must be as attractive to Adobe as it is to Adobe's customers.

Some of the smaller "value proposition" applications would sell fewer copies, to be sure. But that's what happens to filler tracks. Think of Abraham's Theme.

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