Apple Neuters Mac App Store Software

Some Mac OS developers say requirement that third-party Mac OS X apps will have to run in a "sandbox" for security's sake stifles innovation.
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In a note posted to its developer news site, Apple said Wednesday that future Mac OS X apps in the Mac App Store will have to operate in an iOS-like "sandbox," a partitioned area where computing resources that allow potentially risky operations are inaccessible.

Apple says this step is necessary for your protection. "The vast majority of Mac users have been free from malware and we're working on technologies to help keep it that way," Apple explained in its posting. "As of March 1, 2012 all apps submitted to the Mac App Store must implement sandboxing. Sandboxing your app is a great way to protect systems and users by limiting the resources apps can access and making it more difficult for malicious software to compromise users' systems."

Apple's dictum doesn't affect Mac OS developers who distribute their own Mac software. But there's ongoing concern among developers that consumer affinity for the Mac App Store user experience will marginalize independent software distribution and limit potential revenue to the point that Apple's way becomes the only commercially viable way.

Based on Apple's marketing, sandboxing Mac App Store apps hardly seems necessary. The company maintains that the Mac "isn't susceptible to the thousands of viruses plaguing Windows-based computers," thanks to the built-in defenses of OS X Lion.

[Find out more about why developers are concerned about the Mac App Store. Read Apple's Mac App Store Brings Changes, Worries.]

But in the three years since Apple removed a knowledge base article for its "inaccurate" suggestion that Mac users should run antivirus software, perhaps something has changed.

Certainly the computing industry has changed, thanks to the success of devices running Apple's iOS, which is more locked down than Mac OS X. Microsoft's Metro apps in Windows 8 will be sandboxed, and Google sandboxes Android apps.

It's a trend that Harvard Law professor Jonathan Zittrain has warned about. Zittrain argues that as computers cease to be the center of the information ecosystem, our devices will become less subject to user control and more like sealed appliances.

"Short of completely banning unfamiliar software, code might be divided into first- and second-class status, with second-class, unapproved software allowed to perform only certain minimal tasks on the machine, operating within a digital sandbox," Zittrain wrote in The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It. "This technical solution is safer than the status quo but, in a now-familiar tradeoff, noticeably limiting."

Sandboxing does have some advantages: In conjunction with Apple's oversight of apps submitted to the Mac App Store, it should make computing safer and more predictable. But if the Mac is as safe as Apple says it is, then the biggest impact will be on legitimate developers who will have to plead for permission from Apple to think outside the sandbox.

As developer Pauli Olavi Ojala observed in a blog post comment, "The whole point of having an extensible platform is to enable third parties to create things that the original developers couldn't even have thought of. Innovation can't happen in an environment where everyone is 'only doing what they're expected to do.'"

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Kelly Jackson Higgins 2, Editor-in-Chief, Dark Reading