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What Mac App Developers Can Expect In 2021

Every year since 2016, when I started working on Setapp — a platform now offering over 200 top Mac apps in a single subscription — we’ve conducted a comprehensive survey of Mac developers around the world to improve market perception and monitor emerging trends.

The Mac Developers Survey of 2020 continued this tradition, with a few adjustments to get at the unique ways such an unprecedented year affected the community. 

What challenges did Mac developers face? Which trends will define 2021 for app developers globally?

I’ll try to answer these questions and more by sharing a few survey highlights, using the data we gathered from 357 respondents between November 24 and December 9, 2020.

The Overall App Industry Outlook

App developers seemed to come out relatively unscathed from the crisis, with 46% saying that the pandemic didn’t have any effect on their business. Just 24% said their business activity was negatively impacted, and that was mostly due to the decrease in resources, users, and traffic.

Interestingly, 19% enjoyed a positive impact, with more users and usage, as well as more time being devoted to development during the year.

The outlook for 2021 is also positive or very positive for 68% of app developers, with 44% planning to launch a new app, 51% planning a major app update, and 22% planning new marketing or branding campaigns. 

Mac App Store Woes

Looking at the news headlines, it seemed like the App Store was continually hit with controversies. First, Apple rejected the new Hey email app (from Basecamp) for supposedly running afoul of its in-app subscription guidelines. Hey, with minor changes, was later approved, right before the WWDC. 

Soon after, Apple banned Fortnite, the most popular game in the world, for trying to introduce an alternative payment option in their app. In a similar vein, Microsoft stopped the development of their xCloud gaming platform for iOS due to App Store’s restrictive policies.

In September last year, Epic Games, Spotify, Basecamp, and other app publishers got together to form the Coalition for App Fairness to lobby against one-sided regulations of both Apple and Google’s app stores. 

Apple did finally give in and announced the App Store Small Business Program, which would cut their commission to 15% for businesses making less than $1M in annual revenue. This was a sensible (and long overdue) move. Nearly all of our survey respondents viewed these changes favorably, and 50% said they would apply for the program.

However, when it comes to the Mac App Store, gatekeeping by Apple is less of an issue, which is already reflected in developers’ distribution channels. In fact, at the time of our survey, 56% of app developers said they were already making more revenue outside of the App Store, and 33% said they didn’t publish their apps on the App Store at all.

Apple Silicon Migration

Perhaps the most significant development of the past year for anyone working with macOS was Apple’s announcement of the transition to Silicon, with the new M1 chip. This now means that all Mac developers have to migrate their apps to run natively on the new architecture. The last such change happened over 15 years ago, when Apple announced the migration away from PowerPC to Intel x86. 

While the current migration will take several years and developers can use Rosetta 2 to translate their apps to Apple Silicon in the meantime, I expect the majority of active developers to adapt their apps this year. After all, the difference in performance we see today from the M1 chip is impressive.

Challenges in Mac App Development

That is not to say that everything is rosy in the world of Mac apps. When asked about things that negatively affect app development, 39% said that they lack the marketing budget to expand their reach and that finding their target audience was difficult. Additionally, 17% mentioned that their main distribution channel was too restrictive. 

These issues also translated into SaaS efforts, where 59% had trouble explaining their value proposition and 47% thought that figuring out the right pricing model was quite problematic. 

Summarizing our findings for 2021, I can see that the positive outlook coupled with the progress of Apple Silicon will definitely keep Mac app developers busy for the better part of the year.

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