Apple just dropped Mac OS X 10.6.6, complete with the long-awaited Mac App Store. Here's a quick look at what it offers, how it works, and how you can (in theory) use it to better manage the apps on your computer.
The Mac App Store is laid out almost exactly like the iOS App Store. The home page shows you the featured apps, and you can view the top paid and free apps at any given time, browse by category or use the search bar. Each app has a description and user reviews, just like on iOS, so you can better judge whether the app is worth your time and/or money.
The rest of the window is pretty bare. You've got a few back and forward buttons, as well as the OS X traffic light - sans title bar, I might add, like the new iTunes 10 - and that's it. You can also view a list of apps you've purchased from the store, which is pretty handy.
Update All Your Apps At Once
While shopping for apps in the app store is mighty convenient, the update system might be the best part. Instead of going into each individual app and checking for updates (or waiting for them to update themselves), you can head to the Updates tab of the App Store to see which apps have updates available for download. Just like on iOS (or in Apple's Mac Software Update), you can pick and choose updates to install, or just hit the "Update All" button do update your apps in one fell swoop.
How Apple Tracks Your Purchases
The Mac App Store doesn't handle software licenses all that differently than iTunes handles them on your iOS devices. You'll need an Apple ID to download and buy apps from the store, and you'll likely have to log in with that ID the first time you start up a newly purchased app. Before you complain about this: this means you'll never need an activation key or serial number for an app you've bought in the store. That seems like a pretty fair trade-off.
If you uninstall an app (or lose it in some sort of hard drive-related catastrophe), you can redownload it at no additional charge, as long as you use the same Apple ID you used to originally purchase it. You can use a purchased app on any personal computer you own, though you can only authorize up to five computers at a time, just like with iTunes.
This isn't to say the App Store isn't without its flaws. It doesn't seem to recognise older versions of even Apple's own apps. If you're touting iLife '11, the App Store will recognise that it's installed and offer you updates through the App Store. If you've got an earlier version of iLife, it won't. Even if you have iWork '09, which is the latest version of iWork, it looks like the App Store still won't recognise it, at least for the moment. There's no word on whether third-party software that you've already purchased will allow for upgrading through the App Store, either—and if you enjoy getting early-access/beta releases from your software, an App Store install will likely cut that off, as is the case with Evernote's Mac version.
Lastly, your software purchasing is tied to the same credit card and debit account you use to buy iTunes media, which could be problematic, or at least sign-in/sign-out annoying, for some. While Apple doesn't have a simple refund policy like Android, they do note in their FAQ that you should contact the developer first, but that Apple also has a support system in place for such issues. It isn't great, but it's certainly better than nothing.
Other Nice Touches
You can't browse the Mac App Store on the web or on your iOS device, but you can use iTunes gift cards to make purchases from the Mac App Store. That's helpful for the average user, especially those still hoarding iTunes gift cards from the holidays.
Apple's also added App Store awareness to OS X. If you try to open a file that your system doesn't know how to open a file with a certain extension, it will allow you to search the App Store for an app that will (not unlike Microsoft's extension database in Windows). This is really nice, since instead of just prompting you to choose an application, it can give you an idea of what software you'll need.
Say what you want about Apple's history with App Stores; this actually looks pretty great. Sure, Apple will probably vet any apps that wants in, which could mean BitTorrent clients and other oft-banned apps likely won't appear, and they've probably placed a ton of other restrictions on third party developers. But as far as the user is concerned, there's something to be said for having a one-stop shop for discovering apps. It's also really nice to be able to update all your apps with just one click.
The App Store is available as part of the new Mac OS X 10.6.6, so just head to Apple Software Update to get it. And, once you've given it a look-see, share your thoughts with us in the comments.
Note: Since the App Store is part of a major OS X update, which includes some other security and stability fixes along with the App Store, Hackintosh users may want to hold off. We haven't tested it on our Hackintoshes yet, and while it's unlikely to break anything, it's better to be safe than sorry.