Six Colors
Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

This Week's Sponsor

Unite 5 - Turn Web Apps into Supercharged macOS apps

By Jason Snell

SetApp: Another take on the Mac App Store

Note: This story has not been updated for several years.

The SetApp catalog appears as apps in a folder.

When the Mac App Store arrived, flush with the success of the iOS App Store, I thought it had the potential to transform the way Mac users use third-party software. Instead, at my most charitable I might say that the Mac App Store has supplied a limited avenue for downloads for a certain segment of the Mac audience. Lots of caveats there.

It’s time for another try at changing the relationship between Mac users and the apps they use, and Ukranian software company MacPaw (maker of a bunch of utility apps, including CleanMyMac) is taking its shot with SetApp, a subscription service for Mac apps, which enters a (limited) public beta today.

It’s easy to call this “Netflix for Mac apps,” and in fact, a variation of that phrase leads MacPaw’s press release. But Netflix’s stuff is consumable—you watch a movie or TV show and you move on. Our relationship with apps—especially the kinds of utility and productivity apps that make up most of MacPaw’s pre-launch app collection—is longer lasting, which is why SetApp seems more similar to something like Microsoft and Adobe’s subscription services. Except for a whole bunch of smaller apps, rather than a tiny number of monolithic ones.

Installing a new app.

Here’s how it works: SetApp subscribers pay $10 per month, and as long as they’re paying, they get access to a catalog of apps. Once you install SetApp, you’ll find a SetApp folder inside your Applications folder. This is the SetApp catalog. Double-click on a new app, and SetApp will display an App Store-like description of the app1. If you click the Open button on that description, SetApp downloads and installs the app, then launches it. Once you’ve downloaded an app via SetApp, it behaves just like any other Mac app.

MacPaw says it’s compensating developers with a share of revenue based on monthly usage statistics from a sample of SetApp customers, with some extra money thrown in based on historic performance on the service. All in all, MacPaw says that developer payouts will comprise 90 percent of revenue for the service.

It’s a pretty great idea, but as with any subscription service, its success or failure will depend entirely on the contents of the catalog. The pre-release version I tested only offers 50 apps, and while their retail prices suggest this is thousands of dollars in software, that doesn’t matter if you never use any of it. (That said, I was excited to see Ulysses, TaskPaper, and Marked on the service, and the beauty of SetApp is that I can try any of the apps in the bundle for as long as I want.)

MacPaw says it expects 300 apps in the catalog “as the service gains momentum,” though it doesn’t give any specific time frame for that expectation. It could lead to some interesting competitive dynamics, if smaller competitors of more-expensive apps join the service—why buy a $30 a la carte FTP client if there’s one available to you for “free” as a part of the service?

My biggest concern with SetApp is my concern about the content on any subscription service—namely, that it can disappear at any time. If an developer removes their app from SetApp, you’ll be allowed to keep it, but you won’t receive any updates and can’t reinstall it. That doesn’t feel good, though I’m not sure it’s much different from the fact that any operating-system update can break compatibility with apps and force users to buy compatibility updates. It’s tough being a software user—nothing is forever.

In any event, I’m excited that someone is trying to find a new way forward for third-party Mac apps. If MacPaw can create a strong enough catalog for SetApp—making it worth the $120 per year the service will cost—it could be a good way to provide ongoing revenue for Mac software developers.

SetApp works as promised. MacPaw has built the scaffolding. The only remaining question is, will the apps inside the service justify the price?

  1. SetApp really needs to provide a searchable interface for its catalog; looking at a bunch of app icons in the Finder is not helpful. 

If you appreciate articles like this one, support us by becoming a Six Colors subscriber. Subscribers get access to an exclusive podcast, members-only stories, and a special community.

Search Six Colors