inessential by Brent Simmons

May 2021

What It Was Like to Sell Apps Online in 2003

Apple likes to claim that the App Store replaced the system of selling software in physical boxes in stores and over the mail.

But it’s not true.

My experience selling apps before the App Store was not unique or new — it’s only interesting now because people may have forgotten this history, and younger people may never have heard it.

Here’s my story:

We shipped NetNewsWire 1.0, an RSS reader for Mac OS X, in 2003 and sold it over the web for $39.95. There were no boxes and no printed manuals — there was nothing physical at all. This situation was, at that time, completely unremarkable: it was expected.

We used a service called Kagi for the storefront and credit card processing. Kagi had been around since the ’90s, and it was well-known and trusted by the Mac community. Setting up our account and store was pretty simple — simple enough that I forget most of the details.

Part of how it worked was that we had to upload a text file to Kagi’s system, a file with license keys their system would give out one by one. I wrote a script to generate that file, and I wrote code in the app to validate a license key. I also had to create a small window where a user would enter their license code.

This meant there was some work, yes, but it was nothing compared to what you have to do to sell on the App Store.

(It could have been more convenient for purchasers, yes, and by 2005 we had plans to create an in-app purchasing system that still used Kagi, but we ended up benching that plan, for reasons.)

And — importantly — Kagi’s fee was something like 5%. (Update a little later: evidence suggests I may be misremembering: it could have been more like 10%.)

Even more importantly: Kagi didn’t review our app. I suppose, if we had been selling something egregious in some way, they might have learned of it and cut us off. But that’s a standard business relationship. Kagi was not a gatekeeper.

Kagi didn’t promote our app, either. It wasn’t their job — it was ours. They provided a storefront and trusted credit card handling, and that was all we wanted, and it was great.

By 2005 this Mac app was making well into five figures per month. Still at Kagi.

Here’s the thing: none of this was new. We were following well-worn paths. When I worked at UserLand Software, before writing NetNewsWire, we sold Frontier on the web. Lots of other companies — and not just indies — had been selling apps on the web since the ’90s, and paying more like 5% than 30%, and not having to go through any gatekeepers.

And it was pretty easy. Easier than dealing with the App Store!

Next time you hear someone from Apple forget this history, please remember that they’re forgetting on purpose.

PS Yes, you may argue the App Store’s superiority in certain respects and be correct. Don’t bother. My point is that the App Store was not replacing the system of apps-in-boxes-in-stores. It was replacing the system I talk about above.