A new report suggests that Apple may be planning to eliminate retail boxed software from its Apple Stores, instead focusing on promoting the Mac App Store for software sales. This is indeed a trend that Apple has been pushing for a while, but not all the software that Apple sells would necessarily be a great fit for pure digital distribution.
Sources speaking to MacRumors suggested that the early success of the Mac App Store has prompted Apple to reduce retail sales in favor of all digital distribution "sooner rather than later." The site also noted that Apple is planning to offer a personal set up service when buying a new Mac which includes a "walk through the Mac App Store."
Apple has been slowly decreasing the amount of retail floor space used for software over the last several years. Software boxes used to be much larger, but have slowly gotten smaller in recent years, and some of Apple's own software, such as Snow Leopard and iLife '11, come in boxes just large enough for the install disc and a small booklet. Heck, the system restore disk for Apple's latest MacBook Air models—which lack an optical drive—comes on a small USB key.
While Apple has embraced the Mac App Store for a number of its own apps—including the iLife and iWork suites, Aperture, and Apple Remote Desktop—other important software from Apple and other vendors isn't yet available. So far, there's no Final Cut Studio, Xsan, or Logic from Apple, nor can you buy FileMaker, Microsoft Office, or Adobe Creative Suite. And, it's not clear if it's even possible for Apple to distribute major Mac OS X versions via the Mac App Store.
Beyond the hurdle of making all current retail software available via the Mac App Store, the realities of current broadband speeds in the US places limits on distributing software that relies on gigabytes of graphics, audio, or video files. This includes many creative media suites, but also includes things like Apple's Jam Packs—multi-gigabyte collections of audio loops for its GarageBand and Logic audio editing software.
The time for all-digital software distribution is definitely coming. Omni Group CEO Ken Case told Ars at Macworld last month that it has replaced all retail boxed software sales in the US with Mac App Store distribution. While not all Mac OS X developers are ready to rely on the Mac App Store as the sole distribution source for their software, most (like Omni) do already rely on online distribution via their own web-based or in-app purchase options.
For many Ars readers, we suspect, driving down to the store to pick up software in a box is already an anachronism. In our view, Apple would need to come up with a solution to distribute software like Jam Packs and OS upgrades and get other vendors like Adobe and Microsoft (both of which already offer some online downloads via web stores) on the Mac App Store train before before dropping the software section from its stores entirely.