Will Apple distribute Lion via the Mac App Store?

When Apple released a first developer preview of Mac OS X 10.7 Lion recently, there was one immediate surprise for developers. The software was not distributed via the normal channel – Apple’s Developer web site – but rather via the new Mac App Store. In order to download the Lion installer, developers had to visit the Developer site and obtain a “redemption code,” which they then “redeemed” in the Mac App Store. The software then downloaded via the App Store application.

While the visible difference here was the channel used to distribute the software, the philosophical difference was that Apple was using its new portal to provide software that is not available to the general public. (You won’t see any mention of this Lion Developer Preview on the Mac App Store.) While the distribution of the beta is slightly different from the way other apps are made available on the Mac App Store – with purchases, any authorized Mac can simply download the apps, but for the Developer Preview, you can only download it once and must copy the installer to other Macs – this will change if Apple decides to sell Lion via this route.

However, because of this authorization, distributing this software to those without developer accounts is more difficult. In the past, you could simply copy the disk image, and warez sites would generally offer such Mac OS X betas within hours of their release. (To be fair, Apple reduced the price of a developer account to $99 in 2010, so anyone who needs this software doesn’t need to pay a lot to obtain it.) But now, even when you copy the installer to another Mac, you need to authorize that Mac to be able to run it.

But what’s next? If Apple can distribute a preview version of Lion via the Mac App Store, surely they can distribute the full release version in the same manner. Would Apple want to sell Mac OS X Lion via the Mac App Store rather than on DVD? You’d certainly need a fast internet connection to download it; the latest preview is 3.7 GB, but does not contain printer drivers and localization files. Snow Leopard disk images, from the Developer site, weigh in at more than 6 GB, so one can imagine the the final version of Lion will be roughly the same size.

If Apple does sell their operating system software through this channel, any Mac authorized with the same Apple ID will be able to use it. Currently, while Apple doesn’t require serial numbers for Mac OS X, the license with the software says that you can only use it on one Mac. (You can also buy a family pack for up to 5 Macs.) Would the amount of money they save by not making physical product compensate for selling a smaller number of copies of Lion? And does Apple really care that much? After all, they make more money from hardware than software, and newer versions of Mac OS X tend to nudge a lot of users into upgrading their Macs. Also, Apple has rolled Mac OS X Server into Lion – this software which sold previously for $499 will now be available to anyone who purchases Mac OS X, so it looks like Apple is less concerned about operating system revenue.

Providing Mac OS X by download would require a huge increase in infrastructure. Coincidentally, Apple’s data center in North Carolina is slated to go on-line in the spring; Mac OS X Lion is scheduled for summer release. Could the two be related? Initially, everyone expected this data center to be for iTunes – either file storage or streaming. But reports say that Apple has ordered 12 PB of storage from Isilon, a company that provides large data storage services. Unless the data center is for some serious new MobileMe services, Apple will have a lot of capacity to fill in North Carolina

It’s clear that the future of software distribution does not include plastic discs. While many users won’t have the bandwidth to download 6 GB of software easily, DVDs still have a future. But perhaps Apple is making the first big step toward the demise of physical software distribution with Lion. We’ll know in a few months.