2011: Year of the desktop app store?

Developer Sergio Tacconi spent several sleepless days and nights porting his app, Pocket Yoga, from the iOS mobile platform to Mac OS X. He wanted to have it available for sale in Apple's Mac App Store on Jan. 6, when the new online software store launched. The task was "harder than expected," he says, "but put in perspective, it's a small investment with a potentially big gain."

That's what many developers who already have iOS apps for the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad are hoping for: big financial gains from selling their apps, rewritten to run on Mac notebooks and desktops, through the Mac App Store. Since the store's launch, for instance, developers at Evernote say they've seen a huge increase in the number of new users of their note-taking application. Because signing up for Evernote is free, that change doesn't directly affect the company's bottom line, but it stands to reason that some portion of those new users will sign up for Evernote's for-payment Premium service.

Of course, Apple isn't the first major player to apply the app store model, generally associated with applications for smartphones and tablets, to software for notebook and desktop computers. Intel, for instance, launched its AppUp store in early 2010. AppUp is a software front end that's mainly for Windows netbooks running on Intel's Atom processor, but it also works with desktops and laptops running Windows 7 or XP (but not Vista).

More recently, Google launched the Chrome Web Store, which contains apps, themes and extensions for the Chrome browser. And computer maker Acer has announced Acer Alive, a platform where users can find and purchase Windows software as well as multimedia content. The Acer Alive store software will be pre-installed on Acer computers but is not yet available in the U.S.

What sets these new efforts apart from traditional software download sites such as Tucows or Softpedia? For starters, although the new app stores do offer an array of third-party software, many are hosted by big-name hardware or software vendors rather than independent aggregators. And while some PC app stores offer full-fledged applications, the majority of products available (so far, at least) are mini-apps that perform specialized tasks.

Furthermore, many app stores are themselves applications that you install and run on your computer; they aren't Web sites that you visit. Finally, many have a slick look and feel (modeled closely on Apple's wildly successful iOS App Store), and they often require you to register a payment method so that you can purchase, download and install apps with a single click. And whereas visiting a software aggregation site can feel a bit like going to a library, launching an app store feels like shopping at a boutique.

"[It's] an idea whose time has come," says Al Hilwa, an analyst at research firm IDC, adding that it's "almost inevitable" that users will see more branded app stores selling software that runs on notebooks and desktops. "The idea of using a store to promote a platform and its development community is too good to pass up." (Next: Mobile roots)

App stores' mobile roots

The apparent early success of Evernote in the Mac App Store notwithstanding, download and sales numbers for the other app stores we've mentioned -- all of which serve Windows users -- are currently too small to determine whether app stores will become a significant player in software distribution.

Stephen Baker, an analyst at The NPD Group, says he doesn't think app stores will become the dominant software sales channel. He points out that the initial appeal and success of app stores has been tied to mobile computing: App stores offer smartphone users a more convenient way than searching Web sites to shop for, choose, download and install software. Using a smartphone to visit a Web site in order find and install software would be a hassle for several reasons: Mobile Internet connections have limited speeds, smartphones have small screens and many don't have physical keyboards.

Because users of full-fledged computers don't face such barriers when searching the Web, Baker thinks app stores will have a tough time catching on as a means of selling software in the notebook/desktop market. "App stores for computers would have to have a demonstrable advantage over searching for products directly on the Web. Since computers offer more open ecosystems than tablets or phones, it is fairly easy to bypass an app store and download applications directly," he says.

An app by any other name

What's the difference between an "app" and an "application" -- and does it even matter?

Not so long ago, "app" was mostly used as slang for "application," and terms such as "applet" and "widget" were used for various types of mini-applications that perform specialized functions. Following Apple's lead, however, many consumers today think of such smaller programs as "apps," whether they're used on a mobile device or a computer, whereas "applications" are bigger, more complex programs like word processing systems or music editing software.

In the end, says Pocket Yoga app developer Sergio Tacconi, it doesn't matter what people call them. "From a development standpoint there is no difference. It's all software that runs on a computer -- a desktop computer, a laptop or a phone. They are all computers," he says.

Using the terms "app" and "App Store" with online storefronts is "just Apple marketing at its best," Tacconi says. "I assume Apple didn't think 'Application Store' or 'Software Store' sounded good, so they came out with something more catchy." (As a side note, Apple is trying to trademark the name "App Store," but Microsoft is challenging the bid, saying that the term is too generic to be trademarked.)

Additionally, many apps for smartphones and tablets are specifically designed to take advantage of mobile devices -- think mapping or augmented reality software. "App stores have been successful because they offer products allowing consumers to more easily complete specific tasks [on their smartphones]," says Baker.

So what would be the point, he asks, of notebook or desktop users downloading and buying software from an app store?

Benefits for computer users

Thibauld Favre, CEO of AllMyApps, believes he can answer that question. "Discovering and managing applications on Windows is still one of the most frustrating experiences you can have as an end user," he says. AllMyApps, currently in beta, offers Windows software in an app store format.

Traditional software download sites are focused on the transaction, Favre says -- exchanging payment information for a download link and license key. "The scope of an application store is much broader: a complete environment to make it easy to discover, buy, install, update and reinstall applications, be they paid or free. The level of service is what makes it so attractive for end users," Favre says.

One service that app stores provide is automatic software updates. If any of the apps you downloaded or purchased through an app store is updated, the app store will notify you and provide one-click download and installation of the update. On the other hand, many applications auto-check for updates over the Internet anyway; the app store just centralizes the process.

Another selling point of an app store for computers, especially one run by a well-known company, is that it would give customers a sense of trust and security about the software they buy. "You don't know if you should trust any of the small players making security or backup software who want you to download and install things on your machine," says IDC's Hilwa. "It is great to have the platform owner or some other trusted source offer such software and certify it."

This assumes, of course, that PC app stores follow Apple's model, in which all apps that appear in the store must go through an approval process and meet certain criteria. In reality, app stores have varying policies. Intel's AppUp, for instance, tests apps and rates them for age suitability before making them available to users. Google, on the other hand, says it is "not obligated to monitor the products or their content" but reserves the right to review and remove them from the Chrome Web Store. Apps could be removed if, for example, they're found to be defective or malicious or if Google determines that they violate the law or infringe on someone else's intellectual property. (Next: Hardware compatibility)

App developer Tacconi adds that the sense of security provided by an app store should extend to the suitability of an app for a user's hardware. The store should help users buy software guaranteed to run on their notebook or desktop, he says. That's the same assurance that users of smartphones have come to expect from the app stores they use for their mobile software.

"On the iOS App Store, the number of possible devices to distribute for is very small," says Tacconi. In contrast, he points out, "computers come in a great number of configurations, with different processors, video cards, memory sizes, etc. It's important that the store be able to validate the minimum requirements of your computer."

From bricks to clicks

The app store business model is a "win-win-win," says IDC's Hilwa. He says that hardware vendors like Intel, Apple and Acer win by running an app store to promote and nurture their platform and brand, "developers win by having a place to market, sell and make money, and users win because they get a one-stop shop they can trust."

Critics of the model, however, fear that requiring apps to meet certain criteria in order to be included in an app store means that the store owner has too much say over which apps users see. Apple's requirements for products sold in its app stores, for instance, have often been criticized as being too restrictive, leaving some developers' apps out in the cold. Some even worry that "non-approved" applications could eventually disappear entirely.

The critics have a point, says Hilwa. "Most of the rules in such stores are about privacy, security and other protections. But no doubt the platform vendor will also slip in some biases about what tools and utilities should be available for the platform and which should not. It is a dual-edged sword for developers," he says.

But NPD Group's Baker considers it a non-issue. "The computer OS is not a closed system. There is likely to always be the option for consumers to go outside the app store to buy titles that aren't in there," he says.

For his part, Favre of AllMyApps believes that the app store is more of a bridge than a barrier; he calls it the "missing link" between developers and consumers that will encourage distribution and sales of mini-applications for computers. "With 1.2 billion PCs running Windows, it is a huge new business opportunity for application developers," he says.

He compares app sales to music sales. "First you bought CDs, then you downloaded MP3s on Napster and finally you bought songs on iTunes. The same goes with software: You bought boxes, then you downloaded setup files and finally you'll buy apps. In a few years, the traditional download paradigm will have disappeared," he predicts.

Of course, Favre has a personal stake in that argument, and many would disagree with him. Still, it's clear that app developers and companies that are launching or planning to launch app stores are betting that a significant portion of software for all computer devices will be sold through an app store. "Over time, app stores will be how most software becomes distributed," says Hilwa.

Even skeptic Baker thinks the app store model will have a place in selling software to users of both computers and mobile devices. "But [app stores] will only be one of many ways that consumers find and buy applications for their computer, versus being the primary way they do that on their tablets or phones," he says.

A handful of computer app stores

Here's a sampling of app stores offering computer software that have already been launched or are on the horizon.

* Acer Alive: To be pre-installed on Acer computers, the company's software download storefront will not only offer apps, but also entertainment media including music and movies. Acer Alive was scheduled to launch in the United Kingdom and Italy in December, and in the U.S. later this year. Queries to Acer about the status of the Alive launch had not been returned by the time this story went live.

* AllMyApps: This online store works through a desktop application (currently in beta) that you download and install. The front end looks similar to iTunes but offers a variety of Windows software tools. Most of the apps available here are free and are readily available elsewhere on the Web, but AllMyApps plans to eventually sell for-payment titles as well.

* Chrome Web Store: Google's app store entry offers Chrome browser extensions and themes as well as free and paid apps. Google's definition of "app" is broad: It can be a link to a Web app (or simply an enhanced Web site), a Flash app, or actual code that must be installed into the Chrome browser in order to run. Regardless, an app installed from the Chrome Web Store is activated by clicking its icon, which is listed on Chrome's New Tab page.

* Intel AppUp: Meant for Windows netbooks that use Intel's Atom processor (but also compatible with notebooks and desktops running Windows XP or 7), Intel's app store is a software front end that you download and install on your computer. AppUp offers mini-programs for free or for a price, with the most popular being the game Angry Birds.

* Mac App Store: In addition to OS X versions of iPhone/iPod Touch and iPad mini-apps, the Mac App Store sells downloads of full-fledged software. The Mac App Store is built into the latest update for OS X Snow Leopard, and the applications available from it work only in Snow Leopard.

This story, "2011: Year of the desktop app store?" was originally published by Computerworld.

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