Apple, Linux welcomes you to 1998!

Apple's App Store is old hat for Linux

A lot of people are buzzing about Apple's Mac App Store, but I'm nonplussed. I've had the same features on Linux since the late 90's.

Granted, I'm being a little snarky — but only a little. Apple's App Store for the iPhone was a big deal because, before Apple, the application landscape for mobile phones was not that rosy. Apple simplified getting applications on the phone without having to deal directly with the carriers — so some credit is due there. They've also raised the bar in terms of what developers are shooting for for mobile devices, so kudos to Apple for that.

But the buzz over the Apple Mac App Store? Meh. Look at the features that Apple touts:

  • Install any app with ease
  • Keep your apps up to date
  • The app you need. When you need it
  • Buy, download, and even redownload

Linux folks, sound familiar? We've had all of this, modulo "buy", for a decade at least. The Advanced Package Tool, a.k.a. "APT" for Debian-based systems (that includes Ubuntu), has made all of this possible for years and years. Granted, this has primarily focused on free and open source software, but paid apps are possible too. The Ubuntu folks have had a paid software store since Ubuntu 10.10. (It is, I admit, sparsely populated when it comes to proprietary/paid software.)

But the installation, updating, and such? All very possible with APT — or Yum or Zipper, if you happen to be using an RPM-based distro. (Or APT for RPM, if that's still being maintained.)

Apple brags about having more than 1,000 apps available at launch... Ubuntu users can find 32,000-plus packages in the software repository for Ubuntu 10.10. Now, a bunch of those packages are not end-user applications — this includes things like libraries, system utilities, fonts, and so forth. But you could easily find 5,000 end user apps, many of which are competitive with the proprietary stuff being offered through the Apple Mac App Store. Oh, and free. Free as in cost, and all open source. (Not all Free by definition of the Free Software Foundation, though, but that's another topic entirely.)

Of course, what Apple has done that's unique shows Linux folks what we need to be better at doing: marketing, developer and ISV relations, and standardization. Lest you think I'm only hear to praise Linux or kick Apple, I'm not. Linux has had the raw tools to do this for a decade, but the communities and companies behind Linux have yet to gain enough momentum to pull this off on the desktop. Or the will to chuck tribal differences between desktops, toolkits, etc. and unify on one damn stack to attract the kind of developers that are filling up Apple's App Store. Canonical, bless their hearts, are trying — but it's unclear as of yet whether Canonical has enough pull to rally enough developers and inspire enough ISVs to drive even 100 paid desktop apps to Linux, much less 1,000.

The Linux community should get some credit here, though. What has been hard for the users of arguably the easiest operating system to use, has been easy for Linux users for years. A quick "apt-get update" and my entire system is updated, apps and all. A quick "apt-get install" and I can have everything from the Banshee media player to the latest Chrome release. Typing is not required, of course. Each distribution has GUI tools that make it very easy to install and manage applications.

And, it's important to add — I can do all this without the blessing of any single company. You see, while Apple controls everything that goes into the App store, nobody controls what users add to their APT, Yum, or Zypper repos.

So Linux users have had the tools and freedom, just a severe lack of marketing and developer relations smarts. That includes failing to have a single dominant toolchain (GUI toolkit, etc.) for companies to target. Seems that Nokia (with Qt) might be on to something here, though. It's pretty clear what the overall Linux community and vendors need to address, just a question if they do and if it's not too little and too late for any mainstream traction.

I do hope others in the tech press will at least, in passing, note that Apple has not invented something new with its App Store — merely taken an old idea and run with it better than the competition. Which, come to think of it, seems to be the company's specialty.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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