App stores jump out of your pocket, onto your desktop

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This week’s CBC Radio tech column is all about app stores.

They’ve been incredibly successful on mobile devices, and now, both Apple and Google are set to launch app stores for desktop computers. It’s widely anticipated that the Google Chrome Web Store will launch today, and there are rumours that Apple’s Mac App Store will launch on December 13. But will these desktop app stores enjoy the same success as the mobile versions?

The current state of app stores

I think there are two things worth mentioning when we talk about app stores:

First: this market is huge.

Second: At least right now, app stores are almost exclusively focused on mobile devices: smartphones and tablets. It seems everybody has an app store these days. Blackberry has their App World. Android Phones have the Android Market. Windows Phones have the App Marketplace. Nokia has the Ovi Store. Apple devices have the App Store. If you own a smartphone, chances are there’s an app store for it.

And this is a multi-billion dollar business (last year, Gartner predicted $6.2 billion for 2010). I asked Apple for their latest numbers, and they told me that their customers have downloaded more than 7 billion apps since their store launched. Not all of those are paid, but many of them are. Again, this market is absolutely huge.

Even though the focus thus far has been on smartphones, that’s about to change. The big news is that Apple is set to expand its app store onto the desktop with its Mac App Store. Google is planning a similar move with its Chrome Web Store. To be clear, this isn’t about running phone apps on your computer. Apple wants to sell you full-fledged desktop apps to run on your computer (think word processors, spreadsheets, photo editors, games). A big part of what they’re trying to do here is take some of the hassle out of downloading installing software.

The move to the desktop

Once upon a time, if you wanted a new program for your computer, you had to go to a store and buy a shrink-wrapped box with a disk inside of it. You’d bring it home, put the disk in, and run an installer program. Sometimes there’d be a little slip of paper with some crazy-long license key, and you’d have to type that in to prove that you actually bought the software. Even now, when a lot of people download new software from the internet, you end up with some kind of .zip file, or a .dmg file, and you have to figure out what to do with that. It’s hardly the most elegant way to get a new program, and I think for a lot of people, it can be intimidating.

Compare that to the experience of buying an app on a smartphone like an iPhone. You go to the store, tap “Buy” and the thing downloads and installs. No disks, no funny filenames, no installers. In a lot of ways, it’s taken a lot of the work (and intimidation) out of downloading new programs.

Who wins?

If you’re a consumer, you arguably get a better experience when you buy and download new software. It’s certainly simpler.

Software developers stand to benefit from this as well. Right now, if you’re a software company, you don’t just have to write the software. You also have to promote it, and try and get people to talk about it, and market it. Plus, you have to handle all the back-end stuff that goes along with selling software: generating license keys, and processing credit card payments. With Apple’s Mac App Store model, you write the software, and Apple handles all that back-end stuff.

The other big advantage is scale. As a software developer, you theoretically have access to a very, very large audience of people who’ll be looking at the App Store for the latest thing to download.

But, it’s also important to remember that whoever runs the app store stands to benefit for this. For instance, Apple says it will take 30% of all sales through its Mac App Store.

Censorship concerns

Ever since Apple announced that they were going to open up this new Mac App Store, there have been many concerns.

First and foremost, people are concerned about Apple’s review process. Ultimately, Apple is the gatekeeper for everything that ends up on their store. In the past, they’ve rejected certain apps that include “adult content.” They rejected a political cartoon app because it “ridiculed public figures.” So obviously, some censorship concerns there. That said, you don’t have to use the App Store, and you can get software elsewhere. But people do worry about that “walled garden” effect.

There are also some logistical challenges when it comes to things like upgrades. For instance, what if I already own a piece of software because I bought it in a box from a store? Can I get an upgrade from the App Store? Or do I have to buy it all over again?

Apple not the only player

There are also smaller, independent app stores out there. For instance, there’s one called Bodega that’s been out for a while. It’s a program you can download and install. And once you have it, it makes buying and downloading and updating your software much easier.

Obviously, the app store model has worked incredibly well for some companies in the mobile space. It’s not clear yet whether that’ll translate into the desktop market. But with the Mac app store set to launch sometime in the next couple of weeks, and the Google Chrome Web Store soon too, it’s definitely worth watching.