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?

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