2011: Year of the Desktop App Store?

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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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