When Apple launched the iPhone App Store in 2008, few people recognized how revolutionary it was. Four years later, everyone can see that the App Store has uprooted the software industry, creating an app craze that has spread far beyond smartphones.
Now, the app-store model is taking over desktop PCs. Apple launched its Mac App Store in January 2011, and has already seen more than 100 million downloads in that marketplace. With the debut of Windows 8 later this year, Microsoft will launch the Windows Store, the company's first centralized location for desktop and tablet apps.
To find out how app stores are changing desktop software, PCWorld spoke to software makers and research analytics firms. Not surprisingly, many developers are enthusiastic about the easy distribution and streamlined billing that app stores provide, yet these stores also introduce challenges--some that are unique to desktops, and others that have plagued smartphones since the dawn of the iPhone App Store.
Desktop Apps vs. Mobile Apps: Same Model, Different Tastes
Although smartphone app stores have given rise to small-footprint, single-use programs, developers aren't ready to write off desktop apps. The developers I spoke with believe that full-featured software is far from dead, and that it will continue to have its place in desktop app stores.
Bill Taylor, a product manager for voice-recognition software firm Nuance Communications, believes that the small scale and limited functions of smartphone apps are a byproduct of technical limitations, such as weak processors and low storage capacities on early handsets. More-capable devices, with more-powerful microprocessors and memory, he says, will lead to more-capable apps.
“I think it's going to make sense from a user standpoint to have a more seamless experience,” Taylor says. Going in and out of five apps on your smartphone or tablet to accomplish one task, such as editing an image or updating a spreadsheet, just doesn't appear to be all that great of an experience, Taylor says.
So far, Taylor's instincts seem to be correct. On the Mac laptop and desktop, users are willing to pay more for great software. Among the top 100 Mac App Store applications, the average selling price is $22.54, according to market research firm Distimo. That's about $20 more than the average price for the top 100 iPhone apps. The Mac App Store is the desktop equivalent of the wildly popular App Store for iOS devices, which aims to simplify the way Mac users discover and purchase applications for their computers.
While the “freemium” business model has flourished on iOS, Mac developers selling their goods on the Mac App Store haven't embraced the freemium trend for sales. The term "freemium" is a bit of jargon that refers to a free app that entices you to fork over money to unlock more features through in-app purchases. Only 4 percent of the top-grossing Mac apps are freemium, versus 50 percent for mobile app stores.
Although app-store skeptics like to dismiss these stores as a place for silly diversions rather than serious desktop software, that stigma has more to do with the difference between phones and full-size PCs than with the app-store business model. On the iPhone, games are the dominant category, according to data from market researchers at Distimo and AppFigures. In the Mac App Store, however, utilities are the most popular, and productivity apps are among the top three categories (although, to be fair, so are games and entertainment apps). The data suggests that on desktop computers, fart apps and other time wasters aren't such a hot commodity.
'People Love Installing Software'
That's not to say that smaller, cheaper, single-use apps won't play a role in desktop app stores. But instead of cannibalizing larger apps, they may draw people away from the open Web.
Healy Jones, vice president of marketing for OfficeDrop, noticed this shift away from the Web immediately after his company released mobile and desktop apps for its document-scanning service.
OfficeDrop, which provides searchable cloud storage, says that it sees seven times more user engagement through its apps than it does through the Web browser, Jones notes. Since releasing its first apps in 2011, OfficeDrop's user base has grown from 7000 users to 140,000 users.
“We had a thesis that people did not want to install software; that the cloud meant that people could use a browser to interact with software and would never have to install anything. We were completely wrong,” Jones says. “People love installing software.”
Kevin Foreman, vice president of consumer and mobile applications for Inrix, wants to capitalize on the shift away from the Web. In the past, the company has licensed its traffic data to Web-based services such as MapQuest; but with Windows 8, Inrix will launch its first native app for desktops to help people avoid congestion before they get in the car.
Software Redux: The Web Is Out
“We used to live in a world of applications ... and the world told us all, stop downloading apps, because you can get viruses and stuff, and we all moved to the Web,” Foreman says. “We've come full circle. Now we've moved back to an app-based world.”
The difference now, Foreman says, is that the ecosystems are in the hands of a few key players--Apple, Google, and Microsoft--so app developers have a better chance to get discovered. Instead of focusing on search engine optimization, software makers must now think about app-store optimization to get themselves noticed.
I won't get into the debate over the merits of native apps versus the open Web. Plenty of ink has been spilled elsewhere on that topic. But given what developers have discovered firsthand, we may see users clamor for native desktop apps, where they previously deemed Web apps to be sufficient.
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