How Mobile Apps Are Changing Desktop Software

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At the Whim of the Gatekeeper

Anyone who has kept up with Apple's history of banning iOS apps knows that app stores aren't hospitable for all developers. Software makers--and by extension, users--are at the whim of whoever controls the app store. For security or business reasons, these gatekeepers can place limits on the types of software available, and they can change the rules at any time.

Just ask any developer who is dealing with Apple's new sandboxing requirement, which as a security measure limits the system resources that apps may access. In the Mac App Store, some apps now lag behind their direct-download counterparts as developers work to include sandboxing and wait for Apple's approval.

Arnstein Teigene, Desktop Add-Ons Product Manager for Opera
Arnstein Teigene
“This most recent submission, we've had some issues, and that's because [Apple is] going toward a stricter process where they're sandboxing all their apps,” says Arnstein Teigene, a product manager for the Opera Web browser, whose latest version has yet to receive Apple's approval. “And that becomes quite challenging for us to get all the different plug-ins to work, because we need to talk to third-party software."

Unlike with most mobile app stores, developers and their users have an alternative on the desktop: They can release their apps for direct download via the Internet, and bypass restrictive app stores entirely.

But going direct has its own drawbacks. Microsoft's Windows Store, for example, will be the only place for users to find Metro-style apps. Developers who skip the store won't be able to take advantage of Windows 8's unique features, such as side-by-side apps, universal in-app search, or the charms bar for sharing content. On the Mac, only software from the App Store will be able to use iCloud for syncing data between devices.

App Update Fatigue

With a centralized app store, users not only get a single source for app discovery and billing, but they also get a one-stop shop for app updates. Although this arrangement could cause some headaches if you have a few dozen apps to redownload, it also means fewer notifications popping up at startup or cluttering the taskbar, and potentially faster delivery of new features and bug fixes.

Inrix's Windows 8 app shows nearby traffic data.
Kevin Foreman of Inrix says that he was surprised to learn how frequently users hit 'Update All' on their mobile devices instead of rebelling against so many updates. He now expects that trend to continue in desktop software, and he thinks users' willingness to update is largely about trust and convenience. “They know … that it's approved by somebody, and it's not going to hurt them,” he says, “so why not get the latest and greatest?”

OfficeDrop's Healy Jones is happy to bring more updates to desktop users, because new versions drive additional engagement. “The app stores let people know, 'Hey, that thing you tried a while ago has actually been improved,' and then it prompts you to go check it out again,” he says. “So the strategy of releasing something and then improving it over time actually is a successful marketing strategy.”

The Windows Store in Windows 8
On desktops, though, some developers are accustomed to launching paid updates. Unfortunately, neither the Mac App Store nor the upcoming Windows Store has mechanisms in place for this. Developers who want to charge for a much-improved app will have to release a separate version of their software or sell additional features as in-app purchases.

Neither option is feasible in all cases, says Marc Edwards, director and lead designer for Bjango, which sells the popular iStat Menus outside the Mac App Store. “Version 2 often bears little resemblance to version 1,” he notes. “If we wanted a major update to be an in-app purchase, we'd probably have to include two versions of the app in one. It's all a bit clumsy and doesn't fit with the way we work.”

Bjango's MiStat app is available in the Mac App Store, but it lacks the features of iStat Menus.
It comes back to the issue of gatekeepers. If developers want the wide distribution that app stores allow, they'll need to adapt their business plans to fit the app stores' rules. Edwards describes the app-store model as “brilliant,” and expects future Mac products to be exclusive to Apple's App Store, where appropriate.

Not Another Stand-Alone Revolution

At its debut, the iPhone App Store rocked the tech industry because it made mobile software easier to acquire and more fun to use. It also took advantage of smartphone hardware--accelerometers, graphics processors, and cameras--in ways that Web apps could not. And because the App Store was the only way to download new iPhone software, it had an easier time becoming a phenomenon.

Desktop app stores won't have the same meteoric impact on how we consume software. The Mac App Store has been popular, but it hasn't fundamentally changed computing on its own, because many of its benefits--such as digital distribution and full access to device hardware--were already available elsewhere. Desktop app stores will merely add convenience in the form of centralized billing and distribution.

The next sea change in how we use software will come from online services, which will act as the glue that holds all of these new apps and platforms together. As Kevin Foreman of Inrix says, “In 2012, it's just me and my services. If you think about Netflix and Pandora, or even electricity, I don't really care where electricity comes from, I just want to plug my stuff in the wall and have it work.”

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