Calder’s Corner: The ‘App Store’ comes to the desktop

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By Calder Phillips-Grafflin

I’m sure almost all of you know exactly what an ‘App Store’ is. And if you have an Android, iOS, Windows Mobile, Symbian or Blackberry smartphone, or an iPod Touch, you have probably used one.

App Store systems have been wildly popular on smartphones, not only with users, but also with developers. The iOS App Store has more than 300,000 apps, and the Android Market has roughly 150,000. Riding on this success, Apple and Microsoft are both preparing ‘App Store’ environments for their desktop computing platforms; the ‘Mac App Store’ coming in ninety days and an ‘App Store’ as part of the next Windows release.

However, app store environments aren’t all good, and they don’t have the same effects on users as they do on developers or manufacturers. Thus, it is necessary to look deeper at how app store systems affect these three important groups.

App stores are ideal for manufacturers, as they are (usually) user-friendly, easy to advertise, and attract developers. By restricting content in their apps, they can guarantee a good user experience, which means more satisfied customers. In the case of Apple’s iOS App Store, it also allows them to control all content available on an iOS device, which allows them to prevent competition and profit from all iOS App sales revenue.

On one hand, app stores provide an easily accessible selection of trusted and validated software. On the other hand, they provide a selection restricted by corporate interests and law. For the casual computer user who primarily uses their computer to play games and access the web, an app store provides a perfect place to find software they need. This has been true for years in the Linux world, where ‘Software Center’ systems have provided software that would only otherwise be available as source code or incompatible packages.

However, app store systems can artificially restrict the choices available to users. In some cases, like with iOS, there are no other approved methods for installing Apps, so all choices are dictated to the user by Apple. In other cases, like Android or Windows Mobile, users are free to ‘sideload’ applications that aren’t available through an app store, so the app store doesn’t necessarily end up restricting user choice.

A large base of high-quality applications is essential to the success of any app store system, so the needs of developers must be addressed in the design of the system. Store frameworks provide developers an easy, trusted place to host and sell applications that would otherwise require expensive web hosting and payment services. More importantly, they provide easy access to the end user, which means that developers need not advertise independently.

However, using an app store means playing by the rules of the manufacturer, which are designed with the corporate interests of the manufacturer in mind.

This can be anything from Apple’s prohibition of ‘Russian Roulette’ apps to restrictions on adult content, competing applications and applications based on certain programming technologies.

Additionally, the manufacturer retains a percentage of the app sales revenue (usually 30%), which means that developers with existing distribution frameworks would lose money by using an app store.

Whether you like it or not, app store systems are coming to your computers. As long as manufacturers allow users to install applications from other sources and store content is not overly restricted, they are a useful tool for end users and developers alike; they provide an easy means of finding and selling stable and trusted software. Intel’s ‘App Up’ store for Windows and MeeGo is an excellent example of this, as it uses a rating system instead of outright content restrictions.

What you should be afraid of, however, is any attempt by manufacturers and software companies to use an app store to restrict all content available to you. Artificially restricting your freedom of choice on your own computer is simply unacceptable.

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