2011: Year of the desktop app store?

Apple's Mac App Store is only the latest effort to make finding and installing software on your computer as easy as it is on your smartphone.

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).

Intel AppUp
Intel's AppUp store, mainly for Atom-based netbooks running Windows, launched in January 2010.

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)

Apple Mac App Store
Apple's Mac App Store launched with great fanfare this month.
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