There's no doubt that Apple Inc.'s iPhone has changed the landscape of the smart-phone industry, and indeed the mobile phone business as a whole. But one of the most revolutionary advances that Apple offered up isn't in the iPhone itself: It's the mechanism the company developed to distribute non-Apple applications to iPhone and iPod Touch users.
Third-party development for mobile devices and smart phones was already happening well over a decade before the iPhone's mid-2007 launch. Palm, Microsoft and Research In Motion all allowed other companies to develop software for their devices, but they left it up to those third-party developers to market their creations -- and forced users to find, purchase, download and install them on their own.
In many ways, this model was no different from the one used by PC makers (including both Apple and Microsoft Corp.) to enable developers to create software and sell it through the same retail channels as the computers themselves. But software for mobile devices evolved in a smaller niche market, one with a more diverse range of platforms that was better suited to online purchasing. The result was often chaos. Users didn't know where to go to find applications, and in some cases, they didn't know how to properly install or remove the applications they had bought.
The App Store 'a radical shift'
Apple's decision to develop a new model -- its App Store -- marked a radical shift for developers and users in mobile software distribution. For developers, the App Store represented a one-stop solution for getting their creations into the hands of users. Apple leveraged its existing iTunes infrastructure for selling music and movies to make apps available to users, handle transactions, prevent piracy by tying purchases to an iTunes account, and offer some measure of marketing and management of customer reviews.
Once the App Store opened last July, developers didn't need to worry about traditional retail channels, setting up a Web site to host downloads or figuring out how they would get paid. (Apple skims 30% off the top; developers keep the rest. ) Not only did this drastically simplify the overhead for developers in distributing their apps, it also leveled the playing field between small developers -- maybe just one person working on a single product -- and large corporate developers.
For users, the App Store has been even more revolutionary -- and popular. By December, it had already distributed 300 million application downloads and was cranking out 2.2 million a day from a one-stop smorgasbord of applications. Buyers can browse categories, see what's new or popular, read reviews, check out screenshots, and search for specific applications by name or function. On top of that, buyers could do all that searching and evaluating on their computers or directly from an iPhone/iPod Touch.
But finding apps is only half the story. Purchasing them is also easy. Once you've set up an iTunes account, there's nothing more to it than clicking the "Buy" button and verifying a password. Then comes the real genius part: effortless installation. There's no installer utility, no convoluted instructions, no setup wizard -- the application just appears on your iPhone or iPod Touch home screen immediately if you used the device to find and buy it, or during the next sync if you purchased it on a computer. Software has never been so easy to find, purchase and install on any device.
Beyond the iPhone
Apple may have created the App Store for the iPhone and iPod Touch, but the concept isn't limited to them. In relatively short order, the concept is being copied by virtually every company the develops a smart-phone operating system. Google Inc. has launched a store for applications for its open-source Android smart phone system, Microsoft has created a portal for Windows Mobile applications, Palm launched its own app store, and RIM has announced that it will develop a store for BlackBerry users.
So far, most reviews indicate that Apple still has the edge in ease of use and installation. Still, it seems very clear that the idea of the App Store is a hit with mobile device owners and developers. But is it a concept that is necessarily limited to just mobile devices?
A broader App Store could grow in two directions: as a source for other slimmed-down devices, most notably netbooks, and as a place for software distribution for full-featured computers running operating systems such as Mac OS X, Windows Vista or, down the road, Windows 7.
App Store for Netbooks
Netbooks have emerged as a new and popular class of notebook computers. Typically stripped down in terms of processing power and storage, netbooks offer more portability and cost less than traditional laptops. But they rely on an older or stripped-down operating system (typically a Linux variation designed for the device or Windows XP) and a limited set of applications. The low cost and small footprint is making netbooks a popular choice for families, schools and frequent business travelers who want something more than a smart phone -- in particular, something with a real, albeit small, keyboard and screen -- but whose computing needs are minimal. Netbooks work well for editing basic office documents, browsing the Web and for e-mail.
Since netbooks essentially fit in between a smart phone and a full-featured computer, they're a logical step for App Store-style software distribution. In fact, many of the constraints on netbooks and smart phones are the same: small screen size, limited memory and processing capabilities, and restricted storage for the applications themselves. Since many netbooks are designed to be easy to use and carry and often serve as a second computer, making app installation simple is an excellent idea.
There's also the software-update component to consider. Apple's App Store application on the iPhone and iPod Touch can check for updates of installed applications to make the update process as easy as installation. Given concerns that netbooks may have outdated software because of their stripped-down nature, delivering security patches for vulnerable components could be done as simply as iPhone app updates.
One problem with the App Store for netbooks is that various vendors rely on differing operating systems. That means multiple companies would need to develop the stores and build the infrastructure to support them; given the current economic climate, that kind of investment might be hard to justify.
Apple is probably in the best position to deliver a netbook with an App Store. The company is no stranger to creating stripped-down versions of its flagship Mac OS X operating system, and its upcoming Snow Leopard OS X update is designed to be more streamlined. In fact, the iPhone and iPod Touch both run a version of Mac OS X, as does the Apple TV. It wouldn't take much for the company to create an operating system, the developer frameworks and an extension of the existing App Store for an Apple-based netbook.
Apple isn't exactly without experience in the netbook arena, either. In the late 1990s, Apple create the eMate 300 - a small, low-power laptop intended for use in education. The eMate ran the same operating system as Apple's Newton PDA line, and in many ways, it was the world's first netbook.
Whether Apple will release a netbook is unknown. In a conference call last fall, CEO Steve Jobs flatly denied the possibility, calling the iPhone Apple's netbook. It's also worth noting that the eMate 300 and the Newton were both terminated not long after Jobs returned to Apple in 1997. However, that hasn't stopped Mac users and rumor sites from speculating that an Apple netbook is on the way. Nor has it stopped analysts from predicting that Apple must create a netbook to cash in on the popularity the devices are beginning to enjoy.
More recently, Apple COO Tim Cook, who is running day-to-day operations while Jobs is on a six-month medical leave, indicated that while Apple is watching the netbook market, it has no immediate plan to release its own. Of course, Apple also denied rumors that it was developing a mobile phone for months before ultimately unveiling the iPhone two years ago.
Taking the App Store to the Max
While netbooks would be a next logical step for the App Store concept, what about relying on such a store for all software distribution for full-featured computers? At first glance, the idea seems unfeasible.
First, the major operating systems including Windows, Mac OS X and Linux are all much more complex than smart-phone operating systems. There's also a great deal more variation among individual operating systems on full-featured computers because of user-specific installation options, third-party add-ons, hardware drivers and a slew of configuration choices. Even issues like home directories, profile names and locations can make each computer more unique than most smart phones. Users also have free range to access and modify parts of the file system (even system files) on a computer than on a smart phone.
That doesn't mean the App Store concept is impossible. In businesses and schools, a variety of solutions exist for mass deployment of applications to work stations. Many of those solutions allow IT staffers to define which applications are installed on particular computers -- and which users can access them. That system works much like an App Store would, except that the decision to install software is made by IT staffers or department managers -- not the individual users. Once an application is set to be deployed to a given machine, the process takes place largely in the background without the user needing to do anything -- mimicking the simplicity of the App Store install process.
One challenge to adopting that approach for something like an App Store is that it would require a good deal of information about the computers to which software is being distributed. In a consumer App Store environment, that could open the door for privacy concerns. There would also likely be a concern about bandwidth. Smart-phone, or even netbook applications, must be relatively small, but some computer applications can be hefty, something that could be an issue when it comes to downloading them over the Internet. And it would be particularly challenging if Internet service providers limit customer bandwidth.
The real hurdle: retailers?
Ultimately, the real hurdle to an App Store for computer software distribution and installation isn't likely to be a technical one. It's more likely to be the conflict such a store would create with software developers and retail channels. While developers would probably come around to the idea of selling software this way -- most likely as an adjunct to existing channels -- retailers would be a different story. They might be cut out of the application food chain entirely. If an App Store were even moderately successful and well implemented, it could prove to be a disaster for software vendors. That issue didn't arise with the iPhone because it was a new device without any existing software retail channels, and other mobile systems have typically relied on small online shops.
Exactly where the App Store model will lead software distribution isn't clear. But the model has been a radical success, and I doubt it'll remain limited to smart phone apps for long.
Ryan Faas is a frequent Computerworld contributor specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. You can find more information about him at RyanFaas.com.