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Opinion: An app store for all?

By Kenneth van Wyk
December 21, 2009 10:22 AM ET

Computerworld - Could an app store work for desktop computers? It may sound crazy, but think about it. The model has proved wildly successful for the iPhone, but that doesn't necessarily translate into the desktop realm. There are compelling arguments both for and against the idea.

First, let's consider Apple's iPhone app store as a model. Sure, it's not the only app store in town, but by pretty much any measure, it's been the most successful to date. (And yes, there have been various complaints about Apple's application approval process, but that's not the focus of this column.)

The iPhone is a closed platform, at least for users who play by Apple's rules and don't "jail break" their phones. In other words, the only way to get applications for your iPhone is to purchase them via Apple's iTunes system. And all iPhone apps must pass a vetting process.

Apple publishes a list of application requirements to developers through its iPhone Development Program. These consist of a set of fairly basic rules, such as requiring application developers to use only published application programming interfaces.

Once approved, applications receive a digital signature and are placed in the app store for purchase (for fee or for free). That digital signature is at the core of the system; only signed applications can be used on a (non-jail-broken) iPhone.

Of course, signed software is no guarantee that there's nothing malicious inside, or even that the app won't do any harm on an iPhone inadvertently. What a digital signature does provide is a tamper-evident seal, along with some degree of accountability of who wrote a particular app. Those are good things, but they don't guard against all security woes. Nonetheless, there are rules and restrictions that developers have to comply with if they want their apps to be sold through the Apple app store. In fact, it's restrictive enough to make success of the app store seem unlikely. After all, other app stores had been launched in the past (mostly for similarly specialized platforms), and they all pretty much floundered, never attaining the critical mass necessary to attract enough developers. And yet, with over 2 billion downloads of its more than 100,000 applications, the Apple app store been a huge popular success.

But is that success translatable to an app store for desktop PCs? Is there a point in trying it? Well, one problem with the current open system in place for PC applications is that desktop PCs have serious security problems. So, is the iPhone more secure as a result of the app store system?



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