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.

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App stores' mobile roots

The apparent early success of Evernote in the Mac App Store notwithstanding, download and sales numbers for the other app stores we've mentioned -- all of which serve Windows users -- are currently too small to determine whether app stores will become a significant player in software distribution.

Stephen Baker, an analyst at The NPD Group, says he doesn't think app stores will become the dominant software sales channel. He points out that the initial appeal and success of app stores has been tied to mobile computing: App stores offer smartphone users a more convenient way than searching Web sites to shop for, choose, download and install software. Using a smartphone to visit a Web site in order find and install software would be a hassle for several reasons: Mobile Internet connections have limited speeds, smartphones have small screens and many don't have physical keyboards.

Because users of full-fledged computers don't face such barriers when searching the Web, Baker thinks app stores will have a tough time catching on as a means of selling software in the notebook/desktop market. "App stores for computers would have to have a demonstrable advantage over searching for products directly on the Web. Since computers offer more open ecosystems than tablets or phones, it is fairly easy to bypass an app store and download applications directly," he says.

Additionally, many apps for smartphones and tablets are specifically designed to take advantage of mobile devices -- think mapping or augmented reality software. "App stores have been successful because they offer products allowing consumers to more easily complete specific tasks [on their smartphones]," says Baker.

So what would be the point, he asks, of notebook or desktop users downloading and buying software from an app store?

Benefits for computer users

Thibauld Favre, CEO of AllMyApps, believes he can answer that question. "Discovering and managing applications on Windows is still one of the most frustrating experiences you can have as an end user," he says. AllMyApps, currently in beta, offers Windows software in an app store format.

Traditional software download sites are focused on the transaction, Favre says -- exchanging payment information for a download link and license key. "The scope of an application store is much broader: a complete environment to make it easy to discover, buy, install, update and reinstall applications, be they paid or free. The level of service is what makes it so attractive for end users," Favre says.

One service that app stores provide is automatic software updates. If any of the apps you downloaded or purchased through an app store is updated, the app store will notify you and provide one-click download and installation of the update. On the other hand, many applications auto-check for updates over the Internet anyway; the app store just centralizes the process.

Another selling point of an app store for computers, especially one run by a well-known company, is that it would give customers a sense of trust and security about the software they buy. "You don't know if you should trust any of the small players making security or backup software who want you to download and install things on your machine," says IDC's Hilwa. "It is great to have the platform owner or some other trusted source offer such software and certify it."

This assumes, of course, that PC app stores follow Apple's model, in which all apps that appear in the store must go through an approval process and meet certain criteria. In reality, app stores have varying policies. Intel's AppUp, for instance, tests apps and rates them for age suitability before making them available to users. Google, on the other hand, says it is "not obligated to monitor the products or their content" but reserves the right to review and remove them from the Chrome Web Store. Apps could be removed if, for example, they're found to be defective or malicious or if Google determines that they violate the law or infringe on someone else's intellectual property. (Next: Hardware compatibility)

AllMyApps, now in beta, offers mostly free software for Windows.
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