Right now smartphone users can shop for apps in a confusing array of places. Their phones' hardware maker might have a store, as might the OS developer. Operators are making their own stores and third parties like Handmark and Handango have long offered application stores.
Most of those stores aren't specialty stores, although the apps might only work on one handset. News, social networking, gaming and productivity apps are all offered in the same store.
Still, while it sounds confusing to have to shop in all those general-purpose stores, anyone who has entered the iPhone App Store knows that there's also a downside to one central store. With 85,000 apps and growing at the App Store, it's hard to shop.
While executives at the CTIA show in San Diego say that surely the current app shopping environment won't last, they aren't exactly sure how it will shake out.
The mobile-application environment is comparable to the early days of the Web, said Bill Maggs, head of developer and partner content and services at Sony Ericsson. "We're in like the portal stage," he said, similar to when people went to Yahoo.com or AOL.com as their route into the Internet.
"We're at that level of maturity with the app stores. There's lots more to be invented to let users customize their phones and have choices without being overwhelmed by 30 identical Sudoku apps," he said.
At Sony Ericsson, the handset maker has decided to focus its store on content like ringtones and phone themes. "We're focused on things that enhance the device," said Maggs.
Shoppers won't find enterprise applications like a salesforce automation tool in the Sony Ericsson shop, but they might find that app right from their phone in the Windows Mobile store, he noted.
The differentiation works, he said. "We have unique content. They coexist just fine," he said.
That's just the kind of store specialization envisioned by Handmark's Evan Conway, executive vice president of marketing.
"My father doesn't have any interest in going to the App Store with 85,000 apps but he might be interested in an 'app stand' that has just news and information products like Forbes and The Wall Street Journal," he said.
Likewise, a "kids boutique" store might have only applications for children.
Handmark already has a games-developer customer in Europe that has built a store only to sell its own software.
But stores won't be the only way to find apps. "I think people will figure out clever ways to sell," he said. "I find it highly unlikely that every person with a BlackBerry will decide that the App World is the only place to get apps."
For instance, more people have gotten The Wall Street Journal mobile application from WSJ.com, not any app store, he said. Handmark developed the application for the newspaper.
Nokia doesn't envision quite the level of specialization that Handmark does. "It won't end up like cable TV where there's a women's network and a food network," said George Linardos, vice president of products, media and games for Nokia.
Still, all the stores are unlikely to ultimately be all-purpose stores. Nokia's Ovi store learns user preferences based on usage. So over time, it might feel like a specialized store for individual users. For example, if a user most often downloads games, the Ovi store will show games at the top of the list, making it feel like a games store, he said.
In addition, operators will want to have the Ovi store on their phones, even if the operator has its own store. That's because the Ovi store draws applications from developers around the world, since it serves a global customer base, he said. An operator in the U.S., by contrast, is more like to have apps developed locally in its store.