App invasion: coming soon to your PC
First, they revolutionized smartphones. Now, app stores for Macs and Windows PCs are changing the way we work on laptops and desktops.
When Apple launched the iPhone App Store in 2008, few people recognized how revolutionary it was. Four years
later, everyone can see that the App Store has uprooted the software industry, creating an app craze that has
spread far beyond smartphones.
Now, the app-store model is taking over desktop PCs. Apple launched its Mac App
Store in January 2011, and has already seen more than 100 million
downloads in that marketplace. With the debut of Windows 8 later this year, Microsoft will launch the Windows
Store, the company's first centralized location for desktop and tablet apps.
To find out how app stores are changing desktop software, PCWorld spoke to software makers and research
analytics firms. Not surprisingly, many developers are enthusiastic about the easy distribution and streamlined
billing that app stores provide, yet these stores also introduce challenges--some that are unique to desktops, and
others that have plagued smartphones since the dawn of the iPhone App Store.
Desktop Apps vs. Mobile Apps: Same Model, Different Tastes
Although smartphone app stores have given rise to small-footprint, single-use programs, developers aren't ready
to write off desktop apps. The developers I spoke with believe that full-featured software is far from dead, and
that it will continue to have its place in desktop app stores.
Bill Taylor, a product manager for voice-recognition software firm Nuance
Communications, believes that the small scale and limited functions of smartphone apps are a byproduct of
technical limitations, such as weak processors and low storage capacities on early handsets. More-capable devices,
with more-powerful microprocessors and memory, he says, will lead to more-capable apps.
"I think it's going to make sense from a user standpoint to have a more seamless experience," Taylor says. Going
in and out of five apps on your smartphone or tablet to accomplish one task, such as editing an image or updating a
spreadsheet, just doesn't appear to be all that great of an experience, Taylor says.
So far, Taylor's instincts seem to be correct. On the Mac laptop and desktop, users are willing to pay more for
great software. Among the top 100 Mac App Store
applications, the average selling price is $22.54, according to market research
firm Distimo. That's about $20 more than the average price for the top 100 iPhone apps. The Mac App Store is
the desktop equivalent of the wildly popular App Store for iOS devices, which aims to simplify the way Mac users
discover and purchase applications for their computers.
While the "freemium" business model has flourished on iOS, Mac developers selling their goods on the Mac App
Store haven't embraced the freemium trend for sales. The term "freemium" is a bit of jargon that refers to a free
app that entices you to fork over money to unlock more features through in-app purchases. Only 4 percent of the
top-grossing Mac apps are freemium, versus 50 percent for mobile app stores.
Although app-store skeptics like to dismiss these stores as a place for silly diversions rather than serious
desktop software, that stigma has more to do with the difference between phones and full-size PCs than with the
app-store business model. On the iPhone, games are the dominant category, according to data from market researchers
at Distimo and AppFigures. In the Mac App Store, however, utilities are
the most popular, and productivity apps are among the top three categories (although, to be fair, so are games and
entertainment apps). The data suggests that on desktop computers, fart apps and other time wasters aren't such a
'People Love Installing Software'
That's not to say that smaller, cheaper, single-use apps won't play a role in desktop app stores. But instead of
cannibalizing larger apps, they may draw people away from the open Web.
Healy Jones, vice president of marketing for OfficeDrop, noticed this
shift away from the Web immediately after his company released mobile and desktop apps for its document-scanning
OfficeDrop, which provides searchable cloud storage, says that it sees seven times more user engagement through
its apps than it does through the Web browser, Jones notes. Since releasing its first apps in 2011, OfficeDrop's
user base has grown from 7000 users to 140,000 users.
"We had a thesis that people did not want to install software; that the cloud meant that people could use a
browser to interact with software and would never have to install anything. We were completely wrong," Jones says.
"People love installing software."
Kevin Foreman, vice president of consumer and mobile applications for Inrix,
wants to capitalize on the shift away from the Web. In the past, the company has licensed its traffic data to
Web-based services such as MapQuest; but with Windows 8, Inrix will launch its first native app for desktops to
help people avoid congestion before they get in the car.
Software Redux: The Web Is Out
"We used to live in a world of applications ... and the world told us all, stop downloading apps, because you
can get viruses and stuff, and we all moved to the Web," Foreman says. "We've come full circle. Now we've moved
back to an app-based world."
The difference now, Foreman says, is that the ecosystems are in the hands of a few key players--Apple, Google,
and Microsoft--so app developers have a better chance to get discovered. Instead of focusing on search engine
optimization, software makers must now think about app-store optimization to get themselves noticed.
I won't get into the debate over the merits of native apps versus the open Web. Plenty of ink has been spilled elsewhere
topic. But given what developers have discovered firsthand, we may see users clamor for native desktop apps,
where they previously deemed Web apps to be sufficient.
Next Page: At the Whim of the Gatekeeper
At the Whim of the Gatekeeper
Anyone who has kept up with Apple's history of banning
iOS apps knows that app stores aren't hospitable for all developers. Software makers--and by extension,
users--are at the whim of whoever controls the app store. For security or business reasons, these gatekeepers can
place limits on the types of software available, and they can change the rules at any time.
Just ask any developer who is dealing with Apple's new sandboxing requirement, which as a security measure
limits the system resources that apps may access. In the Mac App Store, some apps now lag behind their
direct-download counterparts as developers work to include sandboxing and wait for Apple's approval.
"This most recent submission, we've had some issues, and that's because [Apple is] going toward a stricter
process where they're sandboxing all their apps," says Arnstein Teigene, a product manager for the Opera Web
browser, whose latest version has yet to receive Apple's approval. "And that becomes quite challenging for us to
get all the different plug-ins to work, because we need to talk to third-party software."
Unlike with most mobile app stores, developers and their users have an alternative on the desktop: They can
release their apps for direct download via the Internet, and bypass restrictive app stores entirely.
But going direct has its own drawbacks. Microsoft's Windows Store, for example, will be the only place for users
to find Metro-style apps. Developers who skip the store won't be able to take advantage of Windows 8's unique
features, such as side-by-side apps, universal in-app search, or the charms bar for sharing content. On the Mac,
only software from the App Store will be able to use iCloud for syncing data between devices.
App Update Fatigue
With a centralized app store, users not only get a single source for app discovery and billing, but they also
get a one-stop shop for app updates. Although this arrangement could cause some headaches if you have a few dozen
apps to redownload, it also means fewer notifications popping up at startup or cluttering the taskbar, and
potentially faster delivery of new features and bug fixes.
Kevin Foreman of Inrix says that he was surprised to learn how frequently users hit 'Update All' on their mobile
devices instead of rebelling against so many updates. He now expects that trend to continue in desktop software,
and he thinks users' willingness to update is largely about trust and convenience. "They know ... that it's
approved by somebody, and it's not going to hurt them," he says, "so why not get the latest and greatest?"
OfficeDrop's Healy Jones is happy to bring more updates to desktop users, because new versions drive additional
engagement. "The app stores let people know, 'Hey, that thing you tried a while ago has actually been improved,'
and then it prompts you to go check it out again," he says. "So the strategy of releasing something and then
improving it over time actually is a successful marketing strategy."
On desktops, though, some developers are accustomed to launching paid updates. Unfortunately, neither the Mac
App Store nor the upcoming Windows Store has mechanisms in place for this. Developers who want to charge for a
much-improved app will have to release a separate version of their software or sell additional features as in-app
Neither option is feasible in all cases, says Marc Edwards, director and lead designer for Bjango, which sells the popular iStat Menus outside the Mac App Store. "Version 2 often
bears little resemblance to version 1," he notes. "If we wanted a major update to be an in-app purchase, we'd
probably have to include two versions of the app in one. It's all a bit clumsy and doesn't fit with the way we
It comes back to the issue of gatekeepers. If developers want the wide distribution that app stores allow,
they'll need to adapt their business plans to fit the app stores' rules. Edwards describes the app-store model as
"brilliant," and expects future Mac products to be exclusive to Apple's App Store, where appropriate.
Not Another Stand-Alone Revolution
At its debut, the iPhone App Store rocked the tech industry because it made mobile software easier to acquire
and more fun to use. It also took advantage of smartphone hardware--accelerometers, graphics processors, and
cameras--in ways that Web apps could not. And because the App Store was the only way to download new iPhone
software, it had an easier time becoming a phenomenon.
Desktop app stores won't have the same meteoric impact on how we consume software. The Mac App Store has been
popular, but it hasn't fundamentally changed computing on its own, because many of its benefits--such as digital
distribution and full access to device hardware--were already available elsewhere. Desktop app stores will merely
add convenience in the form of centralized billing and distribution.
The next sea change in how we use software will come from online services, which will act as the glue that holds
all of these new apps and platforms together. As Kevin Foreman of Inrix says, "In 2012, it's just me and my
services. If you think about Netflix and Pandora, or even electricity, I don't really care where electricity comes
from, I just want to plug my stuff in the wall and have it work."