App Stores…are they the make or break thing they seem to be? How good is the Apple App Store anyway?

One of the perceived benefits from the iPhone/iPod Touch is the App Store.  So much so, that other companies have scrambled to open up their own app stores.  The LACK of an app store, or, more specifically, third party apps, is also a perceived barrier to entry for many devices such as the Pal Pre, the Zune HD, phones from LG and Samsung and other similar devices.  Being to purchase, download and install said applications on said devices is seen as a must.  While the ability to do the entire transaction on the device is a huge benefit, I don’t see it as 100% necessary.  In fact, why such an ecosystem THAT important?

There are many reasons why you’d want such an ecosystem.  To extend the functionality of the device, perhaps, is probably the most important aspect of the ecosystem.  For example, the GPS ability of the iPhone and Palm Pre  (most modern phones, in fact) is kind of pointless with out software that can actually use the data.  Be it a Google Maps app or something like an app that can tell you what restaurants are close to you, for example.  What good is that always on Internet ability if there’s no other use for it other than a browser? 

Getting third party developers involved and having them pump out applications, easily enough, is one of the reasons that Windows is so ubiquitous today.  Apple knew that, at some point, it would have to open up the iPhone to third party development.  When it released, all that was available were web apps.  Now, I mean no disrespect to the developers of those apps, but the very notion of a web app is that it will be limited.  You can only use them while connected.  Fortunately for the iPhone, this limitation only lasted a year.  Apple finally released its SDK for the device and then opened the App Store.  Once it got its flawed approval process going, the flood gates, so to speak, were open.  As of now, there are supposedly over 75 thousand applications in the App Store.  Quantity, however, speaks nothing of quality and data seems to indicate that while there are those 75 thousand apps in the App Store, most are of dubious quality and rarely get used more than a few times once purchased.  And therein lies the flaw of the App Store.

Having that many applications in one place, while convenient, is not necessarily a good thing.  And the fact that you can ONLY get apps onto the device, legitimately, is through the Apple designed mechanism (iTunes + App Store) is not only limiting, but anti competitive as well.  But, Apple is not alone here.  Verizon has its own app store and they are configuring their phones to ONLY allow applications from that store.  Other companies are following suit, though some are less restrictive than the others.

A knock against the Palm Pre when it released was its lack of applications.  Indeed, the pickings were paltry and it took several months to hit fifty applications in the App Catalog.  However, the Pre is built on an open platform:  Linux.  webOS is really just a set of API’s and not really an ‘operating system’ in the strictest sense.  As such, people found out how, early on, to ‘side load’ applications.  Palm has done nothing to prevent this and, in fact, has unofficially embraced it.  Many of the applications that are now showing up in the App Catalog were developed and ‘beta’ tested by enthusiasts of the device.  Once the App Catalog begins its ‘paid’ operation, that is, when you have to actually start paying for apps, we’ll see just how generous Palm will be.

Most of the app stores seem to follow the Apple model:   apps can be any price, including free, and the there is a 70/30 split.  Some companies, like Microsoft, want to discourage the 99 cent application, telling developers that their work is worth more than that.  It is a way to say “we don’t want the same junk that Apple has”.  In other words, they don’t want a ton of flashlight, fart, roll the die or other such ‘apps’ to muddy up the app store experience.

Once again, we are back to the quantity of apps.  There are so many in the Apple App Store that it is difficult to find those that you want.  It became such a problem (and, I suppose, a good one to have) that Apple came out with the App Genius.  Like the music counterpart, the genius will analyze the apps you purchase and provide recommendations.  Somehow, I don’t see this as being all that successful.  We’ll see.

Microsoft recently introduced its Zune HD device.  It has the ability to run applications.  Microsoft did add an app store, of sorts, to the Zune Marketplace.  However, they are not opening it up to third parties.  They want to keep that for the Windows Mobile platform.  So, out of the gate, they are crippling what is an excellent platform.  Zune HD is leaps and bounds better than the previous gen hardware.  But, by closing the app store to third parties, they seem to be hindering the acceptance of the device.  Or are they?  While being able to check my Twitter feed or do a quick check of the weather would be really handy if I only have the Zune HD on me, it isn’t necessary.   I will have my Pre with me, so I could use that.  Moreover, the HD has a web browser, so I could use that if I have a connection.  But, all I really want the Zune HD for is the media player.  So, for me, lack of applications is not a big deal.  To others, it could be.  And I do think that Microsoft should open the platform up (it sort of is, you can use Visual Studio and the XNA SDK to create software for the HD as well as the older gen devices) to third parties AND encourage them to develop for the platform. Ultimately, I don’t think lack of apps will hurt the Zune HD, it certainly won’t do much to help it either.

While the Apple App Store has been a game changer, I think it was unintended.  I think if Apple could put the genie back in the bottle, they would.  They were taking a beating for not opening it up in the first place.  They HAD to do it.  That it was so successful, I believe, was a huge shock for the company.  I think if Steve Jobs could easily turn it off, he would do so.  Apple has, for all intents and purposes, lost control of the platform.  They just don’t know it yet.  They lost control when they started rejecting apps for, seemingly, no good reason.  And to reject an app because it might compete with something they did is absurd.  That one can ‘jailbreak’ the phone to get something ‘unofficial’ on the device says that Apple has failed to maintain its notorious control over the device.  They have real problems with the whole App Store ecosystem, but I think they will be OK.  These others companies, like Palm, like Microsoft, need to study, carefully, the failures of the Apple App Store and NOT repeat them.

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