It’s been less than a year since Apple launched the iPhone App Store, but now virtually every mobile OS is showcasing its own take on the mobile application storefront. How do they all stack up?
The first thing you’ll notice about these efforts – coming from such traditionally competitive companies as Palm, BlackBerry, Nokia and Microsoft – is just how similar they all sound. App World? App Catalog? App Market? Mobile Marketplace? This outward likeness actually runs pretty deep – these stores are advertising uncannily similar feature sets, for both users and developers:
And, of course, there’s the iPhone: This store may only serve one handset (and its very similar non-phone brother), but it’s a wildly popular one. This makes the app store uniquely attractive to developers, because it provides access to the largest uniform app-buying market in the world. Microsoft can argue that Windows Mobile 6.5 will connect developers to X gajillion different customers through Y zillion different handsets, but this variety is a curse: Handsets have different resolutions, processors, 3D hardware, input types and basic feature sets. A motion-sensing 3D game with a GPS social networking feature won’t work on a lot of WinMo handsets, but a 2D, keypad-controlled Asteroids clone won’t make a developer rich.
But the App Store is far from perfect. Apple, like all App Store owners, has the final say in what gets listed, delisted or banned, and they aren’t afraid to remind us of this. Along with the typical risqué/racist/infringing content prohibitions, Apple enforces strict and often limiting rules against apps that compete with the iPhone’s native set – iTunes, Mail.app, Safari, to name a few – and apps that their partnered carriers aren’t too fond of, that is, video streaming and tethering apps. Now, all these rules are showing signs of loosening with OS 3.0, but as long as the App Store is the sole source of iPhone apps, any rules will seem like too many rules – especially if you’re accustomed to a totally unregulated system like Windows Mobile 6.1’s. Hence, the grey market.
at least for now
But the App Market is a different breed than the App Store. Most importantly, it’s not the only place you can get apps. Google has been much more lenient about what they allow in their store since the beginning, but in the rare case that they don’t approve of an app, as in the case of tethering apps earlier this month, you can just go download an .APK file and sideload it onto your G1 anyway. This is a healthy middle ground for everyone involved; Google doesn’t alienate users by destroying entire categories of apps, but isn’t forced to come into conflict with carriers because of overly liberal policies. Google has also made their Market more friendly to consumers, with a no-questions 24-hour return policy.
Great! Then why is the App Market so underwhelming? Well, the G1 wasn’t exactly a runaway hit, and the store got off to a slow start. Paid apps weren’t made available for months after launch, and when they arrived they didn’t benefit from the convenience and familiarity of a storefront like iTunes. Moreover, there’s no guarantee that things will change that much in the coming months – more handsets from more manufacturers will boost Android’s user numbers, but will lead to the WinMo-style toxic fragmentation that Apple so adamantly avoids.
took a dive
This was a given, as developers have been cranking out BlackBerry apps for years now. But App World was a great opportunity for RIM to give the lethargic dev community a shot in the arm. Instead of doing that, they’ve made the store almost hostile to would-be app writers.
Listing your wares in App World costs a hefty $US200, which gives you the right to upload 10 apps, but doesn’t come with any new SDKs or development tools. The payment system is PayPal, which is clumsy to use and a pain to set up. A minimum non-free price tier of $US2.99, probably intended to filter out spammy apps and cover PayPal’s transaction fees, discourages developers from even trying to make simple, useful apps, eliminating the $US0.99-$US1.99 sweet spot that has been central to Apple’s success. App World feels like an afterthought and a reluctant one. UPDATE: It should be noted that the 70 per cent dev revenue share figure in the chart is incorrect and has been update to 80 per cent – a marked advantage over the other stores.
On the developer side, it’s a mixed bag. As in every other store (excluding Windows Mobile), the dev take-home is 70 per cent of each sale, but the listing fees aren’t great. $US99 gets you five apps a year, but anything beyond that will cost an additional $US99. I’m sure this will help vaccinate the Marketplace against the fart app epidemic that Apple has proven so prone to, but it’ll do so at the expense of potentially useful free and $US0.99 apps – again, a crucial price range. One important factor that’s still TBD is the payment system. Microsoft says they’ll support both credit card payments and carrier charges but hasn’t yet said how that’ll look. In both cases the process will need to be as seamless as possible.
There has been a decided lack of fanfare surrounding this launch, probably because there just aren’t that many Nokia smartphones in the US. But its success or failure will be informative: It will be the most open of all the app stores. For the time being, there is no developer fee, and app listings are free and unlimited. You can easily publish tons of different kinds of content – Flash Lite apps, Java apps, Native S60 apps, multimedia uploads and others – which will be subject to a vetting process that Nokia has assured will be minimal. As Nokia-averse Americans, we can view the Ovi Store as an experiment in laissez-faire app-mongering – a multi-handset, mixed-media, unfiltered feed of Symbian content.
Palm’s still-vague plan for the App Catalog will no doubt be central to the success or failure of the Pre, but we can make an educated guess at what to expect, assuming that Palm doesn’t get taken over by idiots in the next couple months: Palm will vet the apps thoroughly, provide an in-house payment system and make development simple and cheap (previewed Mojo SDK apps have shown great promise). The end result will probably look something like the iPhone App Store, but with one huge difference: There will be no local natively running apps – the Mojo SDK doesn’t provide for that, just for what amount to turbocharged, locally stored web apps. Granted, these web apps will have privileged access to some of WebOS’s core functions, but it’s doubtful that high-end gaming, as we’ve seen on the iPhone, will even be possible on the platform. These limitations (along with WebOS’s multitasking advantages) will affect the nature and quality of the apps that are listed in the store much more than the Catalog’s policies, though exactly how, we’ll have to wait and see.