Tucked in among the expected announcements from Apple today (new MacBook Air, sneak peek at the upcoming version of OS X) was a surprise revelation: The App Store has been working so well for mobile devices that Apple will soon launch a version of the store for its desktop and laptop computers.
On the surface of it, the idea of expanding the App Store to serve Mac and MacBook users seems both brilliant and obvious. The App Store makes it drop-dead easy to find and acquire apps. All the apps are gathered in a single place. Top 10 lists show you what’s hot. One-click functionality lets you buy and install, and bang, you’re done.
So why not port that idea back to the Mac and make the process of discovering, buying, and installing new software just as easy for desktops and laptops as it is for mobile devices? Or, as Apple CEO Steve Jobs said of the Mac store — which will go live sometime in the next 90 days — "the App Store has completely revolutionized how people get their apps on the iPhone and the iPad. Why not the Mac too?"
As compelling as the idea sounds, it might not be the no-brainer that Jobs is hoping for. Here are some issues that will need to be fleshed out.
Do developers who make apps for mobile devices have anything to offer desktops and laptops?
The App Store has been a blazing success because the people who develop apps for it have made apps that work great on mobile devices. But are those entrepreneurs going to be able to make apps that people want to use on their desktops and their laptops? The two are compeletely different computing environments. The things you like to do on a mobile device aren’t necessarily the things you like to do on a PC. So much functionality is available on a browser that there seems little point in replicating it. You won't need a Netflix or Hulu app in the Mac App Store, for instance.
Will the big software developers play ball?
Jobs announced that Apple will offer the same revenue split on the App Store for the Mac as it does for apps built for the iPhone and iPad: 70% for developers, 30% for Apple. So far that’s worked for mobile app developers, whether they be game-maker Zynga, DataViz (makers of Documents to Go), or some entrepreneur coding an app in her downtime.
But what about Intuit, makers of Quicken, TurboTax, and QuickBooks? Or FileMaker, makers of FileMaker Pro?Or, how about Autodesk, which just announced it’s going to start making AutoCad for the Mac? Are these companies going to want to sell their software through the App Store?
Even if large, established companies are keen, it will be a while before many are ready to begin selling their wares there. Setting up a new sales channel, especially in a large company, is not a simple thing. That's why Apple has announced the new store way ahead of its launch, and even further ahead of the launch of Lion in summer 2011.
Will users take to the new store?
Almost certainly. The majority of iMac and MacBook users are also users of at least one Apple mobile device. They’ve proven that they like the App Store just fine. The only question is how many of the apps in the store they’ll actually want to download to their desktop and laptop computers.
Will a new class of software emerge?
The introduction of the App Store produced the birth of a whole new industry: Tiny bits of software that had a fraction of the functionality of traditional boxed software and that was orders of magnitude easier to produce—many are coded and tested by only a handful of people—but that consumers snapped up in droves because they were perfectly suited to the mobile environment.
Given that the App Store has proven a fantastic channel for those new businesses to sell and distribute their software and given that the App Store will now offer a channel to desktop and laptop computers, is it possible that these small, scrappy entrepreneurs will generate a whole new class of software? Software that is similarly lightweight—fewer features, easy to code and test—but that is geared toward the kind of computing that takes place on the desktop and laptop?
Much of that kind of software already exists, of course. But it’s possible that the introduction of this new sales channel will fuel growth in that industry—and possibly start giving larger, more cumbersome boxed software a run for their money.
What does Apple get out of this?
That's an easy one. Apple has got little to lose. The App Store has been working well for the iPhone and iPad. Why not give it a shot on PCs? No matter how well—or poorly—it does, it's just more money in the bank for them.