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App Store Politics: Dictatorship Versus Democracy

Two big announcements this week will change the way you get software on your desktop and in your web browser. Apple announced their upcoming App Store for the Mac, and Mozilla (developers of the Firefox browser) revealed its technical plans for implementing a webapp store. Both will offer an easier way to get quality apps, but they're going about it in very different ways: one as a dictatorship and the other, a democracy.

Why All the Politics?

You can already download software from sites across the web after entering the numbers on your credit card, and those are stores which sell software applications. But the "app store" we're talking about here is a relatively new marketing term for an old concept. An app store is a central place for users to find, purchase, install and update software applications from a variety of vendors. An app store gives users a guide to the "best" apps available, saving them the work of doing the research themselves. Users enter payment information into an app store once and can purchase software with a single click or tap from then on. The purchase and install process is quick, painless, and always the same. App stores give developers a way to reach a large customer base easily. In return, app store owners get a cut of all sales (in Apple's case, 30%).

App stores break down the barriers between getting software to customers and payments to developers. This is a Good Thing. If you're an innovative software developer with a great product, you can make bank thanks to a popular app store—provided that store will list your app, that is. Therein lies the rub. There are two divergent models for running app stores now: with a gatekeeper who has final say on what appears in that store, or with open shelves that the community and store owners curate through reviews and ranking.

App Store Democracy: The Mozilla Model

This week Mozilla Labs published this video, which details its new experiment for making the browser an app store in and of itself for web applications. As a developer, to make your webapp available to the store, you add a snippet of code to your site (no approval process required). As a user, you go to an app store run by someone you trust, and get that same unified purchase and install experience regardless of provider. Here's the demo.

This functionality will make it easy for anyone to become an app store maker, and one of its core goals is open distribution of apps. Any developer can get an app listed in any number of stores, and the app store will provide tools like reviews and rankings to help the community and editors curate that store.

Mozilla's plans create an experience very similar to Google's upcoming Chrome Web Store, but they're even more "open" platform-wise: while Chrome's webapp store installation process will only work fully in Chrome, Mozilla's technology will work in any modern browser. 

App Store Dictatorship: The Apple Approach

Contrast Mozilla's distributed open webapp ecosystem with the Mac App Store's top-down model. Just as it is on the iPhone and iPad, the App Store for Mac will be fully controlled and curated by Apple itself, whose infamous app approval process is a double-edged sword. Ask some people and they'll tell you it keeps the store's listing high quality. Ask others, and you'll hear that it blocks good apps for suspicious reasons. (The incredible Google Voice app still isn't available on the iPhone.) The Mac App Store's developer guidelines are similar to the iPhone/iPad App Store's, rife with potential gotchas that could keep good apps out. Do you trust Apple to make the best recommendations? No doubt most users will. Developers, however, are understandably wary.

Unlike on the iPhone and iPad, the Mac App Store won't be the only way to get new apps on your desktop. You'll still be able to purchase and download apps directly from great developers like Bare Bones, Panic, Cultured Code and Atebits. Still, Mac app developers across the web will anxiously await approval from the Apple gods to get placement in the default Mac App Store (even if scrappy developers do cook up an alternative). Prepare yourself for more outraged "Apple rejected my app for no good reason" stories.

Comparing the Mac App Store to Mozilla's Open Web Applications demo is admittedly apples-to-oranges. Mozilla's technology is a toolset for anyone to create an app store, and Apple's Mac App Store is an app store.

But the rules of each set of roads are clear, and they affect users and developers alike. In the end, the success of these new distribution channels will be measured in dollars and cents, but the cultural differences are way more interesting.

Gina Trapani looks forward to patronizing app stores that feature both open distribution and great curation. Follow @ginatrapani on Twitter.

Related: The Great App Bubble

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