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Everyone Wants an Application Storefront March 15, 2010

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software development, Software platforms.
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It started with the Apple iTunes store, and was gradually expanded to iPhone applications with the iPhone App Store.  Then Research in Motion launched one for Blackberry applications.  Google has two, one for Google desktop applications and another for Android.  Nokia has an application store, as does Microsoft.  Like Google, Microsoft has a separate store for Windows Phone applications.  But I thought the last straw was the announcement last week of an Intel application store, for Atom-based platforms, mostly netbooks and phones.

What’s going on here?  It’s highly unusual to see a technology company selling software directly.  These companies have traditionally used either retail outlets for individual sales, or direct sales forces to enterprises and government agencies.

Well, first, it demonstrates that technology companies also fall victim to herd behavior.  If one is successful at a strategy, others will copy it.  Apple’s initial success has driven every other platform vendor to build its own storefront.

But the emergence of software stores from computing and phone platform vendors represents a larger trend in software distribution.  In effect, it is cutting out the middleman.  Thanks to the Web and the availability of high-speed Internet, Thomas Friedman is right – the world is flat.

But there are also competitive issues here that reflect back upon the underlying platform.  It used to be that applications availability drove the acceptance of the platform.  Recall Steve Ballmer’s screaming mantra at Microsoft sales gatherings.  Now the platform itself is driving acceptance, and applications are following.

The last reason is little-noticed, but it is possibly the most important from the standpoint of developers.  That is that improving development tools and frameworks have lowered the barrier to entry for building commercial applications.  According to Apple (via Wikipedia), there are currently more than 140,000 applications for the iPhone.

Application development is less complex for phones, and development tools feature comprehensive frameworks, wizards, and GUI builders.  And those tools are free or inexpensive.  The amount of actual code written is small, and you can get a lot of that through an Internet search.  If a moderately disciplined person has an idea for a phone application, he or she can probably build something that can be submitted to one of the stores with a few weeks of part-time effort.

When Microsoft released Visual Basic, circa 1990, it made programmers out of millions of people who would never otherwise have written a line of code.  The phone platforms are doing the same thing today.  It turns out there is no killer application for mobile; it’s the operating system and device that are making the difference.

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