Archive for February, 2011

App stores have no place in a web-apps world

I have read with great interest the latest Matt Asay’s post, “Enough with the Apple App Store apathy”, that provides a clear overview of why App Stores should be at the center of open source advocates’ rage. Matt is right (and some developers already started addressing this, like some of VLC project developers) but I believe that the current monopoly of app stores is just a temporary step in the wait for real web apps. App stores, in fact, do just a few things well; others not as well, and they take a hefty percentage of all transactions just because they can.
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Let’s think about what an app store is about:

  • Discovery: one of the main advantages of a central point for searching applications is.. well… the fact that there is a single point for searching. Since developers, when submitting an app, need to perform a categorization or tagging it to make it searchable, an app store is actually quite helpful in finding something. Until there is too much of something. In fact, already in the iOS app store, and partially in the Android one, looking for something is increasingly a hit-and-miss affair, with lots and lots of similar (if not identical) applications trying desperately to emerge in the listing, or maybe to end up under the spotlight of some “best of” compilation. In fact, as Google would happily tell you, when you have too many things pure listings are not going to be useful; you need real search capabilities or some sort of manual suggestion (like social features, “I like it” or whatever). App stores are starting to get it, but they are insulated from the web – which means that they are unable to harness the vast, multifaceted amount of information created by tweeters, bloggers, journalists and pundits that watch and evaluate almost everything on the web. Discovery is now barely possible in a store with 100k apps; as things evolve, it will become even more difficult. In a world of web applications, well, this problem returns to a (very solvable) problem of finding something on the web. Ask Google, Bing, Baidu, Yandex, or more “intelligent” systems like Wolfram Alpha-they all seem to manage it quite well.
  • App updates: one very useful thing is the ability of an app store to send notifications of new apps, and help users in having all the update process done simply and in a single place. This is of course quite useful (just don’t claim that it is a novelty, or any YUM or APT user will jump straight at your neck), but again is totally irrelevant in a world of web apps – the app will just check for a new version, in case it uses persistent storage for caching JavaScript and includes, or simply go straight to the website of the application publisher. This also resolves the friction introduced by the app approval process in current App Stores: you submit it, and then pray :-) If an update is urgent (for example for a security fix) you just have to try as much as possible to speed it up – it is not up to the developer, anyway.
  • App backups: in a world of apps, app backups are a great idea. In a world of web apps, backups are simply bookmarks, with the cacheable parts re-downloadable in any moment. Since both Chrome and Firefox do have already their own way of syncing bookmarks, this is covered as well.
  • Payments: this is quite an important part – and something that current web apps provide in an immature way. The Google Chrome web store do something like this, but it works only on Chrome and works only with Google; there is a need for some more high-level payment scheme embedded within web apps.

As I commented to Matt in his article, I still believe that app stores are a useful, albeit temporary step towards a more open and transparent infrastructure, that we all know and love: the web. And we will not have to forfeit 30% of all revenues to be on it.

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