Why iPad apps can't replace your desktop software -- yet

It's as facile to say iPads can replace PCs as it is to say they can't -- the story of mobile apps isn't black-and-white

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So far, the app store model doesn't really support the notions of regular paid upgrades or subscription pricing. Yes, some apps have reached end of life and replaced with new versions that essentially force an upgrade, but it's a rare occurrence.

The subscription pricing model has run into a battle over whether the app store should get a cut for each year, as Apple demands for subscriptions sold via the iTunes App Store or just for the initial sale. Software publishers have long forked over as much as 50 percent of the sales price to stores to sell shrink-wrapped software, so paying Apple or Google 30 percent wasn't that hard to accept -- but publishers kept most of the revenues from subscription sales, paying a much smaller fraction to companies such as Digital River that managed the download validation and distribution. Apple's 30 percent take for each renewal has been hard to swallow.

Until the fight over who earns what works itself out, there's even less reason for major software publishers to release their apps for the iPad or Android. So it will be small companies like Good.iWare, companies with a niche market like Omni Group, companies with a different agenda like Apple, and -- most important -- companies that don't sell software but a service accessed through a client app that we'll find in our favorite device's app store.

The post-PC app model is a work in progress
The client app model also best fits the emerging post-PC world where people work from multiple devices and locations, so they're more interested in being able to do their work than to manage a collection of apps. In other words, they'll gravitate to services they can access from their PCs, Macs, iPads, iPhones, Androids, BlackBerrys, Kindle Fires, or whatever, whether via a browser or a client app.

That's the model behind Google Apps/Google Drive, Dropbox, Salesforce.com, SAP, and so on. Even Microsoft's Office 365 is a step in that direction, though today it requires downloading a big fat app to a Windows PC or Mac and using a limited Web version on anything else. The limitation of Web apps means we'll probably see client apps as the main conduit, rather than browser-based HTML tools.

The limits of HTML5 apps is why Google had to buy Quickoffice for use as the front end to its Google Apps on mobile devices -- the mobile Web version of Google Apps is poor, versus the barely adequate experience on a desktop browser. But the latest version of Office 365 for the iPad shows progress is possible. Google continues to work on its mobile Google Drive editing client as well; over time, HTML5 may become a decent base for creation apps.

Whether through client apps or browser access, we can expect to see more apps delivered as subscription or ad-supported "free" services with access from whatever device you happen to have -- that is, once software publishers can charge at least as much for this pan-device access as they have for desktop applications. That could take years, given how we've been trained by the Apple and Google app stores to think of apps as costing just a few dollars. It depends on how quickly people transition to non-PC devices as their mainstay products.

In the meantime, we'll have a few mainstay apps like iWork and Quickoffice that, along with the mobile devices' email and Web apps, will let most users do the bulk of their desktop work on their tablets. We'll have lots of utilities that fill in some of the gaps, such as the half-dozen unofficial SharePoint clients, dozens of PDF editing tools, and limited-access client tools such as PageTools' iDML to view and do basic editing of InDesign documents and FTP on the Go Pro to do basic HTML editing. And we'll have lots of front-end clients to services like Dropbox, Salesforce.com, and Google Apps -- many of them are available today, and we're seeing this client approach transform the health care industry by enabling a fast shift to iPads as the main PC for patient treatment.

Mobile apps aren't equal to desktop apps, for the most part. But many are more capable than you may realize, even if there is plenty of room for growth once the economics are figured out.

This article, "Why iPad apps can't replace your desktop software -- yet," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. Follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter at MobileGalen. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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