Apple's App Store for its iPhone and other iOS devices is an unqualified success, blowing through the 10 billion downloads mark in January. Seeing the store grow from 500 apps to more than 400,000 in just three years, Apple decided to take the app store concept to the Mac this year, with its App Store feature in Mac OS X 10.6.6. That new sales venue is off to a fast start, with 1 million downloads in the first day. Although Apple has not released sales numbers for the Mac App Store, CEO Steve Jobs noted in his iPad 2 announcement that Apple has paid a total of $2 billion to developers across both stores. Apple's 30 percent share of that bounty amounts to a tidy $850 million.
That net income potential hasn't been lost on Apple's competitors. In the years since Apple's 2008 iPhone App Store launch, other mobile OS makers -- Google, HP, Microsoft, and Nokia -- have launched their own stores. All are reportedly profitable for their operators.
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Thus, they're likely to gain even more prominence. Users, IT, and developers will have to adjust to their increasing role as a distribution mechanism for software. For developers in particular, that could mean significant changes to how they run their software businesses.
Apple rules the app store -- but didn't invent it
It's easy to forget that Apple didn't originate the app store concept, even on the iPhone. Although Apple today is the major app store purveyor of desktop apps, the concept is floating among other desktop operating systems. Canonical's Ubuntu Linux, for example, offers access to various apps directly from its menu bar, so users don't have to search randomly for software. Google does the same with its Chrome Store for Web apps.
Additionally, Microsoft has been long rumored to be planning an app store for its Windows 8 release. Microsoft last month did launch a special-purpose app store for Office 365, although the venue is limited to 100 Office 365-specific applications and services. Like Apple, Microsoft has a huge captive customer base, with its Windows Live ID well positioned to be a single sign-on point for Microsoft app buyers à la Apple's iTunes Store. Should Microsoft take this step, the question becomes whether it avoids the issues of Apple's Mac App Store and instead leapfrogs Apple -- or whether Microsoft ends up trailing far behind Apple, as it has with its Windows 7 App Store.
App-store-like centralized software repositories have existed for nearly a decade. In 2002, Linspire's Michael Robertson created the Click-n-Run software repository GUI, and since then Linux has sported such utilities such as Red Hat Package Manager (RPM) and Advanced Package Tool (APT), mainstays for network-based OS and application installation. Later, stores such as Handango sprung up to sell downloadable apps for the once rapidly growing pocket PC market.