It's easy to think of things evolving in a simple step-by-step approach, where A leads to B to C to D, and so on and on. It's a pity that it's a fallacy. Everything is so much more complex, and any student of evolution will read off any number of approaches to the stops, starts, dead-ends, and the sudden jumps forward that characterize the history of life on Earth. What goes around in the world, comes around in software. We think of the evolution of software and tools in similar ways, each strep leading inexorably to the next. Only, of course it doesn't. Take the app store, for example.
App stores are nothing new. Roll back down the line a decade or so, and the vast libraries of shareware and the early web sites set up to share programs (and collect fees) are the direct predecessors of Apple's attempt to change the economics of the software world. Web sites that sell software are nothing new – and neither are the tools and technologies needed to build them. Ecommerce tools are two-a-penny, as are online catalogues, DRM wrappers, and All you really need to make a lot of money running a store is to tie it in to a platform and take a cut of every transaction passing through the store. Apple's not alone in this. Google does it for Chrome and for Android, Amazon sells Android apps, and Microsoft has a growing store for Windows Phone that looks set to be the route market for Metro-style applications in Windows 8.
The trouble with the current proliferation of app stores is that they're all much the same. Change the name, and you get the same pricing policies and the same DRM-powered approach to application distribution. It's also just one app store for each platform – a dangerous approach that makes it harder for third parties to become players in their own right, especially when the markets they're playing in are controlled by the platform owners. It's not just a rigged game, it's the only game in town.
So how can things change and the state of the art move on from a set of monopolistic monocultures?
We spent a chunk of last week at Intel's AppUp Elements event in Seattle. AppUp is the app store you've never heard of – originally targeted at netbook-class devices, Intel now sees it as a generic app store for all x86 hardware, from Atom to Core, and from Linux to Windows and beyond. Built using HTML5 the AppUp store can be white-labled and distributed with new PCs or downloaded from the web.
But it's the app store you've never heard of, and it's been hard for Intel to get traction when AppUp isn't bundled with PCs or tied to just one platform or one programming model. As Intel noted last week both download and subscriber numbers have been lower than expected, and while the company is making promises of a massive increase in users next year (on the back of Ultrabooks), it needs to step out of the standard model of app stores if AppUp is really going to make a difference.
If app stores are Las Vegas, full of massive monoliths that dominate a surrounding desert, then AppUp needs to be the smaller, local lottery, sold everywhere and anywhere. Intel's Peter Biddle, AppUp GM, has an idea of how to do this – describing it as "turning the app store inside out". Instead of stores being single apps, why not make every app a store? It'll give apps an additional revenue stream and mean that that it's easier to publicise applications and to take advantage of viral marketing.
What Biddle is suggesting goes something like this: download the latest Angry Birds for your PC, and from inside the app you'll be able to use a menu item (so it remains opt in) to see recommended new applications – using a mix of manual and automatic curation to control what you see. You can then download (and purchase) your new application without having to go to an app store or even leave the app you're using. Updates to your library of apps can be run any time you start just one, as well as offering developers a route for their own in-app purchases.
What's even more attractive about Biddle's idea is that it won't mean writing more code. It'll all just come for free with the AppUp libraries, so you'll just drop some pro forma code in, add your choice of properties (for example the types and ratings of apps you want to sell from Intel's catalogues). It shouldn't mean work for the developer or complexity for the end user – a combination that should at least avoid the idea disappearing behind yet another monstrous app store somewhere.
Intel is the underdog here, a position the silicon giant hasn't been in for a long time. But the AppUp organization is small and nimble, and has chosen to become a service broker for more than just stores and location. You'll be able to pick and choose the parts of the service you want to use, and the features you want to expose in your applications – a very different way of working from the other stores.
Perhaps this is the real future of the app store, a mammal among the dinosaurs. It'll certainly be interesting to see just what happens to AppUp over the next couple of years.