App Stores Fulfill the Promise Directories Once Made

Yes, I’m the last person to tell you that the phrase of 2010 was “App Store”. Whether it’s Apple’s shops for iThingies and Macs, the Android Marketplace and its off-brand cousins, or even the quaint little App Catalog on my Pre, everyone is offering a single-stop shopping experience.

The most significant one, from a direction-of-the-market perspective, may be the Google Chrome Web Store. While nominally presented as a means to obtain addons and compatible sites for a specific browser, it strongly represents turning the open Web into the same app-store format. Although everyone sees it as the trend of 2010 and 2011, it’s really a trend of 1996.

Think how an app store operates. The install button is always in the same spot. You can sort by a number of pre-measured details (popularity, price, reviews). Someone put all 34,000 apps into neat structured categories. Where have we seen this before? A classic, Yahoo!-style directory. Just like in 1996, before we all moved into the search engines. Google has basically prepared a very convoluted directory.

Does this mean the app store concept will die, just as all-purpose directories withered after 2000? No. It’s more of a market returning to the base it sought, but could not be satisified technically at the time.

Initially, scale killed the directory. Nobody could review two million new pages a day, but a fast robot could happily crawl them all. As the web grew, the quantity of the index presented appeal- remember when AltaVista and Google would say ‘searching 950,000,000 pages?’. When these directories-err-stores stick to a single niche– apps for one environment– they avoid a scaling problem. It’s feasible to list every iPhone app, or every site providing a custom Chrome extension.

Second is the desire for curation. While less important for, say, news, and unimportant for entertainment, curation really sells in the niche of software. People have been burned badly online, from popups with obnoxious sounds up to bank-account hijacking software installed. A central “app store” represents a single point to trust that the links are legitimate, and potentially, a single point for liability. A directory with human management can absorb a lot more blame than Google’s traditional mea-no-culpa of “It’s a machine algorithm we can’t manually override.” I suspect the demand for curated software has also grown due to new user expectations. The Internet and computing has evolved from toy to utility, so proven reliability in your products– as shown on a directory/app store’s selections and ratings– is a major selling point.

Finally, they’ve provided a sophisticated payment system out of the box. I can still remember shareware with “to buy full version, mail a cheque to…”. Who’s going to do that in 2011? A one-man development shop can’t afford the costs of credit card processing, refunds, and accounting overhead, so it’s worth letting Apple or Google or another directory operator grab a cut. In fact, there may also be economy-of-scale benefits– where it’s cheaper to pay Apple 30 percent than to lose 55 cents of a $1 sale to credit-card fees. Sometimes, they also prevent some refund hassle– aside from providing a legally strong set of terms-and-conditions (can that single developer write them himself?), the technical design of the stores helps to avoid incompatibility issues. What do you mean I can’t buy the iPod Angry Birds game and download it to my G1?

The app-store/directory model does retain the same cracks it had in 1996. As the iPhone jailbreak crowd demonstrates, people get restless if there’s good stuff they know exists outside the directory’s listings. And you can really only keep it functional in a market which runs slowly enough to permit manual approval and scrutiny. Developers and customers give up after seeing a “to arrive on App Store in 2014” message. However, the format itself may now be able to successfully corner specific niche markets, particularly in the software sector. Just don’t expect to get rich running the “Web App Store for Discussion Sites”, where the features an app-store directory brings to the table don’t sell.