It's been less than a year since Apple launched the iPhone App Store, but now virtually every mobile OS is showcasing its own take on the mobile application storefront. How do they all stack up?
The first thing you'll notice about these efforts—coming from such traditionally competitive companies as Palm, BlackBerry, Nokia and Microsoft—is just how similar they all sound. App World? App Catalog? App Market? Mobile Marketplace? This outward likeness actually runs pretty deep—these stores are advertising uncannily similar feature sets, for both users and developers:
Although it might not evident in the feature-by-feature breakdown above, there are two distinct kinds of app store: The primary store, which is the first and only source of an OS's apps (see Apple), and the secondary store, which is built around an existing stock of third-party apps, and with preexisting developers in mind (see BlackBerry, Microsoft, and Nokia). It's a combination of these different lineages and divergent policy choices that make the smartphone app store experience so varied.
Apple's iPhone App Store
At least for now, the App Store is the standard by which all others are judged. Beyond that, it's given us a rough guide for what works. With a $99 dollar developer's fee and a novice-friendly SDK, the barriers of entry for an iPhone developer are fairly low. Distribution, payments and to a large extent marketing are managed by iTunes, which iPhone owners are necessarily familiar and comfortable with.
And, of course, there's the iPhone: This store may only serve one handset (and its very similar nonphone brother), but it's a wildly popular one. This makes the app store uniquely attractive to developers, because it provides access to the largest uniform app-buying market in the world. Microsoft can argue that Windows Mobile 6.5 will connect developers to x gajillion different customers through y zillion different handsets, but this variety is a curse: Handsets have different resolutions, processors, 3D hardware, input types and basic feature sets. A motion-sensing 3D game with a GPS social networking feature won't work on a lot of WinMo handsets, but a 2D, keypad-controlled Asteroids clone won't make a developer rich.
But the App Store is far from perfect. Apple, like all App Store owners, has the final say in what gets listed, delisted or banned, and they aren't afraid to remind us of this. Along with the typical risque/racist/infringing content prohibitions, Apple enforces strict and often limiting rules against apps that compete with the iPhone's native set—iTunes, Mail.app, Safari to name a few—and apps that their partnered carriers aren't too fond of, i.e video streaming and tethering apps. Now, all these rules are showing signs of loosening with OS 3.0, but as long as the App Store is the sole source of iPhone apps, any rules will seem like too many rules—especially if you're accustomed to a totally unregulated system like Windows Mobile 6.1's. Hence, the gray market.