Every so often, some brave soul will opine something along the lines of: app stores are finished; app stores are on the way out; there’s no future in app stores; app stores are sooo last season, daarlink. One such was Vic Gundotra, Google’s Engineering Vice President. At the MobileBeat conference in San Francisco in July 2009, Gundotra opined that app stores – which were then starting to garner serious interest across the mobile industry in the wake of Apple’s App Store clocking up around 1.5 billion downloads in its first year of operations – were a “fad” and that the focus would shift to browsers
: “Many, many applications can be delivered through the browser and what that does for our costs is stunning…We believe the web has won and over the next several years, the browser, for economic reasons almost, will become the platform that matters and certainly that’s where Google is investing.” Well, then. I’m not sure how long (or short) a length of time has to be in order for it to fall into the classification of “fad” – particularly in an environment as naturally frenetic as mobile - but it’s been going on now for close on three years and, boy, have we moved on from those days of 1.5 billion downloads: at the last count (late-January) the App Store had just moved serenely passed the 10 billion download mark with power to add; and on an oh-by-the-way basis, some of the other app stores have enjoyed the fad as well, notably GetJar, Nokia and… the Android Market, all of which have long since passed the 1 billion cumulative download mark. It is also a fad that has resulted in just about every operator on the planet re-evaluating the way in which they sell content; it is a fad that has eroded the pre-eminence of the operator within the mobile ecosystem; it is, in short, a fad that has changed the mobile industry irrevocably, and largely for the better. It may be slightly cruel of me to single out Mr Gundotra’s comments: he was far from alone in his identification of the app store model as being a passing phase; indeed, many individuals have, since that time, espoused the view in public. Furthermore, the fact that there are now umpteen thousand storefronts on the planet in no way invalidated the second part of his argument, which was that the browser would become a critical means of app delivery; that is certainly the case, and browser-based applications will certainly gain addition market share as time progresses. But what is clear is that the app store model, far from being cast aside by the arbiters of fashion in the manner of winklepickers, flared jeans and prog rock, is resolutely staying the course: witness the imminent entry into the arena of Amazon, a company rarely noted for backing losers. Partly, I suppose, it is a marketplace which has gained additional momentum through the quite remarkable success of tablets (again, thanks primarily to Apple), not to mention the Mac App Store (thanks to – you guessed it) which is also doing rather well. It has to be said that a number of the implementations of the app store model leave a good deal to be desired, particularly on the MNO side where there are a good few examples of storefronts which are essentially existing portals with a fresh coat of virtual paint and precious few concessions either to the user experience on the one hand or the developer on the other. It is equally true that many network operators have been seduced by the app store model while blissfully ignoring the fact that while iPhone users buy the iPhone to go to Apple’s App Store, there is no such correlation amongst the millions of featurephone users who subscribe to their network (their smartphone users on the network will, of course, simply go to the App Store/Android Marketplace/Ovi Store/Amazon/Etc and probably not even visit the operator storefront). But, that said, the model has taken root at the heart of the mobile ecosystem: it is likely to be central to industry thinking for a fair while yet.