The future of Mobile App Stores

In a recent post I outlined what makes a mobile app store. However, as alluded to in the subsequent round-table, it is still early days for app stores.

‘What comes next’ presents some interesting challenges and opportunities for both developers and service providers

The Short Term

In the short term Apple’s dominance of the ‘app store’ market looks unassailable (although their trademark grasp of the term ‘app store’ may not be). The combination of an ecosystem no-one else can complete in and ‘first mover’ advantage will keep them well ahead.  The current growth trend looks set to continue -outstripping that of Apple’s other success the iTunes store – and some analysts are predicting in-app purchases will soon outstrip the income the firm receives from app sales in segments such as gaming. It won’t all be good news though, as the biggest target larger and more complex attempts to distribute malicious software or perform fraudulent transactions are inevitable and may damage user confidence.

Outside the Apple ecosystem there are a number of new players on the horizon, including Amazon which is set to launch an App Store for Android and will expand to other platforms (but unlikely Apple’s) later. Mobile web-browsing specialist Opera has also launched a store. However, with many of the new stores targeting Android – an already rapidly growing platform with Google’s Android Market – it seems likely they will be fighting each other rather than doing much to grow the platform overall.

Blackberry will need to grow their store to accommodate the newly release Playbook tablet. In addition to providing applications for the device’s new (to Blackberry) QNX-based operating system, it will also support specially-ported Android applications which will also be available through the Blackberry App World. Persuading application developers to build and launch their apps across all of the firm’s device range may be challenging.

Windows Marketplace and HP’s WebOS Catalog (now they have acquired Palm) are both unknown entities at present, being relatively young platforms. Microsoft is already moving to directly fund a number of big names in creating apps for their store (as many have before it and why big name launches are rarely genuine endorsements of a platform) and is clearly hoping Nokia’s well-established Ovi Store and operator relationships will help it grow as Nokia transitions its smartphones to the Windows Phone. It seems likely HP will also need to fund much more of the development of it’s own offering – especially as it too branches into tablets.

Long-term

Longer-term WAC (Wholesale Application Community) may be a significant app store player. A collective effort by 68 network operators and handset manufacturers, it is creating a platform allowing development of applications which will operate across multiple manufacturers’ devices, operating systems and networks. Apps will be sold through the participants’ own ‘WAC-enabled’ stores or from WAC’s own white-label offering (not yet available).  WAC argues this will be attractive to developers who will be able to simultaneously target a huge number of markets and stores. However this ‘run everywhere’ type of approach has been unsuccessful in the past – indeed WAC incorporates three previous efforts: the BONDI initiativeJIL (both user interface) and the GSMA’s OneAPI (access to the mobile network). Others are sceptical an organisation run as a committee can be agile enough to be competitive and if WAC aren’t up to the job several other groups have similar ideas.

Currently a hot-topic for discussion, but not widely in use beyond a few early adopters, enterprise app stores also look likely to become wide-spread. Typically utilising private ‘white labelled’ systems to distribute and control applications, many will initially see them as much as part of their mobile device management tool-set as a mechanism for distributing application initially although this balance will change (adding a 5th function to the 4 outlined in my original post: license management). Mobile applications will become as widespread as desktop and web currently are; Jim Snabe, Co-CEO of SAP, predicts that within 4 years 80% of business applications will be used on mobile platforms.

Challenges

With growth will come challenges – the most disruptive of which is likely to be the ‘service model’ many vendors (in both the enterprise and consumer markets) are adopting. In this case apps are distributed for free but the content or service they access is billed outside of the app store (often tied-up with other non-mobile products). The first sign of this was Apple’s move to demand that, in order to be distributed from their app store, revenue from any content sales pass 30% (the cut Apple takes if using their own in-app purchasing) to them even if billed externally. To-date this rule hasn’t been applied uniformly or consistently with service subscriptions mostly ignored – it seems unlikely this will continue for long and will not be limited to Apple as other store operators see their revenues threatened.

For enterprises another emerging trend promises to challenge the way mobile services are established within businesses… BYOD (Bring Your Own Device). Firms adopting a BYOD approach allow (even encourage) employees to use their own mobile devices for personal and business use, enabling savings (subsidising an employee’s phone is cheaper) for firms and allowing ‘digital native‘ employees to select the devices they find most effective. The challenge with this approach is that corporate and personal apps need to be separated and (in some cases) data prevented from being transferred between them. It also requires enterprise management tools and apps to support all the major platforms on the market.

Choices

For the moment developers have two choices – publish everywhere (with the time and cost overheads associated) or cherry-pick the most popular stores and risk exposure to the moving target that are the big player’s business models and acceptance criteria.

For enterprises the question is how to address the culture change accompanying private app stores. To-date hardware and software have typically been centrally selected and deployed. The enterprise mobile world is fast moving to a self-service model for both as security and support struggles to keep up.

Image credit: Cristiano Betta / Flickr.

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About Ben Smith

Ben has ten years experience in management consulting, building and managing IT Services for government organisations. He specialises in open data and mobile technology, which he has presents and writes about regularly and is interested in processes and approaches to fostering innovative environments. Follow Ben on Twitter.
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