Musings on app stores, portals and search

By August 24, 2010Apple, Google, Mobile

Reading this Techcrunch piece on Chomp, a provider of search and discovery for iPhone apps, prompted me to explore a question that has been circling in my mind in a somewhat unstructured fashion for a couple of weeks now – namely what is the difference between an app store and a portal?

It seems to me that from a consumer perspective an App Store is really a portal dedicated to selling software written for a particular platform.  It provides search and discovery, payment services (app purchases and virtual goods), reviews and provides a stamp of approval guaranteeing certain minimum standards, for example no malware – lets call this last piece ‘validation’.

Search and discovery is typically done very badly.  This is the reason for Chomp’s existence and I’m sure many of you will have suffered as I have trying to search for apps.  The weekend before last I was looking for an app to play BBC Radio One on our iPad and couldn’t find anything in the app store (I bought two, but neither delivered), I also searched on Google, but to no avail.  When I tweeted my frustration I got two recommendations, one of which we’ve been using happily ever since (TuneIn Radio).  I’m sure this story is pretty typical, and there really ought to be a technology solution which saves us from having to resort to social media.

Of course, App stores (or at least the Apple App Store) perform one other function – they are the only way to legitimately load a new application onto your phone.  This is great for the phone manufacturer who can take 30% of all purchases, but it is hard to see how it helps anyone else. 

It is of course possible to separate search, discovery, reviews, and validation from the payment and download function.  This will become important once we have the same apps running on different platforms.  Users of any given platform will benefit from reviews and validation of apps that run on other platforms and will most likely want a view of what is most popular across all platforms, not just their own.  This implies they will most likely look to third party portals for search and discovery, rather than the one provided by the manufacturer of their phone.

If this scenario comes to pass (and I hope it does) Apple’s App Store will be reduced to providing payment and download services, and their 30% rake will look pretty steep, so they, along with other app store owners, will fight it.  Their control of downloads and payments are formidable weapons.

HTML 5, of course, offers the prospect of getting (web) apps on mobile devices outside of the app store process, which is why it is so important.  Or rather, might be so important, as I wrote in a comment on Fred Wilson’s blog last week my recent experience with Google’s HTML 5 Maps and Google apps on my iPhone leads to believe that there is a little way to go before the app paradigm faces a serious challenge.

I’m also starting to think that the longevity of the app paradigm versus open web standards will depend in large measure on who wins the hardware battle.  Open standards at the software level probably will probably only prevail if hardware manufacturers with a PC mindset prevail over those with a preference for closed ecosystems, if you get my drift.

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  • Interesting question and blog. I had written a blog early last year about the difference between portals and app-stores and possible M&A implications.

    http://bit.ly/dCqH0D

    A lot has changed since then but some of the key thoughts briefly were that there are two main channels of content delivery to the end user – the operator and the handset vendor (Android was too small at that point). The various other players in the eco-system are only easing the delivery of content from the content publisher to the end-user – content relevant to the user at the right time and the right place. For handset vendors, the selected path is the app store. For mobile operators, it has traditionally been the portal with the integrated search engine where they have some control over advertising.

    A fresh look at the subject is certainly warranted and this time I can post it at seedcatalyst again….

  • Nic, interesting thoughts. I would say that App Stores are organized like semi editorial catalogs coupled with a pre-google browsing experience which frustrates people and brings them to look for alternative discovery mechanisms.

    Search, if you think about it, is only one way of really finding what you need. Search becomes relevant, only when you know what you need. Which is far from being the case, specially on new platforms where you have no idea what is or is not available.

    Regarding your second point: discovery CAN and will be disconnected from the app stores. There are comparables in other verticals (movies: imdb/flixster), music (pandora, last.fm), books (goodread) which all have related leading stores (netflix for movies) (itunes for music) (amazon for books)

    Of course app stores can and will solve partly the discovery issue, but that won’t be enough for 2 reasons: users’ attention is split over an endless number of opportunity to discover, and app stores are rarely a good marketing channel for developers. You are either a store with some merchandising rules, or a guide with a unique agenda: provide all the keys to find what is right for you (and not necessarily for the store)

    btw I cofounded a discovery platform for iPhone called Appsfire.com where we pioneered that space. i invite you to take a look on how discovery can be solved. you’ll realize search is not necessarily the only right approach.

    thanks again for the thoughts

    Of course you

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