Windows App Store: Microsoft's Savior and Steam's Biggest Rival

Over the last three years, we have experienced the appification of everything. It began with the launch of the iOS App Store in July 2008, and was perpetuated with the introduction of the Android Market later that year. Since then, there has been over 10 billion app downloads on iOS, and 4.5 billion on Android. The App Store and Android Market, with runaway hits like Angry Birds and Tap Tap Revenge, have created millionaire developers by the dozen.

It not just smartphone and tablet software that has undergone appification, though. Appification, fundamentally, is just a wrapper around the concept of digital distribution; beyond the packaging and window dressing, there's no fundamental difference between an app, an application, and a program. Apps, put simply, are appropriately-priced, easy-to-download digital morsels. Rather than having to head out into the scary, unkempt web and dig around for the right software, you just open up an app store and start downloading "approved" apps right away. If the first approach is akin to visiting small, specialized shops all around town, then app stores are the supermarkets of the digital world -- and boy do we love supermarkets.

It all started in 2003 with iTunes' one-click, legal music downloads -- and today, you can hardly move for excellent digital distribution platforms. Games, music, movies, TV shows, software, books -- if it has a digital version, you can now download it quickly, easily, and legally. The one obvious exception -- and it's a little bit shocking when you realize the size of the hole -- is Windows software. You can download Windows games, but finding, downloading, and installing Windows applications and utilities has always been a real pain in the ass. At the moment, the best way to find a Windows tool is to type a topic into Google, and hope that the top result isn't old, discontinued, or buggy -- but it usually is.

Thankfully, Windows 8, which will be released in 2012, will have an app store. Early reports suggest that it will work much like the Mac App Store -- but no one knows how the Windows App Store will be populated or moderated. Will developers have to submit their apps, or will the Store accept any Windows Installer (.MSI) file? There are millions of Windows applications in the wild, and it's hard to believe that they will all find a home in the Windows App Store.

But if they do -- if Microsoft manages to create the Windows equivalent of the Mac App Store -- then Microsoft will finally have a killer application. Apple has always won out in terms of ease-of-use and newbie friendliness, but if Microsoft has an app store, the tide could be turned. It's taken a long time, but Windows 7 is now on par with OS X in terms of user interface and experience. All Windows needs now is a strong dose of "it just works," and with a built-in app store and a slew of other cloud-oriented features, Windows 8 might actually be easier to use than OS X -- more worryingly, Windows 8 might actually be sleeker and sexier than OS X.

As far as app stores go, though, Microsoft still has another ace up its sleeve. Windows 8 will span desktops, laptops, netbooks, and tablets -- and if Microsoft gets it right, you'll have just one app store for every Windows form factor. You'll be able to install a word processor on your desktop, and it will automatically deploy itself to your tablet -- and your documents will be automatically synchronized, too. There's no reason it won't work across the x86/ARM divide, either -- Windows 8 ARM could use the same app store as its x86 cousins, and it's entirely possible that the same store could contain Windows Phone 7 (WP7) apps that will run on Windows 8 tablets. Let's not forget that Microsoft already has extensive experience with digital distribution through Xbox Live, too -- and yes, the Xbox Live Marketplace could also be integrated into the Windows App Store.

Windows already holds over 90% of the enterprise market, but imagine how overwhelmed with joy IT administrators would be if it had an app store! They could create a manifest file that automatically downloads a set list of programs to a new computer, and then restrict any other software from being installed. The same goes for new, shop-bought consumer PCs: users will be able to start with a clean computer, open up the Windows App Store, and download the highest-rated apps. No cruft -- and if the Store is moderated, no malware or spyware either. It's almost Mac-like in its elegance.

But where does this leave Valve's fantastically successful Steam platform? Do gamers use Steam because it's awesome -- or because it's simply the best currently-available solution? The pricing is OK, and the fire sales are amazing, but Amazon is nearly always cheaper for new releases. As always -- and as Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer well knows -- it will eventually come down to developers. Steam is a proven platform, while the Windows App Store is probably only being beta tested. Still, if Microsoft plays this correctly -- if Microsoft makes it incredibly easy and cheap to distribute programs, utilities, and games through the Windows App Store -- then there's simply no way that developers will ignore a tool that will be used by 90% of all desktop users.

The final piece in the puzzle is video games consoles. Console games, in a trend that is unlikely to slow down, are massively out-selling PCgames -- and if you think Microsoft lacks experience in distributing games, Xbox Live has the same number of users as Steam! Xbox Live is just as tried-and-tested as Steam, and Microsoft's developer support is excellent. In short, we already know that Microsoft is on course to marry Xbox Live with WP7, but if it can also squeeze Windows App Store into the mix, it might just come away as the winner on almost every front.

via extremetech

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