A Better Distribution Channel for Desktop Apps

My Tuesday’s post was about the iPhone and what it does right. Apart from being a usable device it has another great feature: the App Store. You can browse all the apps available for the phone and get them with just a tap of the finger (or two, together with password input to be precise). The apps you download are also updated through the App Store – so whenever there’s a new version of the app out, you see a little number pop up above the App Store icon. That number says: you’ve got a new update available. Going to the update window lets you see what’s been updated and download the update.

This is a great delivery channel for apps. There are two big benefits to this approach: 1) you get to browse all the apps available for your platform in one place and 2) you can keep all your apps up to date with ease.

There is no such delivery system for all our desktop apps. Some might say: well… the Web is now that system. Search for whatever you need on Google and buy the app online. This is an open system without constraints on developers or consumers. But it’s also not very good for consumers because Googling for apps isn’t very efficient. Sometimes there are little tools that do exactly what you want, but they have poorly optimised websites that just don’t show up in the search results you’re looking at. Also, in an integrated marketplace you can track the most popular apps and read user reviews, which help you make purchase decisions.

Also: updating apps today can be simplified. A lot of apps have some sort of auto-update system where the app will automatically monitor itself for updates and then download them when required. That’s great, but not all desktop apps have this. Sometimes you have to go to the app’s website and download the new files. The ideal is an automatic system that keeps everything up to date without requiring much effort on the user’s part to maintain. The system should do the checking and updating, leaving the user with just one task: confirming whether they want to update or not – and even that should be optional.

My OS of choice is Mac OS X. There’s this great website called I use this. It’s basically a database of all apps available for OS X (Windows and iPhone sites are also available). It’s a bit like a social news site for apps – instead of voting up stories, you vote up apps. This lets you see the most popular apps overall, and also in individual categories. This is a great method of finding software to solve your problem – just search for your keyword and look through the top entries. User comments/reviews also come in handy.

This solves the selection problem, but it doesn’t solve updating. I think there’s an opportunity here for Apple, or whomever, to build an application manager like this that will 1) let you find the right apps to solve your problems and 2) update these apps through a simple integrated interface.

A great example of this done right is the Steam platform on Windows. Steam is a game delivery channel developed by Valve that basically does exactly what I’m talking about above: it offers you a catalog of games to browse through, it offers you an interface to purchase and download them, and it offers you instant updates when they become available. One of the more important benefits of Steam is that when you log on to a new PC, or say, reformat your current one, you can easily re-download all the stuff you’ve purchased because it keeps a record of that. This means you don’t need to keep any registration codes or CDs around – all the apps you own are instantly available to you when you log in.

Valve's Steam Perhaps this is the right model for distributing today's desktop apps. Offer an App Store for desktop apps that lets you find, purchase and download what you need, keep a track of all your purchases in case you need to get them again and offer integrated updates. Apple and the App Store have been under some heavy fire lately for hand picking apps they do and don't want to include in their store, and although that is a real concern with this distribution model I think the benefits for consumers outweigh those problems. What do you think? Do we need a better app delivery system? Leave your comments below.