There's no doubt that Apple's iPhone has changed the landscape of the smart-phone industry, and indeed the mobile phone business as a whole. But one of the most revolutionary advances that Apple offered up isn't in the iPhone itself: It's the mechanism the company developed to distribute non-Apple applications to iPhone and iPod Touch users.
Third-party development for mobile devices and smart phones was already happening well over a decade before the iPhone's mid-2007 launch. Palm, Microsoft and Research In Motion all allowed other companies to develop software for their devices, but they left it up to those third-party developers to market their creations -- and forced users to find, purchase, download and install them on their own.
In many ways, this model was no different from the one used by PC makers (including both Apple and Microsoft Corp.) to enable developers to create software and sell it through the same retail channels as the computers themselves. But software for mobile devices evolved in a smaller niche market, one with a more diverse range of platforms that was better suited to online purchasing. The result was often chaos. Users didn't know where to go to find applications, and in some cases, they didn't know how to properly install or remove the applications they had bought.
The App Store 'a radical shift'
Apple's decision to develop a new model -- its App Store -- marked a radical shift for developers and users in mobile software distribution. For developers, the App Store represented a one-stop solution for getting their creations into the hands of users. Apple leveraged its existing iTunes infrastructure for selling music and movies to make apps available to users, handle transactions, prevent piracy by tying purchases to an iTunes account, and offer some measure of marketing and management of customer reviews.
Once the App Store opened last July, developers didn't need to worry about traditional retail channels, setting up a Web site to host downloads or figuring out how they would get paid. (Apple skims 30 percent off the top; developers keep the rest. ) Not only did this drastically simplify the overhead for developers in distributing their apps, it also leveled the playing field between small developers -- maybe just one person working on a single product -- and large corporate developers.
For users, the App Store has been even more revolutionary -- and popular. By December, it had already distributed 300 million application downloads and was cranking out 2.2 million a day from a one-stop smorgasbord of applications. Buyers can browse categories, see what's new or popular, read reviews, check out screenshots, and search for specific applications by name or function. On top of that, buyers could do all that searching and evaluating on their computers or directly from an iPhone/iPod Touch.
But finding apps is only half the story. Purchasing them is also easy. Once you've set up an iTunes account, there's nothing more to it than clicking the "Buy" button and verifying a password. Then comes the real genius part: effortless installation. There's no installer utility, no convoluted instructions, no setup wizard -- the application just appears on your iPhone or iPod Touch home screen immediately if you used the device to find and buy it, or during the next sync if you purchased it on a computer. Software has never been so easy to find, purchase and install on any device.