What Is an App Store, and Why Should You Care?

(Originally published on April 8, 2010, in Small Business Computing)

An app store can offer a lot more than just mobile apps. Essentially, it is a Web site that aggregates software solutions for business or personal use. App stores, also known as an applications marketplaces, are typically created and built by a “marquee” vendor, such as Adobe, Apple, Google, Intuit or Salesforce.com, that serves as the anchor tenant for the marketplace. App stores operate as a hub where you can discover, search for, purchase and deploy integrated third-party applications.

The marquee vendors that run the marketplaces typically have a strong brand and a large customer base — but no one vendor will ever have the time or expertise to build every possible application that a customer might want. However, marquee vendors can attract developers to build complementary applications to sell to their large customer bases.

The developer gets a new sales channel, and the marquee vendor can offer customers a bigger, more diverse array of applications than it could possibly provide on its own. In many cases, developers must also build their applications on the marquee vendor’s platform so that they will integrate with other applications in the marketplace.

Why Should You Care?
App stores can help streamline the application shopping and selection process, providing a one-stop shop for finding, trying and buying small business applications. Many of feature cloud-based solutions (see
What is Cloud Computing, and Why Should You Care?) that you can trial for free and purchase in a flexible, pay-as-you go model. App stores often offer free apps as well. And, they feature user-generated ratings and comments to help guide your decision-making process,

An app store can help you more easily locate new small business software that will work with apps you already use, adding them in an incremental, yet integrated manner. Instead of starting with a Google search, or contacting a VAR or consultant, and trying to figure out if there is an app that meets your needs and will work with solutions you already have, you can go to a marketplace and see if there’s an application that meets your requirements and work with the solutions you’re already running. An app store also provides single-sign on access to all of the apps that are in it. This means you don’t need to keep track of lots of passwords, and can navigate more easily between applications.

For instance, Intuit’s Workplace App Center provides a central location where small businesses can locate and try business applications that work with QuickBooks and with each other. You can, for example, sync your QuickBooks data to a CRM solution offered in the App Center, eliminating the need to enter the same data twice.

In addition to supplying ready-to-run applications, some app stores also help companies locate solution developers that can build custom applications that integrate with their anchor solutions. For example, Zoho’s Marketplace features an area that lets users submit requests for new apps and features, and developers can build new apps in response to these requests.

Of course, there are also stores for mobile apps that work with different smart phones, from Apple’s App Store to Google’s Android Marketplace. These marketplaces offer customers easy access to applications that are proven to work on and run safely on their mobile devices. In the case of mobile device marketplaces, however, the customer downloads the application to their device instead of running it in the cloud.

What to Consider
In the case of smart phones, customers select marketplaces solely based on the device they use. But when it comes to running apps on your Mac or PC over a Web browser, your choice of which app store to shop at isn’t device dependent — and may be a bit more complicated.

Chances are that you already use applications from several vendors that have a store — maybe you already use QuickBooks, Google Apps and Salesforce.com, for instance. But you probably don’t want to use three different marketplaces, because that will dilute the value of one-stop shopping, single sign-on, integration benefits and so on. So how do you decide which marketplace to use? Here are some key considerations to think about.

How many applications are in the marketplace, and how fast is it growing? While bigger isn’t necessarily better, a vibrant, growing app store means more choices for you.

How simple is it to sign up, sign in and test drive new applications? Try some free trials to see how it works for you.

How active is the user community in providing reviews, comments and ratings? A more engaged community gives you more feedback about specific apps.

What level of integration do you need between your existing application(s) and new applications? Some app stores (such as Salesforce.com’s AppExchange and the Intuit Partner Platform) require developers to use a common data model, which enables tighter integration. In contrast, in Google’s more open approach the Web is the platform. Both approaches promise integrated applications, but the degree of integration will vary. Think about what the types of data you need to integrate and the level of integration that you need.

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