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A Dark Horse Stalks the App Stores

Will the fragmentation of mobile app stores make the web app store the only alternative for ubiquitous delivery of content both free and paywalled?

Android is winning the battle of smartphone market share, and there’s every indication the gulf between it and the iOS will only widen with time. An unexpected consequence of Android’s ascendancy is increasing developer frustration, as coders struggle to cope with the many different flavors and screen sizes in the veritable Hindu pantheon of devices that run Android.

For many developers, platform fragmentation is a non-issue. iOS, by far the most profitable platform for app vendors, brings in enough for many developers to ignore every other platform. For these reasons, some high-end games might not make it to Android anytime soon, if ever.

But what about all the grown-up tasks that justify the cost of carrying a monthly data plan? As mobile devices approach the power of laptops, it’s worth asking whether or not the trends we see on the desktop don’t also apply to tablets and smartphones.

Namely: if web apps, persistent desktops and the browserification of the OS are the future of computing, why doesn’t that go double for always-connected mobile devices?

Google’s Web App store is in its infancy, but if it’s supposed to be a unique enabler for forthcoming netbooks running the Chrome OS, it seems illogical that Google would pass up the opportunity to some day make it interoperable with its mobile platform. Most netbooks aren’t any more powerful than the most powerful phones and tablets, anyway, and this space is already seeing consolidation on the OS front: Android (for phones) and Honeycomb (for tablets) are going to merge.

If this isn’t on a whiteboard somewhere in Google HQ already, it should be: only high-end games and a few specialized heavily client-side programs need to be apps. Everything else can be delivered through the web. And the beauty of the web appification of both the desktop and mobile spaces is that anyone can set up a web app store. People will sell through Google because, probably, their payments system will eventually be as seamless as Apple’s.

Apple is moving in the opposite direction: it’s trying to iOS app store the desktop through its Mac App Store. Things like this will always exist, but the steep cut that Apple will take, as well as the fragmentation of the overall mobile market thanks to Android, is going to drive up the cost of getting an app to as wide an audience as possible until it just doesn’t make sense anymore.

What we need is a payments system for web apps - and websites in general - that’s as easy as Apple’s. Maybe Google will nail it – lord knows whoever does will make billions, for the same reason Visa and Mastercard do in meatspace.

Ironically, the diversity and choice now offered to consumers could drive developers – especially, for example, those who make and distribute media – back into the arms of the only standard that is consistent across all these devices. Precisely because it’s open.

Apps will have their day, but anyone who insists they will take over completely is wrong. As the failure of e.g. tablet magazines illustrates, they’re not sufficiently lucrative to keep developers and content providers off an increasingly sophisticated, and increasingly app-like, web.

Follow Mims on Twitter or contact him via email.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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