Apple, Google and Mozilla are all going to launch App Stores for web applications very soon. All three companies have very different strategies, but it's remarkable how fast the Web App Store model is spreading. It's going to represent a big change in the way we use the web.

Users are going to use more web apps than ever before, we are going to use them more regularly, developers are going to be able to monetize web apps better and there are going to be whole new waves of web apps developed to fill the growing demand.

Above: The prototype Mozilla app manager

The User Experience

Why Web App Stores?

Why not just bookmarks for web apps?
  • Apps in the new Web App Stores will have privileged access to native hardware, like graphics cards and location data.
  • App Stores will be one place where you can read all the reviews and ratings from other users. Categorization of apps, user reviews and search will make discovery much easier than on the web at large.
  • App Stores make buying and selling easier. That's good for users, who will be able to buy new apps that never would have been created if they couldn't be sold.
IPhone owners have downloaded an average of 40 different apps each - many of us far more. It's all about the ease of discovery, evaluation, acquisition and purchase. Search, compare, review, click and download all from one centralized place. That's the App Store experience in iTunes and that's the kind of experience that will be available for web applications to use on our desktop computers as well.

The App Store model is a much easier way for people to bring new software into their lives than anything else currently available online. Right now people discover web apps by happenstance and return to them from a sea of browser bookmarks or from memory and Google. There is no system, really.

With the App Store model, we'll have interfaces for accessing the apps we've acquired from the app store, pages with big app icons for fast loading with a click. Because the App Store model is much easier, it will be used far more.

We'll have one place to find, evaluate, acquire and access new web apps - we'll use more of them and more of them will be built. That will represent a radical change in the way people interact with their computers.

Above: A blurry screenshot of the Chrome App Store, from a Google demo on stage at I/O

Web Apps Will Bloom

Comparing the Options

Apple's Mac Web App Store will probably look and feel a lot like iTunes and it will offer apps curated the same way the iTunes App Store is today, with many of the same restrictions. Some will say that optimizes quality and user experience, others will say it's unfair control over the marketplace. Mozilla Firefox chief Mike Beltzner has accused Apple of using its new Mac App Store to try to bypass the web. Apple says its store will be open within 90 days.

Google Chrome App Store will operate inside of Google's Chrome browser. It will be open to all apps that operate on the open web. A release date hasn't been determined yet, but little clues indicate this store could open soon.

Mozilla's Open Web App Store is a technology prototype that will let any website host its own Web App Store. Those stores will be customizable, but interoperable and federated. This will be the most open of all options, but it's also the least developed to date. Mozilla just announced the program this week.

Because more people will look for more apps to use, more apps will be developed. Because these Web App stores will allow developers to monetize their apps without advertising, but through sales instead, app development will be more economically feasible for many developers not served well by ads. Incidentally, advertisers may become more generous with the prices they pay if the web app ecosystem suddenly has another strong monetization option.

If mobile apps are any indication, people will pay for apps. A study published in February by giant mobile advertising network AdMob found that half of iPhone owners buy at least one paid app every month.

Enterprise social software analyst Dion Hinchcliffe says the Web App Store model could be "the first useful new business model for Web apps in a long while."

"There is a genuine need to lower the barrier to the modern Web app navigation, management, and purchasing experience," Hinchcliffe told us by email this week. "Providing a way for every browser and desktop to have a simple, open, and straightforward way to see, browse, buy, control, and launch apps is something that in hindsight has really been too long in coming. It just might have the economic juice to rev up the commercial Web app business in the way that so many people always thought was possible."

The app store is a metaphor, it's a paradigm - but it's also a stack of services, like sales, distribution, fulfillment and more that are taken out of the hands of individual developers and commoditized. Developers are going to love that.

Will they also object to the curation, control or censorship (depending on your perspective) of the Mac App Store? In spirit, they will. In practice, few will likely be effected. The consequences of Apple's curation strategy will likely not be known for a long time, not until viable competitors come to market.

Web App Stores as the New Newsfeed

The Newsfeed, a reverse chronological display of aggregated activity data from different people, different apps and different sites, has been the most disruptive metaphor online for the past few years. It began in RSS, was popularized by Facebook and is now everywhere.

I think the rise of Web App Stores could be similarly disruptive for users and developers. I think this is going to be very big. I'm excited about it.