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2011: The year of the desktop app store?

Installing software on your PC is as easy as on your smartphone

Apple's Mac App Store is only the latest effort to make finding and installing software on your PC or laptop as easy as it is on your smartphone. We look at what else is on offer.

An app by any other name

What's the difference between an 'app' and an 'application' - and does it even matter?

Not so long ago, 'app' was mostly used as slang for' application', and terms such as 'applet' and 'widget' were used for various types of mini-applications that perform specialized functions. Following Apple's lead, however, many consumers today think of such smaller programs as 'apps', whether they're used on a mobile device or a computer, whereas 'applications' are bigger, more complex programs like word processing systems or music editing software.

In the end, says Pocket Yoga app developer Sergio Tacconi, it doesn't matter what people call them. "From a development standpoint there is no difference. It's all software that runs on a computer - a desktop computer, a laptop or a phone. They are all computers," he says.

Using the terms 'app' and 'App Store' with online storefronts is "just Apple marketing at its best," Tacconi says. "I assume Apple didn't think 'Application Store' or 'Software Store' sounded good, so they came out with something more catchy." (As a side note, Apple is trying to trademark the name 'App Store', but Microsoft is challenging the bid, saying that the term is too generic to be trademarked.)

Additionally, many apps for smartphones and tablets are specifically designed to take advantage of mobile devices - think mapping or augmented reality software. "App stores have been successful because they offer products allowing consumers to more easily complete specific tasks [on their smartphones]," says Baker.

So what would be the point, he asks, of laptop or desktop users downloading and buying software from an app store?

A handful of computer app stores

Here's a sampling of app stores offering computer software that have already been launched or are on the horizon.

Acer Alive
To be pre-installed on Acer computers, the company's software download storefront will not only offer apps, but also entertainment media including music and movies. Alive is currently in limited beta testing in Europe, according to Acer; a full launch is planned for later this year. Queries to the company for more details had not been returned at press time.

This online store works through a desktop application (currently in beta) that you download and install. The front end looks similar to iTunes but offers a variety of Windows software tools. Most of the apps available here are free and are readily available elsewhere on the web, but AllMyApps plans to eventually sell for-payment titles as well.

Chrome Web Store
Google's app store entry offers Chrome browser extensions and themes as well as free and paid apps. Google's definition of 'app' is broad: It can be a link to a web app (or simply an enhanced website), a Flash app, or actual code that must be installed into the Chrome browser in order to run. Regardless, an app installed from the Chrome Web Store is activated by clicking its icon, which is listed on Chrome's New Tab page.

Intel AppUp
Meant for Windows netbooks that use Intel's Atom processor (but also compatible with notebooks and desktops running Windows XP or 7), Intel's app store is a software front end that you download and install on your computer. AppUp offers mini-programs for free or for a price, with the most popular being the game Angry Birds.

Mac App Store
In addition to OS X versions of iPhone/iPod Touch and iPad mini-apps, the Mac App Store sells downloads of full-fledged software. The Mac App Store is built into the latest update for OS X Snow Leopard, and the applications available from it work only in Snow Leopard.

See also: 5 Criticisms of Mac App Store (And Why They're Wrong)

  1. Installing software on your PC is as easy as on your smartphone
  2. App stores' mobile roots
  3. From bricks to clicks
  4. An app by any other name

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