The allure of the phone app stores

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Feb 25, 2010 GMT
Bruce Byfield

I was at a news conference today when two men pulled out their iPhones simultaneously. In less than ten seconds, they were comparing apps, their original purposes forgotten.

This is a scene I've seen repeatedly in the last six months. Every time, I wonder what the excitement is about. After all, as a GNU/Linux user, I've been able to download software on a whim for years -- and not just the equivalent of KDE's widgets or GNOME's applets, but complex applications like Inkscape or Amarok.

Moreover, that software is free of cost, unlike a lot of the apps on the iPhone, Blackberry, and Android stores.

Mind you, I understand the excitement. Back when I was first understanding free and open source software (FOSS), I was overwhelmed to discover all the goodies that Debian had waiting for me (it was about ten thousand then; now, it's more than eighteen thousand, and purportedly the largest number of packages in any distribution). Intoxicated by the fact they were free, I spent hours downloading packages, just because I could.

The fact that some of those applications were obscure only made them better. For instance, I still remember one package called xtartan, whose purpose is to give you a choice of hundreds of tartans to use as desktop wallpaper.

The thought of actually using such a package brought me flashbacks of color pictures of the rooms that Queen Victoria decorated in Balmoral Castle, with drapes, carpets, and upholstery all garishly done in Royal Stewart, but that was beside the point. What fascinated me was that, for someone, this package was not just worth making, but worth making as completely and as thoroughly as possible.

Packages like xtartan made me feel like I had fallen down the rabbit hole, into a previously undreamed world of software where I could find anything I could imagine. From the excitement in their voices, the people downloading phone apps today feel something of the same.

A non-Windows of opportunity

After my first reaction -- basically, that of an old hand looking at newbies and nostalgically smiling at their naive wonder -- I start to think.

In particular, why are downloadable repositories suddenly so successful? After all, app stores are hardly a new idea. During the dot-com era, every GNU/Linux company from Stormix to Ximian planned to commercialize the Debian package system. More recently, so did Linspire. Today, Ubuntu has its Partner repository, and, beyond the FOSS world, Microsoft has its Marketplace.

Yet none of these have enjoyed the success of the phone stores. Is there some key element that all these efforts have missed that the phone-sellers magically grasped? Something that FOSS could borrow to help improve its popularity?

Possibly. But, the first answers that come to mind are not promising. The phone app stores are not noticeably better designed or organized than similar earlier efforts. Instead, I suspect that phone apps are popular for no other reason than the fact that phones are the main computers in people's lives today. By comparison, workstations or even netbooks are not nearly as appealing, so people are less concerned about whether they have downloadable repositories.

Nor have phone app stores seriously challenged the fallacy that software that doesn't cost anything can be worth having -- let alone that it can be better than proprietary software. Last week, in The Globe and Mail's weekly app column, the highest praise that the reviewer could give a gratis app was that it wasn't just a half-crippled version of an app for which you had to pay. I have heard this sentiment over and over from those addicted to phone apps. Most of them actually feel better about an app if they have to pay a few dollars.

As for free licensed software, the foundation of FOSS -- that doesn't even enter most phone users' imagination. Anyway, I can't see a flood of phone apps released under the GNU General Public License (GPL). Even if the developers existed, I doubt that GPL phone apps would be allowed by the censors who own the phone app stores.

All the same, I can't help thinking that the popularity of phone apps could represent an opportunity for FOSS. Today, mobile devices are starting to influence the interfaces on everything from workstations to netbooks. Maybe, then, to the extent that users are concerned with old style computing devices at all, they would appreciate the same convenience of downloadable apps on them as on cell phones. So far as music goes, they already do.

Despite the obstacles, I still suspect that the popularity of phone apps could become an opportunity for FOSS. FOSS has the repositories, it has the interfaces, the selection, and even the security in the shape of digital signatures on packaging. And if people could over the idea that cost-free software was worth less, the free licensing gives users the convenience of legally treating what they download as though they owned it.

What would happen if some distribution promoted itself as offering the same services as the phone manufacturers and more? We'll never know until someone tries, but drawing the connection could be just what FOSS needs to become widely used.

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