Enough app stores — it’s time for an app mall

Maybe it’s the February chill, but you won’t find me shopping from one store to another.

Even if weather wasn’t a factor I’m more inclined to browse in one place where I have access to a variety of products, competitive pricing and a more self-contained purchasing experience. I think a lot of people feel the same way, judging by the crowds at the Eaton Centre in Toronto. So why are all the software providers focused on building Fortresses of Solitude?

News reports from the Wall Street Journal this week that Google may be building its own app store just amounts to putting more work on an information worker’s plate. If they’re an iPhone user they’re probably already locked into the Apple Apps Store, but for BlackBerry users, Windows mobile customers, Nokia subscribers or owners of many other devices, is this really good news? And if you think about it, isn’t Google’s search engine a kind of app store anyway?

The Journal’s story suggested that Google’s efforts would be putting the focus on business software, which is at least a step above most of what’s out there. We created our Apps Store Guide (admittedly, in dire need of an update) in part to address the challenges I’m sure many IT managers face in helping users select the best tools and to possibly identify opportunities to use some themselves to execute on business strategies. Only Salesforce.com’s AppExchange store comes to mind as a real competitor, but it’s a formidable one given the strength of Salesforce.com’s enterprise offering and mature customer base. Google has more reach, but can it gather enough developers to deliver the goods?

Many firms are probably following Apple’s lead in terms of going it alone. That’s been Apple’s strategy from the beginning: to set up a cool kid’s club that sits under its brand and no one else’s. Yet in the physical world even Apple has recognize the value of the foot traffic that exists in many large urban malls. It has managed to create a unique retail experience and salesperson expertise to stand apart from, say, The Source by Circuit City. Yet from a software perspective it, and all the other providers, like to act as though no other platforms exist.

Though there are device and OS limitations on some of this software, surely the industry can work on the integration necessary to offer the same software product on multiple devices and built on more than one set of underlying toolset. Given how tiny the individual market opportunity is for some of these applications, wouldn’t it make sense to join forces for some kind of App Mall? Sure, you would have your anchor stores, including Google, Microsoft, and so on. And certainly some of the more successful application providers might be able to create the equivalent of a distinct store experience, perhaps by being a part of some kind of feature category.

The IT industry has a history of working on projects in isolation and only belatedly realizing the power of collaboration. App providers need to remember this lesson. You can still win a lot of business by acknowledging the other opportunities in the ecosystem. Right now these guys aren’t just going solo. They’re going silo.

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