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HTML5: An antidote for Apple App Store-itis

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Open...and Shut To the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Or in the case of our idea-starved tech industry, an app store.

The tech world is increasingly awash in app stores. App stores have been all the rage for the past few years due to Apple's success, with more than 300,000 apps currently available for iOS devices. In a nascent mobile market, app stores help consumers discover, buy/try, and download a widening array of apps.

But now app stores are moving beyond mobile, with Apple trying to replicate its iOS App Store success for the Mac, and the rest of the industry bleating in sometimes comical mimicry. Need to spice up your TV-gazing life? There's an app for that. Or how about driving your apps around?

Silly stuff, at least, some of it. But perhaps silliest of all is the idea that a self-contained app and associated self-contained store is the correct business model for every compute experience in a world that has grown accustomed to various permutations of cloud computing like SaaS, not to mention open-source software (some of which doesn't fit well with Apple's App Store guidelines).

In fact, app stores, and the apps they house, may be anachronisms, similar to the Internet Yellow Pages we used to buy back in 1994 to track the wild west of web sites.

The Yellow Pages died when the web grew too large to be catalogued by any particular publisher, giving way to more powerful discovery mechanisms like Google search. App stores are one way to curate the web and its apps, bringing order to chaos, but they're not the only way.

They may not even be the best way, at least, for some vendors.

Take Google, for example. Google took a beating last week for apparently failing to set the world on fire with Chrome Web Store app sales. But perhaps it's not so much a failure on Google's part to sell web apps as it is a failure of the app metaphor altogether, at least for Google and other web-inclined companies.

I don't want to buy "apps" from Google, per se. I'd rather buy SaaS applications like Google Apps, online service "apps" like Zagat, or even a subscription to Conquest, my favorite Risk iOS app. On this last one, it's frustrating to me that I have to buy the app once and pray that new levels will be added out of the goodness of the developer's heart. I'd rather pay for an ongoing stream of new levels.

I want to buy subscriptions, in other words, and it feels like Google could do this better than Apple can, because Google groks the web in a way Apple simply doesn't and, perhaps, can't.

I question whether the app metaphor is appropriate for many of the services that we currently consume, and which are trying to force themselves into Apple's app paradigm.

After all, the software world has steadily marched in the direction of subscription-based, hosted software services for the past few years. Why should mobile be any different? And why shouldn't web-centric Google embrace this shift with Chrome Web Store, selling subscriptions to services like Zagat, Consumer Reports or The Economist?

Michael Skok, managing director with NorthBridge Venture Partners, declares that "apps are just an onramp to the cloud." At least some of the power implicit in the cloud, however, is dismantled by app packaging, packaging that may fit the DNA of Apple and Microsoft, but needn't be replicated by Google (or RIM).

We have the technology now to enable an app-like visual experience without sacrificing the cloud-like delivery mechanism. It's called HTML5, and it could be key to Apple's competitors delivering subscription services, rather than app stores.

So long as Apple's competitors resign themselves to playing by Apple's App Store rules, they're always going to be a second-best Apple experience. ®

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Strobe, a startup that offers an open source framework for building mobile apps. He was formerly chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfreso's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open-source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears twice a week on The Register.

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