Where do App Stores come from?

“App” has been voted the 2010 word of the year by the American Dialect Society, tragically beating out “nom” in a run-off vote.

Most people know that “app” is hardly a new word, just a word that has newfound popularity outside the realm of geekdom.

Similarly, the concept of the app store. Using a central repository for a platform’s software isn’t a new idea. Neither is attaching a price to that software. What is relatively new is the popularity of such software repositories.

In the beginning there was the command-line

App stores have their roots in the package management systems employed by operating systems such as Debian. Debian is a distribution of Linux founded in 1993 by Ian Murdock.

While Debian may not have been the first operating system to make use of a package management system connected to software repositories, it went on the become one of the most widely adopted.

Debian received its Advanced Packaging Tool (APT) when Debian 2.1 was released in 1999. This tool allowed for relatively easy installation of software packages from the Linux command-line interface (CLI). With a single command users were able to both download a package and install it.

In the same year that APT was first bundled with Debian, a tool called Aptitude also saw its first public release. Aptitude allows users to browse the package repository and install packages or update their systems from a easily navigable interface. Aptitude paved the way for package management tools with graphical user interfaces (GUIs).

Package management goes graphical

One such tool is Synaptic, which was created for GNOME, a graphical desktop environment for Linux. Synaptic is a graphical front-end for APT which saw its first public release in 2002. As with Aptitude it allows the user to browse available packages, search the package repository and install, remove, or update software as desired.

Package repositories such as those used by Debian and their associated tools generally made software available at no cost to the end user.

Before Apple could make the App Store the success it is today such repositories would have to not only go mainstream, but commercial as well.

Software repositories go commercial

Steam, a digital distribution platform developed by Valve Corporation, would be one of the first commercial application stores to become a mainstream success.

It’s also not the only one of it’s kind, nor the first, but it was relatively unique in what it offered to developers and customers – Steam also only sells video games.

Little concrete data is available about Steam, with its financial benefits to developers being largely anecdotal and its share of the PC video game digital distribution market being given only by third-parties.

However, publishers of big budget “triple-A” games as well as much smaller independent developers continue to distribute their wares through Steam. Gamers also continue to use the platform, with Valve reporting that there are over 25 million Steam accounts, with the number of concurrent users peaking at around 2.5 million.

Enter Apple

The digital distribution platform that would inject the word ‘app’ into the common vernacular was launched in July 2008, along with the iPhone 3G.

Apple’s App Store took all the factors that made digital distribution so successful on other platforms and combined it with a very popular smartphone.

‘Apps’ have become synonymous with a revolution in smartphones. Accurate or not, this will forever associate Apple’s name and device with the advancements we see in smartphones today.

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Where do App Stores come from?