Mac App Store on Mac OS X Lion (credit: Apple)Centralized software purchasing is a hot topic these days. It all began with the iOS App Store. About six months ago, Apple announced that it was going to launch an App Store for desktop computers, following in the footsteps of Ubuntu‘s Software Center. Leaked screenshots from Windows 8 show that Microsoft is working on an app store too. Does this have implications for specialized app stores such as Steam?

Why the app store model makes sense

The big Linux distributions have one big advantage over Windows: they centralize software updates in a package manager. On Windows however, you’ve got a Google updater, an Adobe updater, an Apple updater, a Java updater and so on. This isn’t very efficient. By creating a central app store, Microsoft would effectively enable developers to utilize a standardized protocol to offer software updates.

There are more advantages to the Linux packaging system: application dependencies don’t have to be downloaded if you’ve already got them. If an application depends on OpenGL and you already installed it, your application download will be considerably smaller. Less bandwidth is required on both sides and you’ll save hard drive space.

From the business side, there’s a lot of money to be made by the app store maintainer. Apple has been very public about getting a 30% cut of every sold app. App developers are incited to let Apple take this cut because it gives users a quicker way to install their software.

If a user gets a new computer, they can re-download all apps they own. Perhaps the app store even supports the synchronization of app settings. This effectively makes for a less painful OS re-install experience.

Because of the huge advantages that an app store ecosystem can offer over plain old downloads, piracy rates may drop significantly like they did for certain games thanks to Steam. Who knows?

What will happen to specialized app stores?

SteamSpeaking of Steam, this brings us to an interesting question. If the Mac App Store and the proposed Windows 8 Marketplace App Store (whatever its terrible product name will be) take off, what will happen to existing app stores that have already carved out their niche, such as Steam? Here are three scenarios.

  1. Generalized app stores will absorb game sales – People will prefer to buy their games at the operating system’s official app store because they want all their purchases in one place and don’t like having two separate app stores on their computers. This will lead to the loss of such Steam-specific features as in-game voice chat, achievements, instant messaging, social networking and gameplay statistics.
  2. Generalized app stores will get features that tailor to gamers – Apple has attempted bring gaming features to its iOS App Store by introducing Game Center, but it hasn’t quite taken off yet if some vague figures are to be believed. If app stores manage to integrate crucial Steam features, the now popular game manager may be going the way of the Netscape, Digg and ICQ soon. However, let’s not overlook the fact that Steam operates on both Windows and Mac, so if people abandon Steam for their native app store they would no longer be able to play with friends who use the other OS.
  3. People stay loyal to Steam – If Steam’s features are important to gamers and the native app stores fail to incorporate them (or they don’t gain critical mass), the alarm is off… for now. There’s a lot of money to be made in game sales, so Microsoft and Apple will be determined to get it right sooner rather than later. Valve’s dominant position in the digital game store market has remained unchallenged until now and it will be interesting to see how they perform in a more competitive environment.