If a building is only as good as its foundation, then a smartphone is only as good as its app store. Even as manufacturers continue to stack their handsets with YouTube support, instant messaging, and other essentials right out of the box, the features just don’t add up to the amount of capability a phone can take on in the hands of the right developers: You name it, a good smartphone can do it.
The app store you buy into will have a longstanding effect on the way you use your phone – perhaps more than any other feature. But it’s tough to get a feel for every smartphone app store when you don’t get to push a cart down the aisles until you have a carrier contract in your filing cabinet and there’s no turning back.
With that in mind, we’ve gone out and done the legwork for you and compiled a dossier on five of the most popular (and populated) app stores out there. So check out the wares, do your research, and invest wisely, so you know which is worth dialing into.
Apple App Store
Total Apps: 85,000+
Opened: July 10, 2008
The mother of all app stores (it’s now topped over 2 billion downloads) launched in coordination with the release of the iPhone 3G in the summer of 2008 and rode that all-star handset’s rise to popularity in the subsequent year. The explosive sales of the phone combined with its advanced capabilities (like OpenGL support for 3D games) has made it the de facto app store of choice for budding programmers looking to release their creations into the largest pond out there. In fact, it’s less of a pond now, and more like the Pacific.
For consumers, the rampant competition in the app store also makes it one of the most inexpensive to shop. Many basic apps can be had for free, and if a paid app catches your eye, usually the developer offers a free version to give you a taste before you plunk down your bills.
However, the ease of creating apps has also created an abundance of junk apps that clutter up the store, from virtual lighters and shotguns to pandas. Even searching for an extremely niche app, like a blood-alcohol calculator, will turn up dozens of apps to sift through before you find a quality version.
And Apple is notoriously fickle about the type of apps it allows into its walled garden. Apps that simulate shaking a baby to death have slipped through, while South Park and Nine Inch Nails apps have both been denied on the basis of the mature content they serve up.
Extremely tight integration with iTunes allows iPhone users to browse, buy and even rearrange their apps from a desktop computer, rather than doing it all via the phone. The App Store is also the only one on our list that extends to a non-phone: The iPod Touch.
Google Android Market
Total Apps: 11,169
Opened: October 22, 2008
Google only lagged a few months behind Apple with the introduction of its own app marketplace, but without as successful a handset to latch onto, the Android Market has grown at a much more modest pace. (The G1 and Magic have both sold over 1 million units apiece, while Apple claims that it has sold over 50 million iPod Touches and iPhones combined.)
That said, Google has flung its weight around to help seed the market with some interesting apps, including contests like the Android Developers Challenge, which offers programmers up to $100,000 cash to craft the most innovative Android app. And the efforts show. For instance, Android was the first mobile platform to get “augmented reality” applications, which superimpose data over a live camera view, Terminator-style.
And unlike Apple, Google doesn’t take a dictatorial approach to policing its marketplace, arbitrarily rejecting and accepting apps with no transparency. Looking for a NES emulator to relive your Nintendo glory days during your subway commute? NESoid will do the trick nicely for free if you’re running Android, while Apple has banned all emulators from its App Store. Want Google Voice for all sorts of extended phone capabilities? Not surprisingly, Android has been sporting it for weeks, while Google still has its horns locked with Apple over getting it into the App Store.
Because Google only allowed free apps on the Market for its first four months, it continues to host a substantial number of totally free apps developed during that infancy. And like Apple’s App Store, most paid apps fall into the 99 cent price range, delivering excellent value.
Google doesn’t offer a desktop app browsing software like iTunes, but the open nature of the Market has allowed third-party sites like AndroLib to organize the full library into a browsable Web page form.
BlackBerry App World
Total Apps: 2,773
Opened: April 1, 2009
BlackBerry apps existed long before anyone even knew what an “app store” was, but RIM joined the likes of Google and Apple in offering an easy-to-browse catalog right on the phone this past spring with BlackBerry App World. This initial pool of mature apps gave App World a bit of a jumpstart, but it remains a latecomer, and the number of apps in the library still reflects it.
RIM chose two interesting strategies to lure developers over to developing for its platform: They get a sizable 80 percent cut of sales, rather than the standard 70 that Google and Apple offer, and they can’t peddle their apps at the all-popular (and unprofitable) 99-cent price point. BlackBerry developers must either choose to make their apps free, or charge at least $2.99. This may keep developers from undercutting one another until they make next to nothing, but paid applications on App World generally cost more than on other platforms as a result. We found only 42 free games – barely enough to keep the hardcore BlackBerry addict satisfied for a week or two.
Fortunately, the same policy also seems to weed out much of the clutter that afflicts Google and Apple to some degree. App World feels like a premium app store, without many poorly thought out or completely worthless apps to sift through. And a lot of apps offer genuine utility for business users, like sales contact managers and expense report tools.
Oddly enough, not all BlackBerry phones come with App World preinstalled, meaning owners will have to know about it and visit BlackBerry’s download page to get started.
Nokia Ovi Store
Total Apps: (1,753)
Opened: May 26, 2009
Without carrier subsidies to make them as cheap as competitors like the iPhone, Nokia’s smartphones don’t enjoy the same degree of popularity here in the U.S. as they do in other countries. But that hasn’t kept many international developers from helping to fill up Nokia’s little known Ovi store, which offers about two thirds of the volume BlackBerry boasts.
Unfortunately, the Ovi Store still feels a little rough around the edges. Up until recently, for instance, you couldn’t even re-download purchased content in the event of a phone upgrade or erasure. And without much careful vetting from Nokia, some apps, like Easy Wi-Fi, seem to slip through the cracks with a multitude of problems. (Half the reviews on the program claim it wouldn’t work, necessitated a hard reboot of a phone, or even caused the battery to get hot – not the sort of app we would typically see on Apple or even Google’s stores.)
And like BlackBerry’s store, you can’t seem to catch much of a bargain on the Ovi Store. A large percentage of apps, even niche ones like an English-Spanish-Romanian dictionary, cost money. We found a total of 67 free games – rather sparse considering the size of the store as a whole.
All apps on the Ovi Store can be viewed and downloaded online.
Palm App Catalog
Total Apps: 97
Opened: June 6, 2009
As the latecomer to the next-gen smartphone OS market, arriving this summer, it makes sense that Palm’s App Catalog (which is still in beta) is also the least developed. If Apple’s App Store is a teenager dealing with the angst of limitations imposed upon it by its parents, and Nokia’ Ovi store is a toddler just learning to walk, Palm’s App Catalog is still a fetus. At the time of publishing, it offers less than 100 apps.
Fortunately, most of them are free, since Palm only opened up paid capabilities for the App Catalog a week ago (and only even offered the public SDK, the toolkit programmers need to make apps, on July 16).
As a rule of thumb, quality is extremely high. You won’t find six different Twitter or Craigslist apps just yet, but the ones that have made it to the App Catalog should work just fine while you wait for developers to flesh out alternatives. And the experience of browsing and downloading generally went smoothly for us.
Unfortunately, Palm offers only a peek at WebOS apps through the Web, with no way to browse or download them without a phone.
And if you have any doubt that developers have interest in WebOS, go no further than PreCentral.net, where you can currently peruse 245 half-baked apps going through beta. In other words, lots of new choices are coming soon.