OpenAppMkt: The Return of the iPhone Web App?

7/30/10Follow @wroush

Few people remember it now, but for the first year after the launch of the Apple iPhone in June, 2007, there was no App Store. The device came with a few built-in or “native” apps like a calendar, a clock, and a notebook, along with a couple of third-party apps like the YouTube player and the Google Maps app. But generally speaking, it didn’t run software written by third parties. As a substitute, Apple encouraged developers to build Web apps that would run inside the phone’s Safari browser.

So that’s what developers did. Over time, they created thousands of Web apps for the iPhone, from word games to weather maps. In fact, you can still find more than 4,700 of these mostly free apps at Apple’s little-known Web Apps Directory. But as soon as Apple launched the App Store in July 2008, giving developers an easy way to distribute and charge for their own native apps, Web apps became the neglected Cinderellas at the mobile software ball.

OpenAppMkt "Our Picks" ScreenNow Web apps have found their princes. They’re the guys at OpenAppMkt, a service launched today by Bay Area developer-entrepreneurs Teck Chia, Flora Sun, and Tim Wuu. Accessible at OpenAppMkt.com, it parallels many of the features of the iTunes App Store, including the ability to buy apps and charge them instantly to a credit card. It will even create an app icon on your phone’s home screen. The big difference: It’s not under Apple’s control.

“Because Apple created this great way to distribute and monetize mobile applications [i.e. the App Store], the Web has kind of fallen by the wayside,” Chia told me yesterday. “Part of the reason is that there are not enough services and tools to help developers monetize and distribute their Web apps. And it’s also not very easy to find Web applications for mobile devices, and very few people know how to add mobile Web apps to their home screens. So we decided to build this.”

Anybody with an app that runs on the mobile Safari browser can sell it through OpenAppMkt. That will be encouraging news for people like Princeton University’s Ed Felten, who has railed against the iTunes App Store as a “walled garden” and compared the iPhone and the iPad to Disneyland—a centrally planned and controlled environment. “There’s no way [the App Store] can keep up with the flow of new ideas—no way it can offer the scope and variety of apps that a less controlled environment can provide,” Felten wrote in April. “A third party store would give customers the option of relying on somebody else’s judgment (other than Apple) as to which apps are acceptable.”

OpenAppMkt has all the same bells and whistles as the App Store, including screen shots from the apps, user ratings and reviews, and an easy, five-click installation process. You can see a list of the most popular apps, or browse by category (games, entertainment, utilities, social networking, music, productivity, lifestyle, reference, travel, sports, navigation, and so on). And befitting its openness, OpenAppMkt has features that Apple has shunned, including social media connectivity: you can share links to your favorite Web apps via Twitter, Facebook, or e-mail.

“We tried to replicate the experience that people have on the native App Store almost exactly,” says Chia. “From the user’s point of view, buying an app is very similar—you just click a button, confirm, and it will open instructions for adding the app to the home screen.” In fact, the first time you visit OpenAppMkt.com on your iPhone, … Next Page »

Wade Roush is Xconomy's chief correspondent and editor of Xconomy San Francisco. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. Follow @wroush

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