AppUp: Intel's Take on the Future of Apps

Last week, Intel invited me to participate in the Intel Developer's Forum and the inaugural AppUp Elements conference, a newly created event to bring app developers together in one place to plan the future of the PC app market. The event was designed to coincide with the official launch of Intel's AppUp store -- basically iTunes for netbooks.

Intel understands that there are problems with existing app markets. In fact, anyone who's thinking about developing apps for any platform should read the recent FastCompany article on The Great App Bubble. In short, development costs and sales numbers paint a picture of an unsustainable marketplace where a few developers win but the vast majority of apps languish in obscurity in an unnavigable sea of undifferentiated programs.

Nonetheless, the iTunes store has paid out more than a billion dollars to developers and Intel wants to get a slice of the action. They're latecomers to this game, so they have a lot to do if they want to catch up. And they have a plan in mind. Their first step is to throw money at it. Here are just a few programs that Intel has launched recently as incentives to bring new developers aboard.

In addition to the programs listed here, Intel was intent on wining and dining their developers last week. Though I had to skip most of the social events, attendees gave rave reviews of extravagant events including a harbor cruise to a massive party space where you could dine, ride bumper-cars and rub elbows with Wil Wheaton.

The next step to a successful app store is branding, and I fear that Intel is falling short on that front. My understanding is that AppUp just came out of beta and it looks as though they rolled out a shiny new logo, but it appears to have been received by the media with a collective sigh. Conveying a cutting-edge image isn't really Intel's strong suit.

Intel also needs to make sure that AppUp doesn't have the same problems as the iTunes app store, where even quality apps drown in a sea of clones. Based on Peter Biddle's closing keynote address, I get the impression that Intel really does have some good ideas in mind.

Peter basically explained that since the beginning of time, stores have been set up in a way that allowed the vendors to serve as curators for their content. For instance, there may be hundreds of clothing stores in a city, but most patrons will only shop at the few that suit their tastes. In contrast, since digital stores don't have the same physical inventory constraints, they have no incentive to limit their inventory. To some degree, we rely on reviewers to sort out the good apps from the bad ones, but that task is overwhelming in a store that averages more than 30 new releases a day.

Although Peter wasn't specific on exactly what he has in mind, he made it clear that he wants to bring curators back into the picture to allow them to control the content of their own online mini-stores. Presumably, these curators would also get a cut of the sales revenue for apps sold via their stores. It's a nice idea, but getting it to work in practice could be tough.

On a closing note, I want to relay a story from the "World of Gaming Apps" panel that I spoke on. Seated next to representatives from huge companies with hundreds of titles, I was clearly the odd man out as the sole full-time employee of little Lazy 8 Studios. Someone from the audience asked if we felt like we were in competition with each other. I answered the question first, saying that I had found indie studios to all be mutually supportive of each others' work. After all, we're not competing to be that one big $60 summer blockbuster; with app prices where they are, consumers tend to make impulse purchases. And when one small indie game does well, it brings visibility to the whole indie scene.

Capcom, however, had a sharply different response. Their representative made it clear that, in short, they want to crush the indies. Big studios don't have the agility to operate on tight budgets and short development cycles, leaving them frustrated when their big-budget apps fall below the indie titles when they're sold on a level playing field. There are great opportunities for indies out there if we leverage our agility and take some creative risks. The first players to a new market are often in the best position to rise above the competition, and the AppUp store shows promise.