The New Software Distributor: Platform Owners

By Nick O'Neill Comment

Do you remember the days when you had to walk into a computer store to buy software? I remember Egghead software down the street from me where you would go to actually purchase games and other types of computer software. Soon enough those days will be long forgotten. This transformation has been taking place extremely fast and much of that transformation has taken place in the last couple years.

Platforms Are for Distribution

In my series on the social web economy, I’ve highlighted platforms as the center for distribution. While I’ve yet to cover all of the types of companies and how they interact, platforms are increasingly about being the center location for software to be distributed. When the Facebook platform launched last year, it was one of the first to bring this idea of instant installation on the platform to the mainstream.

Initially when you developed software, it was the job of the software developer to handle 99 percent of the promotion. One of the key selling points for many of these software packages was the platform that they ran on. There were categories in actual stores which classified software as “IBM Compatible”. Eventually that transformed to mean that your software worked on Windows but ultimately it still required visiting a store to purchase the software.

Even today, there still is no central directory owned by Microsoft that is the primary location which consumers visit for finding and downloading Windows compatible software. Same thing goes for Apple. While there is the Windows Marketplace and the Apple store, neither stores are comprehensive and fully supportive of third-party developers.

A New Model of Distribution Emerges

The Facebook platform was a complete paradigm shift for most people in the industry. The concept that you could install an application with the click of a button was game shifting. No matter how that installation took place (the application wasn’t actually being “installed” on your computer), it made people realize that a centralized application directory owned by the platform owner was a great model.

It was so great that every other social network adopted the model within months and now we have Facebook, MySpace, Orkut, hi5, imeem, Bebo, Friendster, Meebo and many others all with their own platforms. The majority all have their own application directories. While this new model of distribution was made popular by Facebook (as far as I can tell), all other operating systems and platforms have adopted this model.

Not only has there been a paradigm shift for platform owners but consumers as well. Users of Facebook should soon be asking, why can’t I access software for my computer the same way that I can on Facebook and MySpace?

Distribution is Going Mobile

Fortunately for Apple, you can! When Apple released their iPhone this summer, users flocked in droves to downloaded the latest applications that they could install on their phone. Millions of applications have been downloaded and it appears that the trend isn’t stopping. Google has announced their Android market which will launch later this year, Microsoft has announced their intent to launch a mobile distribution product and all the other platforms are racing to do the same.

Earlier this week I learned that Nokia has their own application directory. According to one person I’ve spoken to at Nokia, they’ve had this for years it’s just that most consumers in the U.S. haven’t been aware of it. The bottom line is that every single mobile operating system will soon have a centralized software distribution service.

All Operating Systems Will Have Central Distribution Channels

The race began with social platforms and transferred to mobile but I would argue that the battle will transfer to all operating systems. For example, why can I only download applications for my iPhone or iPod touch within iTunes? Shouldn’t I be able to download software for my computer? Apple hit a grand slam when they launched iTunes in that it runs on both P.C. and Mac!

The only competitor that Microsoft has is the Zune and so far there are no signs that it has been extremely successful (although I have friends who rave about it). Apple started by cornering the market on legal music distribution and they may end up cornering the market on legal software distribution if Microsoft doesn’t do something about it quickly.

While you can get into a theoretical discussion about the future of cloud computing versus personal computing, the reality is that most consumers still use personal consumers and install software on them. There is still a giant market for this and as far as I know there isn’t a central location for downloading all the applications you need for your computer.

Do you know of any alternative software distribution channels? What are your thoughts on this new paradigm?