Windows

Where is a Steam-type service for desktop applications?

Windows Marketplace is shifting from being a one-stop shop for Windows apps to being a directory of applications. So what will it take for a service to do well in the on-demand desktop applications space? Justin James shares his thoughts.

Over the last few years, the on-demand delivery of consumer applications has boomed. On the desktop, Valve's Steam service has made buying games quick and painless. In the mobile world, the iPhone, Android, RIM, and Windows Mobile devices all have application stores or will be getting one in the near future. So where is the Steam-type service for desktop applications?

With the launch of Windows Vista, Microsoft introduced a set of technologies to make buying desktop applications very similar to buying games via Steam. There was the Windows Marketplace initiative, complete with a "digital locker" that allowed customers to re-download items and license keys as needed. But when I went to the Windows Marketplace Web site to do research for this article, I discovered that it has been shuttered. Instead of providing a one-stop shop for Windows applications, it will be a mere directory of applications -- and applications in the digital locker? The FAQ says to make sure to download the applications by August 2009 and copy your license keys by then, because it is going away.

The Windows Marketplace was given fairly high-profile attention in the Windows Vista operating system, and the Windows Marketplace and digital locker made it attractive for application vendors to work with Microsoft and alleviate themselves of those burdens such as handling re-downloads, reissuing license keys, maintaining customer accounts, and so on. And yet, Windows Marketplace is clearly a failure. I talked to a number of people about Windows Marketplace; some of the people are very tech savvy and some are not, but none of them were even aware of the existence of the Windows Marketplace, despite being Windows Vista users. Clearly, being "high profile" at the OS level is not enough to be a success.

What would it take for a similar service to do well? Taking a look at what is making money, and what is making developers happy, points the way to success.

  • It must be easy to give your money to the store. After you make your first purchase, you should not have to enter more than your username, your password, and maybe your credit card information to make purchases.
  • It must be easy and obvious. The purchase system must be up-front to the user, in a place that they see all of the time. You do not want the users crawling the Web looking for apps; you want to make your application store more of a habit than Google.
  • It must be publisher friendly. Remember, no participating publishers means no applications. The iTunes market is the only one in which vendors are letting themselves be pushed around; vendors have no choice if they want to develop for the iPhone. For other markets, especially the PC, there are so many ways to get an application onto the device that your store needs to be overwhelmingly advantageous. This means low fees, offloading of basic customer services (help making purchases), handling of product updates, version upgrades, etc. The publisher needs to save enough money internally to justify giving your store a cut of the revenues.
  • It must allow a shareware model. For those publishers who want it, the store must allow a way for customers to try an application, and then pay for it without needing to reinstall it.

The brass ring of such a store would be to see publishers stop selling software through the publisher's Web site and sell through the store exclusively (or nearly exclusively).

There are a few companies that specialize in software sales (e.g., Digital River), but none are destinations unto themselves, and none offer the integration that Steam, App Store, etc. offer. I think the market is ripe for an enterprising company in this space, provided that it can latch onto consumers' newfound discovery of the concept of paying for applications, which was recently revived by the mobile device market.

Do you know of any companies that are already offering this type of service? Is there anything other than what I list for a company to do well in this space? Share your thoughts in the forums.

J.Ja

Disclosure of Justin's industry affiliations: Justin James has a working arrangement with Microsoft to write an article for MSDN Magazine. He also has a contract with Spiceworks to write product buying guides.

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About

Justin James is the Lead Architect for Conigent.

35 comments
csmith.kaze
csmith.kaze

Must allow a FLOSS program, if that is what the developer wants.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

and I'm not a Steam user, but this concept sure sounds a lot like a pay-for-play version of a Linux repository.

jmgarvin
jmgarvin

No more do you have to package CDs, buy shelf space, and then send them off. What's interesting is that Stardock and Steam have been doing quiet well, but it seems like nobody outside the gaming community recognizes that model.

mikifinaz1
mikifinaz1

It is hard do mechanically, sites are difficult to navigate, difficult to find (everyone has an agenda so they try to steer you), security sucks (they have IT departments, users have...nothing, really), then there is shipping and all the travails that entails. Now we all have to return something at some time or other. For most sites it is a hassle with a capital H. I have had two issues with Dell both of which took many months to get resolved to my satisfaction. One I had to go to lengths so extreme it boogles most peoples' minds when I take the time to explain it. Now why would I do business online, unless I was home bound in such a remote location that things came by mule train? Most people don't take the time to figure in taxes, shipping, and the hassle factor. Once that is done in my opinion online shopping is a non-starter.

Slayer_
Slayer_

I got infected with Steam when I bought The Last Remnant. It is now officially, honest to god, easier to steal games, than it is to buy them. You have to jump through so many more hoops to stay legal. And what do I get for the effort, the likelyhood that in 10 years when I want to play this game again, steam will be Belly Up and I can't play it anymore. Not to mention the stolen version has MORE options for the install, including which drive to install it on, unlike steam which is for some stupid reason insists on using my smallest HDD my system drive, for everything. According to steam support, you can uninstall steam and reinstall it to another drive, yeah sure, their installer for me anyways, shows the path, shows a browse button, but its all greyed out and doesn't let me change it. I downloaded TLR from a torrent, just to keep it as a backup for when that day comes. Oh, and why does steam feel the need to minimize (and crash) whatever you are doing when there is an update. Even better, when it launches with TLR, why does it not have the balls to shut itself back down when you close the game. I mean if I specifically launch steam, then fine, leave it running, but if it was launched as a result of trying to play TLR, then it should shut down when it is no longer needed. f**k steam

aandruli
aandruli

Steam is invasive, uses bandwidth and clock ticks wether you like it or not, and shuts down software if any of the steam files gets corrupted or accidentally erased. No steam for me or anything like it! If any software has anything whstsoever to do with steam or a similar ap, I avoid it like the virus it is.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

"It must be easy to give your money to the store. After you make your first purchase, you should not have to enter more than your username, your password, and maybe your credit card information to make purchases." We have differing definitions of 'easy'. The last thing I want is to keep up with yet another single-site username and password. I also dislike the accompanying frustration of being unable to order when I can't remember those credentials, having to go through the 'Forgot password' e-mail dance, etc. If a site doesn't offer the option to enter my billing and shipping data independent of creating an account, I buy elsewhere.

Jaqui
Jaqui

Unfortunately, the desktop apps all tend to be higher in price than the mobile apps. that difference will drive them back into the warez field quickly. a shareware and freeware model might be of more use, but much harder to fund / make money with. Then this model would be in direct competition with CNET's Downloads.com and the twocows downloads site and probably a bunch of others.

Justin James
Justin James

Is the desktop app market so dead to consumers that such a service is not needed? Is there come cultural roadblock to consumers paying for software? Or is an app delivery network a great idea that is finally ready for the desktop? J.Ja

csmith.kaze
csmith.kaze

Or you can use a *FREE Linux repository (comes with up to 20,000 packages (Debian). Before now, I have never made a correlation from Steam to Linux Repo's, but that is a pretty fair description. *Free as in Speech, though usually free as in beer too.

jmgarvin
jmgarvin

It's more robust than clicking on an app to install though. Think XBox Live meets apt-get, and you're getting there...

Justin James
Justin James

Yeah, it's similar to that. It has other things too, like "community features" (like chat) integrated into it to let you get together with your friends while playing games. J.Ja

Second and Goal
Second and Goal

I do it all the time, predominantly through Best Buy. I prefer online purchases (I HATE shopping), I've very rarely had any problems navigating a site. As to tax and shipping, in-store pickup takes care of the latter, and I always mentally factor it in when pricing items I can't pick up locally. As to the application "steering" you to "their agenda" items, how is that different from in-store suggestive selling? Ever heard the phrase "Would you like fries or a drink with that?" It's the exact same thing, but I find it 10 times more annoying when some 17 year old register clerk is asking me the question when I just want to get out of the store.

mattohare
mattohare

Just no one's done it. You're right of course. those are all very valid points of what people have done wrong in the past.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Yeah, Amazon isn't getting anywhere with it. Online shopping is no different from catalog shopping, and that's been a successful marketing and distribution model for over a century.

lordazoth
lordazoth

The only time I really shop online is when I have to order something in from overseas (live in the dirtball known as Australia) that is not available locally or in the country. Other then that I use brick-and-mortar stores. (edited from grammar's sake)

Justin James
Justin James

Like I said above, I never said Steam was a good "application". But as a store, it is excellent. The fact that a lot of game makers are able to get what would be "bottom shelfware" at a store to make some real money on Steam is great. I think that since Steam came out, a lot of smaller publishers and game authors are taking chances on more innovative games, like World of Goo. Likewise, the iPhone App Store encouraged a ton of innovative apps (and still seems to be, despite the increasing difficulty of making real money with it). All because, without these distribution channels, it is impossible to make much money on most application development in the "shrinkwrapped box" market, for better or for worse. Only a handful of companies are making money with shareware, and by and large, their sales come from corporations, not consumers (Ipswitch and WinZip are two good examples). It's kind of sad how hard it is to get consumers to purchase software! J.Ja

Justin James
Justin James

I've not a huge fan of Steam as an application either. But as a *store* it is very good. I've spent much more on video games (most of which I've never even played) since I got Steam installed that I did before. It makes it very easy for me to make impulse buys, which is huge for publishers. Note that nowhere in my article did I refer to Steam as being a good "application". :) J.Ja

Justin James
Justin James

I prefer that as well for some sites, especially ones that I plan to only shop from twice. In fact, for those I prefer it if I can use Paypal, so they get the shipping details from Paypal, and I know that they won't have my credit card details. J.Ja

mattohare
mattohare

It does seem to be a shopping centre of sorts. My memory may be wrong on this, but it seemed like there may have even been a payment facility?

LarryD4
LarryD4

Love Steam and what is has done to make my life easier. As an avid gamer I have spent the better part of 20 years keeping all my original install CDs and license keys on file for all my games. It was and still is a headache, but I'm a pack rat. I still have the 3.5 inch floopy install of Bard's Tale. When Steam came I was the first to scream yell and complain that it's big brother and that they'll mess up my game accounts, yada yada yada. But I have to say Steam as a game management tool alone is awesome. Updates, patches, and the like happen automatically, no wait on crazy dl lines. And they seem to manage my account very well, all my codes are their if I need them. The best part is I can login to any PC via Steam and download and install a game that I own. Yes Applications need a type of Steam to make life so much easier!!

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

and I'm not referring to apt-get. I've no experience with any brand of game console.

mattohare
mattohare

Coke and Pepsi got into a bit of media trouble when the media learnt that the soft drink makers would buy 60% (or more) of the shelf space through parts of the year from the grocery stores. I guess they had to stop or calm the practice. The market companies were quick to point out the same happens for other products. Check out the biscuit/cracker displays and see if one maker seems to have 60 to 80% of the shelf space.

Slayer_
Slayer_

Always a demo of course, but so far, every one of them has been, as you say, bottom of the shelf. In my world I call that Walmart bargin bin. And I blame people not wanting to pay for stuff, on Linux and open source, its all their faults :).

mattohare
mattohare

Now that I think of it, I found my first (and a very nice) webhost on paypal. They even ended up being across town from me at the time. I knew that it was a self-serving thing for paypal, bit it worked for products in general. I don't think it would take much to expand it out with the key locker.

Jaqui
Jaqui

they do have shareware in the downloads, but everything can be downloaded at no cost.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

A brief glance at the web site doesn't show any way to upload licenses for games I've already purchased from other sites. This looks like it might be a good way to ditch all those paper copies and archived e-mails of license numbers.

jmgarvin
jmgarvin

think Windows Update where you can download MS Office and AutoCAD on the fly while also being able to interact with other users, shop for other software, view demos, look at demos, and play interactive media stuff.

ctrogers
ctrogers

Steam has plenty of good games. Just last week, I purchased Fallout 3 for half price ($25) during their weekend special. It downloaded and installed in about an hour, and is such an addictive game, I've spent maybe 30 hours playing it already! I will agree that the steam app is a pain, and seems to be required to keep playing the game. If the game wasn't half price, I'd go with a cd/dvd version everytime! (assuming I wanted to bother with going to best buy)

mattohare
mattohare

Not sure if you saw that bit in how I had used it. :)

mattohare
mattohare

I'm talking about the paypal marketplace that was there before the ebay purchace. Mind, that was years ago. Maybe ebay got rid of it to get more use for its auction rubbish. *chuckle*

Justin James
Justin James

Paylpal was bought by eBay a few years back, so I imagine that any Paypal online store would be tightly linked to eBay. J.Ja

mattohare
mattohare

Then again, I'm not totally confident in cnet keeping a secure locker for me. BTW, did David Hutchinson from there in Vancouver get elected? I somehow got on his spam lists for his election and real estate sales. It's hell to get off his list too. LOL

LarryD4
LarryD4

It depends when the product came out though. I couldn't add the license for Quake 4 since Q4 came out a year before Steam added ID stuff to their list of purchasable games. But apparently if its a product that is available on Steam, even if you buy it on the shelf, you can just install it via Steam and type in your serial num. I purchased UT3 via steam and it has all of my info including serial on my steam account.

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