Katherine Boehret

PC Downloads as Easy as an App

Installing software on a personal computer can be a time-consuming and tedious process that’s nowhere near as fast and effortless as downloading an app for a smartphone. Now there’s a better way: Get an app for your PC.

After successfully proving the popularity of app stores on mobile devices, Apple and Google have brought them to the personal computer. In January, Apple unveiled a version of its app marketplace to computers: the Mac App Store. In December, Google gave PC and Mac users a way to download apps on their computers using the Chrome Web Store, accessible via Google’s Chrome Web browser. Each of these marketplaces includes a different set of apps than those available for mobile; Apple’s offers about 3,400 apps and Google’s, about 3,700.

Apps (short for applications) are programs that have been around for decades, going back to the Palm Pilot years. But Apple changed the game in 2008 with its developer-friendly App Store, which now hosts some 350,000 apps that have been downloaded over 10 billion times on the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad. Apple’s Mac App Store is a new way of organizing and distributing traditional programs that are installed on the computer, while Google’s Chrome Web Store offers apps that run in the browser and are remotely stored on the Web, not on the PC.

Apple’s Mac App Store surprised some users of the Snow Leopard operating system by popping up after a routine software update. An icon labeled “App Store” suddenly appeared in the system dock, and opened to reveal what looked much like a simplified version of Apple’s iTunes Store. The Mac App Store includes five quick ways to navigate through apps at the top: Featured, Top Charts, Categories, Purchased and Updates. This last section lights up with a number when an update is available for one of the downloaded apps, much like on the iPhone or iPad.

I signed into the Mac App Store using my iTunes account, which meant that any gift certificates or credits I had in my account carried over for use here. Suggestions of apps to download are offered in a visually digestible way, with lists like Staff Favorites, Top Free, What’s Hot, and apps sorted by category like Education, Medical and Social Networking.

One of the best features of the Mac App Store is that it gives users a way to download software they otherwise would have to buy and install using physical disks. And it lets people download individual programs, like iPhoto for $15, rather than buying the $49 suite of iLife ’11 (which includes iPhoto, GarageBand, iMovie, iWeb and iDVD). I used the Mac App Store to download just iPhoto in roughly 25 minutes. The Mac App Store also offers iWork apps individually for $20 each.

A Mac App bonus: As soon as a program is installed, a clever animation makes the icon for the program gleefully hop from the Mac App Store down into the system dock.

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The Chrome Web Store sorts apps into categories and stores them in the cloud, not locally on the PC.

Some popular games and apps found on the original App Store, like Angry Birds and Twitter, can be found on the Mac App Store. The TweetDeck and the NPR apps—two apps that I use a lot on my iPad—aren’t available, however. And there’s still no way to wirelessly sync one downloaded app to multiple devices, like downloading the Twitter app on the Mac App Store and seeing that app appear on my other Apple devices, like the iPad and iPhone.

Speculation continues about a cloud service that Apple will supposedly offer, allowing people to sync and store music and apps, but nothing like this is available today.

Google’s Chrome Web Store differs from the Mac App Store in several ways. First, it’s available to anyone who has downloaded the Chrome Web browser on a Mac or PC. Apple’s Mac App Store is only usable on Macs. Second, some of its apps, which run off the Web rather than on the computer, replace entire programs that would otherwise run separately on the PC.

An example of this is TweetDeck, which runs in its app format just like the separate TweetDeck program that users must download and run separately on their computers. The Windows PC at my office has trouble running TweetDeck in its computer-run version, but it worked like a charm with the in-browser version from the Chrome Web Store.

Since Chrome Web Store apps are remotely stored in the cloud, people can use Chrome sync to synchronize data across multiple computers including apps, bookmarks and preferences.

This all goes along with Google’s overall strategy to create a Chrome operating system for the computer that encourages users to run all programs from their Web browsers and to store a majority of their data in the cloud.

The Chrome Web Store doesn’t offer large programs for permanent storage on the computer like Apple’s Mac App Store. For example, one of the most expensive apps that can be downloaded in the Chrome Web Store is Fraboom Gold, a self-described interactive children’s museum that costs $6 a month for a subscription. Apple sells Aperture 3, the company’s photo-editing software, for $80 at the Mac App Store.

Downloading and installing apps from the Chrome Web Store takes a click of the on-screen Install icon. After apps download, they appear on the home page of the browser, each represented by a large, colorful icon. These apps run in their own separate browser tabs. Notifications from some apps pervasively pop-up on the screen, even if that app’s tab isn’t on the screen.

Many of the Chrome Web Store apps I’ve downloaded were free, including TweetDeck, PostPost, Flixter, Salon for Chrome, NPR for Chrome, Read Later Fast, Amazon Windowshop and Word 2—a multiplayer game like Scrabble. Apps that aren’t free can be bought by entering credit-card information, and some app use in-app payments.

Meanwhile, if you’re looking for a way to buy an app for your mobile device while you’re on your PC, Amazon offers a hybrid approach by using the PC browser to sell apps for Android mobile devices. The Amazon Appstore for Android is accessible through the Amazon.com website, and can be installed on Android devices by entering a phone number or email, which sends a link to devices for downloading the Amazon Appstore. On the PC, people can click “Test Drive Now” to try apps on a simulated Android device before downloading the apps. A different free app is offered daily in the Amazon Appstore for Android.

It’s clear that stores selling apps are a hit on mobile devices, and the migration of these stores to the personal computer is a great help for consumers who want simpler methods of downloading free and paid apps for news, social networking, productivity, games, and education.

Write to Katherine Boehret at katherine.boehret@wsj.com


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