Apple and Valve have got app stores right, but can Microsoft?

What Windows 8 app store needs to do to succeed

Why a Windows 8 app store is vital for Microsoft

Sometimes, you've got to feel sorry for huge companies like Google and Microsoft. Not very often, admittedly.

Several billion [insert local currency here] in the bank doesn't buy as much sympathy as it does, say, sports cars for executives, especially when the main problem they struggle with is not being able to use that money to snap their fingers and make the world dance to their tune.

Still, every now and again, something happens that makes you realise that even internet billionaires need a cuddle. Case in point, the Apple App Store.

I've been using this over the last month or two, and it's amazingly good. Whatever you think of Apple and its hardware, it's one of the best implemented software stores I've ever seen - instant access to all your major software on any platform Apple device, automatic updates, an easy way to browse for new software, and one-click access to new goodies.

It also begs the question, why the hell has Microsoft never done the same, incredibly obvious thing on PC? The truth is that it's tried before. Remember the Windows Marketplace? Probably not, and now it's closed anyway.

How about the Games For Windows Live store? That's relatively new, but far from impressive, typically offering poor prices compared to other services, direct-download or not (the ancient Age of Empires III, for instance, currently goes for £27.49, compared to £14/£18 on Amazon, while the mediocre-at-best James Bond: Blood Stone is £40 versus £30 on Steam), and with borderline patronising offers.

'Sign up today for free Bulletstorm wallpapers!' it screams, then starts shuffling uncomfortably under the pitying glare. 'These games are Live enabled!' it promises, apparently oblivious to the fact that Games For Windows Live integration is currently about as tempting as an advertising message to the average gamer as 'Free poo in every box!'

At the same time, look at Steam. Steam has issues. When not running specific sales, its prices can often be high. You're locked into its DRM, and its dedicated client application. If Valve suddenly vanished, so would your library.

Yet people don't simply use it, but love to use it. People will buy games they already own on Steam, just to save them the effort of walking to a shelf and finding a CD. Why? What's Microsoft missing?

A matter of trust

Trust. It all comes down to trust - not that the company will still be around in a few months time, but that its goals will still align with customers at that point. Apple, for all its faults, has a reputation for making the best kit it can, so when it produces something like the App Store or iPhone, people sit up and take notice immediately - or at least give it the benefit of the doubt.

Valve has the same thing on both the gaming and digital distribution sides. Unfortunately, most of the other big companies either don't have this factor, or have whittled it away over the last decade.

In Google's case, its big services remain great, but its approach to new services and products (launching them apparently on a whim, then immediately getting bored) has burned a lot of bridges. Much like Microsoft, Google entering a market used to be scary for its present incumbents. Now, unless they're specifically facing its biggest guns, it's not much of a problem.

Knol. Buzz. Wave. Notebook. Jaiku. Google Video as a store. Answers. Orkut. Picasa. Who cares? Even if they work well, too many services have been closed down to get very excited about new launches.

Microsoft is in an even trickier position - the result of things like launching Windows Marketplace and letting it die, or trying to get the industry to back its PlaysForSure media platform, then not using it on its Zune player. People rely on its software, but don't really choose it in the same way that they may choose to buy a Mac.

This lack of the warm fuzzies isn't a problem in the corporate world, but it's a killer whenever the company tries reaching out to consumers. This is the time to fix that. It's effectively confirmed that there will be a Windows App Store baked into Windows 8, and that makes sense. Broadband is more available than in 2004, when Windows Marketplace first hit, and people are more comfortable about buying online than ever before.

It's a chance for Microsoft to claw back some popularity, publicly support its developer community, and use its colossal power to establish fairer rules for things like DRM and online sales. Do I expect that? Frankly, no. Still, a columnist can dream - and I'd love to be proven wrong.

Article continues below