Murphy's Law: Is it Time for an Open-Source App Store?


The iPhone has its App Store. Linux has its application repositories. Gamers have their Steam. So why, then, does the open-source world not have a centralized database for standardizing application deployment on PCs?

I can see your answer now? "That's crazy!" Elaborating, you'd probably suggest that half of the joy of open source comes from the individual development that people (or groups of people) pour into a piece of software. In short, you probably think they should be free to distribute it as they see fit: via SourceForge, on their Web sites, burned onto a disc and cast into the sea, whatever.

But think about it--just think about it--for a moment. A single, downloadable application that could grant you access to a SourceForge-like list of open source applications grouped by categories, themes, alphabet letters-anything you want! It sounds like a far-off dream, perhaps the whimsical musings of a columnist looking to write something for the week. But I'm not the only one who considers a single-front application "store" for the open-source world as a real, future possibility. No, I've got Novell on my side too.

Finding Apps 101

An open-source "store," and I use that term loosely to keep out the incorrect assumption that applications would come with a price tag attached, would solve a number of problems that hold back more widespread open-source adoption. For starters, there's the name recognition. Go up to a group of average PC users and ask them what their favorite open-source applications are. Odds are good they will have no answer for you. And if they do, they'll probably say Linux by virtue of it being the only open-source software they're familiar with. Maybe Firefox. Even for a grizzled OSS-finding veteran like myself, it's not always easy to get tabs on the latest and greatest projects on the Web.

By combining the information for a wide swath of open-source projects into a single, downloadable application, the program could eliminate the barriers surrounding the discovery process for these apps. Instead of a user being forced to pore over blogs to find new and interesting programs (this one included), the application could categorize all included open-source programs by theme. Want to check out all the applications that have been submitted to the tool's database in the last seven days? Done. Want to filter these down to applications that run on Windows Vista and relate to audio editing in some capacity? Search via filter. Done. Want to queue up some apps to download in a wish list-like fashion once your big Linux distro is done? Click the star icon by each App you want to keep your eye on for later. Pardon the cliché, but the possibilities are endless.

A Description, A Screenshot, A Happy Downloader

Instead of staring at a screen of binaries and snippets of documentation, users could view a brief summary of what each application does, as well as its system requirements and a screenshot or two. Integrated community features would not only allow users to submit bug and help requests a la SourceForge, but would give users a chance to add comments and rate the application. Registered users, validated developers, or important community members could chime in to lend these notes and reviews a voice of authenticity over the general internet mutterings, and good users-like Yelp commenters-could be voted into authority based on their behavior.

Getting Hardcore

But don't think that everything in the open source "store" would be as pretty and one-button-installey as Apple's application store. I'm also envisioning a future where sysadmins, hardcore users, or even the open-source curious could create predefined installation packages for sets of open-source applications. They could use the advanced features of the "store" application to download and deploy this package to individual or networked PCs, ensuring not only a trusted series of applications for a clean-slate PC, but also removing the annoyance of having to manually install one program after the other. These packages could be selected by application, but it would be the program itself that decides which binary or executable gets passed along to the PC depending on the operating system being used. An application store-type concept would also allow users to keep these applications continually updated--an important note, given just how much a typical open-source program can change in any given time.

These are just a few thoughts. How far off am I from Novell's dream? It's unclear. They seem to be in brainstorming (if not daydreaming) mode just as much as me.

"There's a core experience, but then the ability to customize that experience," said Holger Dyroff, vice president of business development at Novell in an interview with PC Pro . "On the user end, all they'll see is an open-source applications store with one-click downloads of new software. Unlike the other stores though, they won't have to pay for any of those applications, which will be very attractive."

Well, at the very least, it's the start of an idea. And if you still think it's loony, I'd like to note that a number of the features I listed above already exist in some fashion on the Web . In fact, some are even open-source programs themselves. We have the database. We have the applications. It's time for someone to make like a Bruticus and combine these elements into a single, easy-to-use, download platform for open source.

Stay informed about all the latest open-source application downloading tools (and awesome programs) by following me on Twitter @acererak !

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