The App Store model faces disruption from HTML5

iTunes App Store, Android Market, and Windows Mobile Marketplace

Today's Wall Street Journal features an article by Christopher Lawton that talks about the difficulty independent app stores face when competing with Apple and Google for developer and consumer attention. Paul Reddick, chief executive of third-party app store HandMark told WSJ that he couldn't simply bet the whole company's fate on independently distributing apps with a presence like Google to compete against.

It may not even be a prudent bet to be in the app store business at all.

SPIL Games, a Dutch company that built its audience of more than 130 million gamers on browser-based Flash games, has found that the behavior of casual gamers doesn't translate well to the app-based distribution model.

"We have always had the kind of experience where users can play immediately," Peter Driessen, CEO of SPIL Games told Betanews this morning. "There's no downloading and installing. It's just browse and play right away. Casual gamers usually try five or six different games before they settle on one they like."

SPIL, therefore, has ported its entire network of 47 casual gaming sites into mobile-friendly HTML5, so users can quickly browse through the lists of games, trying different ones on for size.

"We've tested in app stores, and we can't bring that quick, casual experience into [them]. HTML5 lets us bring that experience to users on all the compatible platforms out there...connected TVs, iOS devices, Android devices, PCs, and others," Driessen said.

It's an approach that Google and Apple have taken for bringing services like Latitude and Google Voice to the iOS platform. Unlike an app that would have to adhere to Apple's strict App Store guidelines while simultaneously catering to the feature-disparate iPhone versions, a fully-featured HTML5 Web app could cover more ground. HTML5 games, likewise, could be written once, and cover a lot more devices.

With companies that deal mostly in Flash-based games, this portability is crucial. Take, for example, Zynga, makers of intensely popular Flash-based social games like Farmville and Mafia Wars. Even though the company has more than 20 social games, and is the top Facebook application developer by a rather large margin, the company has not necessarily translated this into a great presence in the mobile space.

Zynga has made iOS apps out of five of its most popular games, and only recently announced that it would be developing apps for Android. Farmville for iOS, Zynga's best-performing iOS app, is currently ranked #64 in iTunes' top 100 free apps.

"For developers, everything is tied together." said Driessen. "If they want to make a mobile game, or to launch on a new platform, they can base everything on the same [HTML5] source code."

In three years' time, Driessen expects half of SPIL's business to come from its HTML5 games. By that point, the burgeoning Web standard should be reaching the candidate recommendation stage and its presence in mobile handsets, PCs, and connected entertainment devices. In the meantime, the company is hoping to attract indie game developers to the HTML5 camp with a six-month long contest to develop the best HTML5 casual games, with three winners every month.

"We believe it'll be the future of gaming. Every month we've gotten quite a few great new game submissions, and sometimes we can't put some of them up because they're still very experimental," Driessen said.

So as the technology grows, so too does the possibility that a great mobile game could simply exist as an HTML5 website that everyone has access to, rather than an app that has to be individually ported for listing in each platform's app store. SPIL's search for the next great casual HTML5 game will continue until March 2011, and the next prize-winning game submissions will be announced in the coming weeks.

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