Microsoft working on App Store-like app distribution

Ballmer acknowledges "good work" of Facebook and the iPhone in making it easier for developers to distribute their applications.

Microsoft is working on a software distribution scheme along the lines of Apple's iPhone App Store, CEO Steve Ballmer said at a developer's conference in Sydney last week.

But Microsoft has no plans to mimic Apple in another way, Ballmer added, rejecting the idea of using the open-source WebKit rendering engine to power the company's Internet Explorer (IE) Web browser. Apple relies on WebKit as the foundation of its Safari browser, as does Google for its Chrome.

During the question-and-answer portion of his time on stage at an event the company billed as "Liberation Day" for Australian developers, Ballmer said that Microsoft will soon launch a service that will let programmers sell their wares directly to consumers.

"I actually will agree that there's some good work, particularly at Facebook and also with the iPhone, where both of those companies have made it easier for developers to distribute their applications," Ballmer said when asked whether Microsoft would provide a way for developers to create software and distribute it directly to users.

"[They've] made it easier to kind of get exposure for your applications," Ballmer continued. "There's not much money being made, but the general concept of giving developers a way not only to get their code distributed, but to really get visibility for the code, is a good idea."

Apple's App Store, which launched in July along with the iPhone 3G, has been a phenomenal success, according to CEO Steve Jobs. During a conference call last month with Wall Street analysts to discuss his company's most recently-concluded quarter, Jobs said that users had downloaded 200 million programs from the App Store since its debut, and that the online mart -- the only officially sanctioned way to add new capabilities to an iPhone -- boasted more than 5,500 applications.

Facebook, meanwhile, has allowed third-party developers to market software on the social networking site since May 2007.

Ballmer hinted that something similar would be coming soon from Microsoft. "We debated long and hard before the [Professional Developers Conference] whether we ought to disclose some of the things that we've got in progress," Ballmer said. The Professional Developers Conference (PDC) was held in Los Angeles last week.

"We decided the answer was 'Not ready to talk about those yet'," Ballmer continued. "But fear not, we're hard at work, and you'll see some of the benefits [of that] with some of the concepts, particularly Facebook's."

Ballmer's lean toward Facebook makes sense. In June, Microsoft said it had prototyped a Facebook knock-off dubbed "TownSquare" and was testing it inside the company. According to Microsoft, TownSquare was designed to run inside enterprises.

Although Microsoft may soon mimic Apple's App Store, Ballmer was less willing to admit his firm would copy Apple in another way.

When a developer asked Ballmer to "explain why IE is still relevant" and questioned Microsoft's use of its own rendering engine, Trident, rather than the open-source WebKit engine, Ballmer rejected the idea that all browsers should use the same foundation.

"I think there will continue to be a lot of proprietary innovation by us, and other people, inside the browser itself," said Ballmer. "A company like ours needs to have [its own] rendering service. It is important that we have a browser that embraces [Internet] standards, but also allows us to have innovative extensions even before the standards bodies go there."

Ballmer did say that he thought WebKit was "an interesting thing" -- though he mentioned only Apple by name, omitting Microsoft's even bigger rival, Google, which also uses WebKit -- and added that Microsoft might consider the open-source engine. Even then, however, he stuck up for IE.

"From time to time we may take a look at [WebKit], but right now we feel very confident in our browser team and its availability to execute," Ballmer said.

Microsoft is currently working on IE8, which hit Beta 2 in late August. The company has not set a delivery date for the final code of the new browser, however.

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Gregg Keizer

Gregg Keizer

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