Intel launches an app store for netbooks


Apps, apps, apps. It’s all you hear these days isn’t it? We’re constantly being informed “there’s an app for that”. Of course, they’re all refering to apps that run on Apple’s iPhone, iPod Touch and soon the iPad. But not for long…

Intel is attempting to take the netbook category of PC beyond its initial scope of a low-cost, portable PC, and into the realm of a dedicated platform for app developers, using the very successful storefront model pioneered by Apple for their touchscreen devices.

AppUp is the name for Intel’s netbook app platform. It is a downloadable application that will work on any Intel-powered PC – not just Atom-based netbooks – and provides a one-stop-shop for browsing and acquiring apps that have been built specifically for netbooks. AppUp is currently in beta and will only install on WinXP and Win7 machines.

Unlike the majority of programs written for the various Windows OS flavours, AppUp apps are specifically geared for the small screens and the low-power Atom processors found on most netbooks.

Once you install AppUp, it will appear as an icon on your desktop and Start menu (if you choose this during the install). Launching AppUp takes a surprisingly long time given that it is supposed to be a starting point for small and fast apps for your netbook, but this may be a reflection of the program’s beta status. The AppUp interface  – much like the apps it provides – is a simplified experience that favours large buttons and minimal text, the entire UI runs at 1024×600 resolution which means it takes up 100% of the typical netbook screen. It can’t be increased or decreased or even repositioned, so for people who own HD-level netbooks (typically 1366×768), or for people running it on non-netbooks, it will simply stick to the top-left corner of your screen. Once you launch AppUp, it will ask you to sign in.

In a move that will hopefully be reconsidered once AppUp leaves Beta, Intel forces you to provide a credit card during sign-up. Without this, you can’t access the store at all, even if you’re only interested in the free apps. This will surely prevent many would-be users from joining – especially given that netbooks are a favourite amongst the student population, a group that doesn’t typically have their own credit cards.

The overall UI is divided into two main tabs, “Store” and “My Apps”.

AppUp Store Tab

AppUp Store Tab

In the Store, you can find apps using the built-in search tool, or browse by “favourite categories” (there are 18), or by three other classifications: Staff Picks, Top Rated, Most Downloaded and New Releases. Depending on the app, downloads are free, or paid. While you can choose to display only Free or Paid or All apps once you are within a category e.g. “Business”, there isn’t a global listing for all Free apps.

Clicking on a listed item takes you to the app’s download area where you can read a short description, see screenshots if available, and check out user reviews and ratings. You can only submit a review once you’ve successfully downloaded and installed the app.

AppUp My Apps Tab

AppUp My Apps Tab

The My Apps tab works just like the home screen on an iPhone/iPod Touch: this is where you can launch any apps you have downloaded. Installed apps appear as large, friendly icons which can be displayed as a grid, or a list, and can be sorted by Title, Rating, Free, Paid or All. There doesn’t seem to be a way to customize this screen to display specific apps, which is also something that should be reconsidered for the full release.

Also present on this tab are a collapsible lists showing you your most recent downloads, downloads that are either in progress or pending, and any updates that might be available for apps you already have.

App sizes are fairly small, averaging about 30-50Mb each. For a first test, I downloaded the free app Boxee, a program that is designed to turn your PC into a TV-based media center. The download and install process went well, albeit a tad slow given the speed of my net connection. Running Boxee was also smooth and it looked great as a full-screen experience, though being in Canada means NetFlix and Pandora options are not available.

Unfortunately, this is where my experiment ran into trouble. I wasn’t able to successfully download and install any other apps after Boxee. More frustrating was that AppUp suddenly decided I didn’t have an internet connection. This might not be such a bad thing if it only meant that I couldn’t browse new apps and do downloads, but for some reason it locked up the “My Apps” tab for ages before finally letting me see the apps listing. Once I could see it, my one and only app (Boxee) took several minutes to launch. An internet connection is apparently a very good thing when using AppUp!

Such things are not unusual with Beta-ware, but judging from some of the reviews on the apps, I’m not the only one encountering bugs.

Although at first it seems as though you need to have the AppUp program running in order to use your downloaded apps, this isn’t actually the case. Your downloaded and installed apps appear in your program menu and you can run them even if AppUp isn’t open.

Intel is on to a very good thing with AppUp. The netbook market is already much bigger than anyone anticipated. Millions of units sold means that there is already a significant base of users who are potential AppUp customers. iPhone app developers who have spent considerable time and resources creating small screen experiences for that device should take a serious look at AppUp. If your plans already include a larger-screen experience aimed at the forthcoming iPad, an AppUp port might well be worth your while – it’s hard to imagine that there is going to be massive overlap between these two audiences.

If you own an Atom-powered netbook, you owe it yourself to download AppUp and try it out. I realize the credit card requirement will put off some of you, but it’s a minor inconvenience for the ability to access a growing library of apps that were built from the ground up for your screen size and processor power. Then head back here and tell us what you thought.