Few people remember it now, but for the first year after the launch of the Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) iPhone in June, 2007, there was no App Store. The device came with a few built-in or "native" apps like a calendar, a clock, and a notebook, along with a couple of third-party apps like the YouTube player and the Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) Maps app. But generally speaking, it didn't run software written by third parties. As a substitute, Apple encouraged developers to build Web apps that would run inside the phone's Safari browser.

So that's what developers did. Over time, they created thousands of Web apps for the iPhone, from word games to weather maps. In fact, you can still find more than 4,700 of these mostly free apps at Apple's little-known Web Apps Directory. But as soon as Apple launched the App Store in July 2008, giving developers an easy way to distribute and charge for their own native apps, Web apps became the neglected Cinderellas at the mobile software ball.

Now Web apps have found their princes. They're the guys at OpenAppMkt, a service launched today by Bay Area developer-entrepreneurs Teck Chia, Flora Sun, and Tim Wuu. Accessible at OpenAppMkt.com, it parallels many of the features of the iTunes App Store, including the ability to buy apps and charge them instantly to a credit card. It will even create an app icon on your phone's home screen. The big difference: It's not under Apple's control.

"Because Apple created this great way to distribute and monetize mobile applications [i.e., the App Store], the Web has kind of fallen by the wayside," Chia told me yesterday. "Part of the reason is that there are not enough services and tools to help developers monetize and distribute their Web apps. And it's also not very easy to find Web applications for mobile devices, and very few people know how to add mobile Web apps to their home screens. So we decided to build this."

Anybody with an app that runs on the mobile Safari browser can sell it through OpenAppMkt. That will be encouraging news for people like Princeton University's Ed Felten, who has railed against the iTunes App Store as a "walled garden" and compared the iPhone and the iPad to Disneyland -- a centrally planned and controlled environment. "There's no way [the App Store] can keep up with the flow of new ideas -- no way it can offer the scope and variety of apps that a less controlled environment can provide," Felten wrote in April. "A third party store would give customers the option of relying on somebody else's judgment (other than Apple) as to which apps are acceptable."

OpenAppMkt has all the same bells and whistles as the App Store, including screen shots from the apps, user ratings and reviews, and an easy, five-click installation process. You can see a list of the most popular apps, or browse by category (games, entertainment, utilities, social networking, music, productivity, lifestyle, reference, travel, sports, navigation, and so on). And befitting its openness, OpenAppMkt has features that Apple has shunned, including social media connectivity: you can share links to your favorite Web apps via Twitter, Facebook, or email.

"We tried to replicate the experience that people have on the native App Store almost exactly," says Chia. "From the user's point of view, buying an app is very similar -- you just click a button, confirm, and it will open instructions for adding the app to the home screen." In fact, the first time you visit OpenAppMkt.com on your iPhone, the site invites you to create an OpenAppMkt icon on your home screen, so you can get back to the store as easily as you would fire up the native App Store.

But while doing all this on the Web makes it easier to share and gives developers more control, Chia and his colleagues didn't create OpenAppMkt as a political statement. They're entrepreneurs, after all. For all app sales processed through OpenAppMkt, the start-up collects a 20 percent commission (in contrast to Apple's 30 percent take).

"We're extremely serious about this," says Chia. So far, the start-up has been bootstrapped, but now that it has launched the marketplace and begun to evangelize it, the company will start seeking outside investment, he says.

But is there really a viable supply of Web apps, not to mention real consumer demand for them? And why would any iPhone user go to OpenAppMkt, when browsing the iTunes App Store is as easy as walking down the aisles of a candy store?

Chia acknowledges that many of the existing Web apps developed for the iPhone -- especially the ones you'll find in Apple's Web Apps Directory -- are outdated holdovers from 2007-2008, before the advent of the App Store. But he points out that many new native apps for the iPhone are actually developed using a combination of Web development tools -- HTML 5, CSS, and JavaScript -- and are simply compiled as native apps for the iTunes App Store, the Android Marketplace, or other mobile app stores before they're distributed. In most cases, these apps could easily be sold in their raw Web form through OpenAppMkt.

In fact, some of the apps featured in OpenAppMkt today, such as the adventure game Hand of Greed and a sketchpad program called Harmonious, are also available as native iPhone apps. The developers "released the Web app for free just to get people to buy the native app," Chia says.

Given the fact that Apple has been promoting HTML 5 and its built-in rich media capabilities as an alternative to Adobe's Flash format, the Cupertino giant ought to welcome initiatives like OpenAppMkt that encourage the development of more HTML 5-based Web apps for the iPhone. On the other hand, if OpenAppMkt were to emerge as a serious competitor to the iTunes App Store, Apple might feel differently.

But part of the advantage of doing everything through the browser -- right down to the OpenAppMkt store itself -- is that Apple can't do anything to stop it. "We don't have a native app at all, and if they tried to block our domain we could just switch to another one," says Chia. "So there is no way for them to really ban us."

But he emphasizes that he'd like to establish friendly relations with Apple. "We are not here to compete against the native App Store," Chia says. "We are here to provide an alternative, and provide more choices, and to give Web developers like ourselves an easy way to distribute their apps."

If OpenAppMkt catches on with iPhone users, Chia says the company will work on an Android version, and then perhaps an iPad version. "Android is the next platform we're targeting," he says. "The only reason we don't support it right now is because adding an app icon to the home screen requires a few more steps than on the iPhone."


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Wade Roush is Xconomy's chief correspondent and editor of Xconomy San Francisco. You can email him at [email protected], call him at 415-796-3024, or follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/wroush.