It started at Dries Buytaert's DrupalCon 2011 keynote. In this case, the "shot heard 'round the world" was a pair of words that he seemed to know would cause mixed reactions from the crowd: App store. This wasn't a product announcement, but so far throughout the conference, the term won't seem to die.

It's Inevitable

In a talk on Drupal (news, site) as a mature software industry, it was clear that both Robert Douglass of Acquia (news, site) and Jeff Walpole of Phase 2 Technology (news, site) feel that not only is an app store inevitable, it's a necessary part of Drupal's maturation process as a platform.

Why? Right now, most Drupal development involves creating sites by hand in a one-off process, except cases where installation profiles and tricks enable the quick creation of cloned microsites. (And even there, the microsite prototype is built by hand.) But while being a services company in this way is certainly a viable business model, it's inefficient. The only way to make money is to hand-craft more sites.

Of course, the world isn't all about money. But we all need to pay the bills, and more money coming into Drupal-related companies means more money being re-invested in Drupal companies, which can better invest code, resources and more back into the community. Why not make a living doing what you love?

Not an Announcement

So what does this have to do with Buytaert announcing an app store? Nothing. Both Douglass and Walpole were adamant that none of the powers-that-be are discussing turning into an app store of any kind, at least as far as charging for Drupal apps there. Douglass said that, in fact, he's against that. He'd rather see remain focused on free.

But that doesn't solve the problem of everyone doing one-off sites. For Drupal companies to mature and thrive, Douglass and Walpole both feel that they need to diversify and find ways to create products as well as offering services. What's the difference? Products can be sold repeatedly. Someone can buy your product while you sleep.

Really Not an Announcement

Walpole discussed the fact that the best solutions allow customers to do less, and in a simpler way than before, referring, as you might expect, to companies like Apple. Showing a slide consisting of a car neatly laid out in all of its individual parts, he said that, "not everyone is a mechanic, but everyone wants a car." Right now, installing and setting up Drupal is fairly complex. It needs to be simple.

So where's the app store? While those leaning toward open-source purists had uncomfortable reactions to the commercial tone, there were plenty of people lining up to ask questions about how such an app store would work. Both men envision it being much like other installation managers, whether you're looking at iTunes or a GUI for RPM, where you can browse through a collection of well-defined, special-purpose apps. Once selected, you could install them with a click, with all of the dependencies and other hairy bits handled for you.

But rather than a single, central app store, they both envision more than one, created by companies experimenting with possibilities.

A Little Announcement

It just so happens that both Acquia and Phase 2 Technologies are both feeling out these concepts. Phase 2's OpenPublic Drupal distribution includes what it calls an App Console. It currently contains a number of free example apps, and he invites people to download them, take them apart and use them as a model to submit their own. If nothing else, it's an educational experiment in creating packages that can be dropped into any OpenPublish instance.

Acquia's gone in another direction. It's created an API (which is still in development) for its Acquia Network that lets third-party service providers integrate and hook into its billing system, remotely turn on features for an individual install and more. Douglass points out that through this API, you could sell apps if you wanted, but you could also sell other things such as training.

But neither company is at a point where it's marching out to tell the world about these offerings. Both want to continue their experiments first, working with the Drupal community and, hopefully, convincing people that the idea has merit. Without community buy-in, any app store or platform will be depressingly empty.