App Store: 3B Downloads Today, 10B Tomorrow?

Even as the excitement over the tablet reaches seizure-inducing levels among personal technology enthusiasts, Apple (s aapl) flipped on another publicity strobe light with the announcement of 3 billion downloads from its App Store.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs was astonished yet ebullient in a press release:

“Three billion applications downloaded in less than 18 months — this is like nothing we’ve ever seen before…The revolutionary App Store offers iPhone and iPod touch users an experience unlike anything else available on other mobile devices, and we see no signs of the competition catching up anytime soon.”

And he wouldn’t be Jobs without getting a jab in at the competition. With more than 100,000 applications, running on some 60 million devices, the App Store is a behemoth next to competitors Google (s goog) and Palm (s palm). Google’s Android Market has somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 applications to choose from, while the anemic App Catalog of Palm has just managed to reach 1,000 applications.

The funny thing is, Apple may have had no idea this would happen.

When the iPhone was first introduced, Jobs himself pushed the web app model for development.

“Developers and users alike are going to be very surprised and pleased at how great these applications look and work on iPhone,” Jobs said. “Our innovative approach, using Web 2.0-based standards, lets developers create amazing new applications while keeping the iPhone secure and reliable.”

That lasted about a year, and while some think it was Apple’s plan to downplay an SDK even while it was under development, the Financial Times suggests the company was surprised by the success. Referring back to October when the App Store reached 2 billion downloads, Kleiner Perkins partner Matt Murphy opined that “most people within Apple, if you had told them it would be a fifth of that by now, they would have been pretty happy.”

That may be true, but you can bet Jobs & Co. haven’t spent their time lounging about on piles of cash in happy astonishment since then. The Apple tablet is set to launch with access to that same App Store, and that may be the secret of its success. With potentially hundreds of millions of App Store customers, and more than a 100,000 apps already in the store, the tablet has a built-in advantage unlike any competing product.

A successful tablet, a new iPhone, perhaps on Verizon (s vz), will only further the success of the App Store, and thus the hardware that runs the software. It’s a perpetual success machines that begs the question: How long before 10 billion downloads?