Why Microsoft’s “App Store” Block Attempt Will Fail

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The Financial Times reports today that software publishing behemoth Microsoft has filed a motion with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office this week, objecting to Apple being awarded the trademark “App Store.”

From the Financial Times;

Apple applied to have the term trademarked in 2008, shortly after it launched its App Store for the iPhone. However, in a motion filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office this week, Microsoft points out that the term “app store” is used as a generic term by lots of companies to describe the online retail outlet used to sell mobile phone applications to consumers.

Microsoft lists other smartphone developers with App Store-like services (Research in Motion, Palm, Nokia, Samsung and, of course, Google) claiming that they all use the phrase “app store” in their marketing materials.

Microsoft trademark legal advisor Russell Pangborn said that the term “App Store” was no different to generic terms like “shoe store” or “toy store,” and that it was “…a generic term [that is] commonly used by companies, governments and individuals. The term “app store” should continue to be available for use by all without fear of reprisal by Apple.”

I don’t know about you, but as far as I can remember, “App Store” isn’t a phrase I ever heard, thought, said, wrote or read anywhere before it appeared for the iPhone. Since then, I’ve seen variations on the term appear elsewhere as alternatives to (and clones of) Apple’s App Store as they have launched on rival platforms — Google’s “Android Market” or Nokia’s “Ovi Store” and so on. In each case, I’ve always thought “Right then — that’s their version of the App Store,” and left it at that.

So what exactly is Microsoft trying to achieve here? They’re suggesting that, because the media at large refer to all these things as “app stores,” Apple shouldn’t be allowed ownership of the phrase. I can only see two reasons for being picky about this;

  1. Microsoft doesn’t trust its PR staff/agencies to avoid using the phrase “app store” in marketing materials (and thereby face the threat of legal action from Apple) or,
  2. Microsoft knows that, as far as customer perceptions go, “App Store” is a term synonymous with Apple’s high quality products and services, making it a valuable term in future marketing efforts. Or, put another way — “App Store” has some pretty glittery coat-tails that Microsoft wants to ride. After all, everyone has heard of the “App Store” — but who has heard of the “Marketplace”?

Granted, Microsoft had their Windows Mobile platform on sale for years before the iPhone was announced, for which third-party software was widely available. But Microsoft missed a trick — as they so often do — by not seeing an opportunity to streamline the process of app discovery, acquisition and updates. That Apple did have the foresight to make third-party application support an enjoyable experience was a breakthrough in the smartphone industry that Microsoft could have delivered first if they had only been more focused.

I’m glad they didn’t, mind you, or else a Microsoft app store would have been titled “Windows Mobile Universal Application Platform Services” or some other such unwieldy mouthful.

As far as I’m concerned, Apple should retain the trademark, since the Mac-maker deserves it. Apple did it first, and Apple did it best. Rather than wasting time and money fighting petty battles, Microsoft should instead concentrate on making their existing “Marketplace” such a compelling and easy-to-use service for Windows Phone 7 users that no one will even care if it’s referred to as an “app store” or not.

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