Raspberry Pi gets an app store

Pi Store

A few months ago, the Raspbian distribution was extended to include an app store. Although the Pi Store has a few minor weaknesses, it could be a big part of future Raspberry Pi development.

Raspbian is the most widely used distribution for the Raspberry Pi, and users have no cause for complaint when it comes to the choice of software: The official repository of the Debian Linux distribution that is the basis for Raspbian lists more than 35,000 packages. Additionally, Raspbian's built-in package manager does a good job of managing all these packages. When the user installs a new program, it checks the existing dependencies on other required software and libraries and resolves them.

The package manager built into Raspbian is great for managing free software that is officially included by the Debian maintainers, but if you want to publish your own programs quickly and easily, you have a problem: You need to set up a third-party source containing the packages for the program you wrote. Future users of the program not only would need to be aware that this third-party package source even exists but would also have to add it to their own /etc/apt/sources.list file on the system before even thinking of installing. Because of all the work involved and the prerequisite knowledge needed, many users would probably prefer to do without the program.

Furthermore, distributing commercial software requires some extra steps for managing payments and licenses, and many users are now accustomed to the user-friendly presentation of app stores for Android and iPhone. They want to access the software from a central location at the press of a button and rate and comment on their choices. Graphic features, such as screenshots, help the user form a quick decision for or against a program. The appeal of such an app store spurred Raspbian to start preinstalling the Pi Store some time ago.

Looking Around

The structure of the Pi Store is intuitive. Like the familiar app stores for mobile devices, the Pi Store presents thumbnails, text descriptions, and user comments on the apps in the store. However, more than just binaries are up for grabs. You will also find Python scripts, PDFs, videos, and other types of files for downloading. However, the choice of media files is currently limited mainly to self-generated tutorials by Pi Store users.

After the installation, you can launch software directly from the Pi Store interface (Figure 1). If your choice is not an executable program, but a media file, you still have a Launch button: If you press the button, it automatically starts a suitable player or viewer for the file.

Figure 1: Installed software can be started immediately from within the Pi Store.

If you are not satisfied with a program, you don't need to perform long searches to locate an alternative (at least in theory). Below each software offering is a list of links to "Similar Items." From a practical point of view, Pi Store currently contains relatively little in the way of content, so you will not always find what you are looking for, but this will probably change over time. You can share your experiences with the downloaded software to other users via the rating system (1-5 stars). Figure 2 shows an example of a program entry.

Figure 2: The detailed view of a program.

Additionally, any user can add comments below the respective store entry. Pi Store displays these comments like a forum thread, so it is quite easy to tell when one user is referring directly to the comment of another user.

Before you can install and evaluate software, you first need to register by providing your email address and a password (Figure 3). After the first login, you will want to access the Settings menu directly. Although this section contains some fairly more irrelevant options, such as uploading your own avatar image, two of the points should not be overlooked: First, you need to enable automatic updates explicitly to the software downloaded via the Pi Store by checking the matching box. Second, the default setting states that you agree to receive marketing email. You can turn this off with a simple click of the mouse, however.

Figure 3: An account is quickly created for the Pi Store.

The Pi Store itself is not operated by the Raspberry Pi Foundation, because the Foundation has very limited human resources. Instead, the Foundation chose IndieCity to manage the store. IndieCity has a good reputation and already has experience with operating similar platforms for independent developers [1]. Note, however, that users need to opt out to disable marketing email by browsing the Settings menu after the first login. (I didn't receive any promotional email during and after testing, so opting out in a timely manner should give you adequate protection against unwanted advertisements.)

Publish It Yourself

Users can easily submit their own content for the Pi Store. You can upload from within the program or via the Pi Store website [2]. After entering a description and uploading screenshots, a moderator first reviews your new store entry. The moderator checks the submitted upload for possible violations before enabling it. Moderation is not carried out by the Pi Store provider itself, but by trusted members of the community. Overall, publishing your own software is fairly straightforward. If you still encounter problems, helpful hints are available online [3] [4].

The operator welcomes both free and commercial software. Even if programmers publish work free of charge, they can still request voluntary donations from satisfied users. In both cases, buyers or donors first pay an amount of money to the Pi Store via PayPal. IndieCity forwards the funds, 14 days after receiving the payment, to the actual author; there is no minimum payout amount.

In the case of donations for free software, IndieCity deducts 15 percent of the amount as a fee. Commercial programs that implement the operator's own copy protection mechanism (the IceLib SDK) are also charged 15 percent. This amount increases to 25 percent if you do without copy protection. IceLib's DRM offers programmers an API, which lets them verify that the person who uses this combination of email address and Pi Store password, has actually acquired the software.

Again, this approach is reminiscent of the Android app store. Piracy quickly became a problem there because, for a long time, it was quite easy to back up an app from a rooted phone and install it on another device. (Most Android apps prevent this behavior by verifying the legitimate purchase of the app using a query against the Google server.)

The necessity of introducing a similar copy protection mechanism for the Raspberry Pi at this stage is doubtful. The few commercial software products currently posted in Pi Store are unlikely to be pirated. Additionally, a DRM (Digital Rights Management) system is not user friendly. That said, however, developers can decide for themselves whether to use IceLlib or to be friendly to their users and do without it.

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