Certain events bring us back to where we were and what we were doing. The moon landing, the tearing down of the Berlin wall and, of course, April 4, 2003, when Apple opened its iTunes virtual storefront... and things have never been the same, (at least for digital content).

Unimpressed with the existing rudimentary digital delivery systems, Apple built their own to provide music to their hugely successful iPod product line.

Enter iTunes, a robust online storefront of their own that was easy to navigate, allowed for maximum profit, and laid the groundwork for a modifiable infrastructure capable of accommodating and supplying product to future inventions/devices. Now, with the iPhone, iPad and iTouch, Apple has effectively completed a free market magic circle where you buy the hardware and then have a place to load it with everything from songs to books, to games, et al.

The iTunes store was so radical for its day that Apple had to invent the technology they needed for its construction.....as they went along.

During this time Verizon and other carriers were fumbling along, trying to find a way to go beyond their corporate mission statement of being quality cellular carriers and somehow provide their own product delivery systems; the poor outcome reveals just how fortunate we are that Apple was around to offer a different, better solution, (and how dangerous it can be when a company tries to exceed its mission statement) In a parellel universe, customers still have to make ten keystrokes in order to pay $1.99 for a ringtone. It's a good thing they don't know about this universe. How pissed they would be.

As we prepare to discuss the top "app stores", we start with the ipod and iTunes because that's the birth point for the modern cell phone app store. Prior business models and online product delivery systems were way too inefficient, incomplete and generallly fell short of the imaginative vision Steve Jobbs saw in the form of a full-bodied and crazy functional virtual store front.

When the iPhone was released, Apple had a ready-made virtual storefront from which to sell applications. To give you a sense of just how far ahead of the times Apple was, consider that Microsoft, BlackBerry and Google all launched their virtual app stores within eight months of each other, six years after Apple launched theirs.

Today there are four major players in the "App" business: iTunes, Windows Marketplace for Mobile, BlackBerry App World and Android Market. Each of these virtual stores cater to a "captured audience", since once you decide on a carrier you have, by default, decided on your app store. This may change in the future, but for now each "app" store caters to a hostage consumer group.

That said, we thought it would be fun to examine how each app store stands up when measured against four key metrics: Average cost per app, ease of store navigation, app quality and selection and, finally, any special attributes one store may have that the others do not.

Still with me? Let's go.

iTunes

Apple's iTunes store has the depth and subtlety of business run right for a long time. iTunes is a familiar destination point that customers ease into like a comfortable chair, without having to worry about process. Instead of focusing on which key to hit in order to get to the desired content, users find an intuitive environment well-labled and rich with content and a powerful, context-sentitive search engine.

iTunes has gone through many iterations/upgrades, and stands currently as the brand consumers know best. By producing evocative products that sell well and rely on iTunes for content, the iTunes store wins hands down as the best organized, most powerful online digital content storefront for their products. They have achieved something rarely seen in the free market: they are a friend who takes your money and makes you feel really good about the transaction.

While the number of available apps numbers well over 100,000, a much smaller portion of available apps are actually very successful. There is much duplication in the selection, as in the other three we will consider. But with the advent of customer reviews establishing a popularity ranking of sorts, the consumer is armed with some feedback that can help in the decision process.

Currently, Apple offers more apps than its three competitors. There appears to be a strong

Interestingly, iTunes is a powerful "app" store while also providing product for their non-cellphone customers.. Despite its need to cater to other digital media besides apps, iTunes offers seamless customer interaction, a deep offering of product and quality born of brand name earned through inspired innovation.

BlackBerry App World

The BlackBerry App World store is, well, functional, in a 2006 kind of way. Sure, you have excellent apps and a logical progression from viewing an app's reviews, rating and screen shots, but compared to iTunes and other stores, the whole process seems singular and unfullfilling.

One of the reasons for this is that RIM has long outlived thier operating system. By sheer will and strength of processing ability, BlackBerry continues to be crazy popular on the consumer front,but less so on the developer front. Developers want to work with modern OS's, and RIM is simply out of date.