If you have any doubts about the app economy, consider this: Chinese search giant Baidu is paying $1.9 billion for an app store. That amount is nearly double the market value of Barnes & Noble, which is the largest U.S. bookstore chain with 680 locations and a website.
Baidu's deal also values the app store, 91 Wireless, higher than the market caps of Office Depot and OfficeMax, retail chains more than 20 years old that also sell software, as well as staplers and reams of paper.
91 Wireless is the biggest app store in China that's not run by a smartphone-system provider, such as Apple or Google. The digital shop carries applications that can run on iPhones, iPads and Android devices. NetDragon Websoft, the game maker that's the majority shareholder in 91 Wireless, said its app store was worth just $115 million last year, Bloomberg's Lulu Yilun Chen reported.
Of course, app stores aren't leapfrogging all brick-and-mortar retailers. Staples and Best Buy each has a market cap that's several times larger than the price paid for 91 Wireless. And considering that gaming apps are a big revenue driver in mobile, game stores also merit a comparison. 91 Wireless's value is a fraction of the $5.2 billion market cap of video-game seller GameStop. (Although, as a counter point, that's almost equal to what Apple has paid to developers selling digital wares on its platforms so far this year.)
Third-party app stores like 91 Wireless haven't taken off in most countries. People simply use the digital stores by Apple and Google that are built into the operating systems. And to enhance its app store, Apple bought Chomp, one of the largest third-party app directories in the U.S., for $50 million, a person familiar with the matter said last year.
China, being the world's largest Internet market, has seen homegrown competitors emerge. Lenovo Group's app store has served more than 1 billion downloads. It's that kind of number, and deals like Baidu's, that make the app business hard to ignore.