Amazon’s TestDrive Is the Real Strength of Appstore

Amazon launched TestDrive Monday, a slightly delayed feature of the Appstore it introduced last week as a marketplace for Android (s goog) software. TestDrive allows prospective app buyers to run a live preview of an app before they spend any cash, with an Android device emulator that runs in their browsers. It’s a big win for Amazon, but also for Android as a whole.

If you haven’t yet had a chance to try the new TestDrive features, head over to Amazon’s (s amzn) Appstore and give it a whirl. For the time being, you must be in the U.S. to see the new app previews, and only certain apps have the feature enabled. Angry Birds Rio, for instance, can’t be played using TestDrive, but other games, like Bubble Buster, run amazingly well in the emulator. TestDrive doesn’t just provide a vague idea of what an app would be like on a mobile device, as is the case with preview videos. Instead, it actually represents a good idea of what to expect when using the software on your phone.

Or on your prospective phone, and that’s where TestDrive really has a chance to make its mark on the app and smartphone landscape. As an app store, Amazon’s offering faces some serious early hurdles. For one, it’s not yet shipping natively on any devices, which automatically means it’s at a disadvantage when compared to Google’s own Market for Android devices. AT&T (s t) Android users can’t even use the Amazon Appstore yet, at least not until the telco makes good on its promise to enable purchases in the near future. Some note it takes far more steps to get software from the Appstore onto an Android device than it does using other options, which is not good in the app business, where easy purchasing mechanisms often lead to a higher volume of sales.

But with TestDrive, Amazon offers what no other mobile app sales space has yet been able to effectively provide: the ability to try before you buy. Apple’s (s aapl) App Store often sees “lite” or free versions of apps offered alongside paid ones with limited functionality, but this isn’t available across the board, and users may not realize this option even exists even in cases where it is available. Google’s Android Market once offered a 24-hour trial period, but that window has been closed to only 15 minutes. Plus it’s more “buy, then try” than try before you buy, and again, may not be something users are necessarily aware of.

Neither option offers the ability to test an app in advance of purchase without even owning the device needed to run the software, the way Amazon’s Appstore now does, and that’s precisely what could make the Appstore so disruptive. TestFlight TestDrive can sell not only apps, but also the experience of Android itself, which might be enough to sway customers on the fence about whether or not to make the jump to a smartphone, especially those who have little prior experience with such a device. If Amazon can convince hardware partners that providing built-in, on-device access to its marketplace on their handsets is the best way to make brand-loyal customers out of these new converts, it should have device makers lining up to work with its store.

Hopefully, this works as a wakeup call for Apple and others, encouraging them to introduce similar means of previewing an app prior to purchase. Apple’s unlikely to willingly embrace such a model for the same reason Google narrowed its return window, as it’ll lead to fewer impulse buys and decreased overall revenue. But if Amazon’s model is one that customers find appealing enough to switch camps for, competitors will have no choice but to follow suit.