LG Electronics Inc, the world's No. 3 handset maker, is launching an online store for mobile phone applications Tuesday with an initial focus on Asia and aspirations for a more global reach by year-end.

Phone makers and mobile firms worldwide are in a race to match the success of Apple's App Store, creating their own virtual stores where users can download software and content.

Improving software is key for South Korean mobile phone makers Samsung and LG, which have grown on well-priced handsets but are lagging in the fast-growing smartphowne category.

LG, which trails Nokia and Samsung Electronics Co Ltd in mobile phones, said in a statement on Monday that the LG Application Store would provide 1,400 applications including 100 free programs, available in 15 languages.

The service will first be offered in Asia-Pacific countries such as Singapore, Malaysia and Australia and will reach Europe and the South America by the end of this year, with the number of applications to be offered to increase to more than 2,000 by then, LG said.

LG has not set any firm plan to launch the marketplace in the United States, the stronghold of Apple's iPhone and Research In Motion's Blackberry.

Shares in LG Electronics fell 1.6 percent by 0204 GMT, compared with the wider market's 2 percent loss.

(Reporting by Rhee So-eui; Editing by Jonathan Hopfner)