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What Is An App: A Brief History


“I can’t live without my phone.” Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, we can’t live without our Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Candy Crush Saga.  Ah, mobile apps. They are everywhere and they permeate every single facet of our lives. From shaking us up at dawn, to revealing where the best cup of Joe is. From guiding us to a new watering hole to suggesting a perfect partner. From singing us lullabies to teaching us the steps to a yoga shoulderstand. There is an app for everything. Well, almost everything. They were created for smartphones and tablets. Yet, recent tech developments have allowed mobile apps to run on car navigational systems, TVs, refrigerators and everyday wearable accessories such as watches and eyeglasses.
temple-run

Temple Run mobile game app for Android and iPhones by Imangi Studios. Source: play.google.com

Today, there are over a million smartphone apps available in two of the world’s biggest app stores – Apple’s iTunes App Store (iPhone and iPad apps) and Google Play (Android apps). Wow, a million apps. In general, the app ecosystem has come a long way since the release of the first mobile phone forty years ago. But for the whooping million smartphone apps out there, their history is much shorter: it’s only been less than 5 years since the first major app store, the iTunes App Store, opened in 2008.

downloads-graph Number of apps in Apple App Store and Google Play as at Q1 2012. Source: businessinsider.com

From Bricks To Clicks To Swipes. Mobile apps appeared with the commercialization of cellphones. When Motorola showed off its first-in-the-world mobile phone, theDynaTAC 8000x “brick” phone, the company’s software guys created software – an app – to store contact numbers. Of course, this dinosaur-age contacts app doesn’t come close to the look and feel of today’s contacts apps. Nonetheless, it was still an app and it pushed the then mobile technology envelope. Afterwards, mobile processors became more powerful. Batteries reduced in size and lasted longer. Computer memory grew cheaper. And apps evolved from merely storing names and numbers into more complex life forms.

motorola-brick World’s first mobile phone – the Motorola “brick” phone. Source: http://midlifecrisishawaii.com

nokia-feature-phone-appA Nokia feature phone messaging app. Source: press.nokia.com

Larger pixilated monochrome screens paved the way for more complex apps. “Time wasters” appeared in the form of the 1970’s popular Snake game on Nokia feature phones. Calculators, unit and currency convertors, and personal ringtone makers followed suit. Despite the runaway success of feature phones, their apps were proprietary and confined to the particular phone brand. Phone manufacturers religiously safeguarded their hardware and operating systems, opening their doors only to app developers who were on their payroll. Open source feature phone platforms were unheard of.

snake-game The classic Nokia feature phone Snake game. Source: appview.mobilesecurity.com

Enter the age of smartphones. Users all over the world demanded a hybrid between Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) and phones. So, mobile engineers incorporated PDA functionality into prevailing mobile phones, or added on communications capability into PDAs. Thus the birth of an array of smartphones, from the Nokia 9300 series of business phones to the O2 PDA phones. These manufacturers also figured out that more apps on their mobile platform equal more smartphone sales. So, they opened up and released their platform’s Application Programming Interface (API) to interested app developers in the hopes of attracting them to third-party create apps.

nokia-9300 Early smartphones – the Nokia 9300 and its primitive web browsing app. Source: cyberindian.net

With smartphones, developers were able to build apps that functioned better than their pixilated Snake game and ringtone maker counterparts. Reminder apps and calendars became the norm in phones alongside web browsing and early navigational apps. Game apps grew effervescent and multi-colored with the introduction of colored screens. With the launch of GPRS technology, live news and sports apps arrived at the scene and were quickly embraced by businessmen and sports fans respectively.

The definitive moment for mobile apps came with Apple iPhone’s launch. Apple has always upheld an image of exclusivity and minimalism in their desktops, laptops and iPods. The iPhone, built on the iOS platform, was no different. It was a rare beauty coupled with technologies that made it a quantum leap over its competitors.  And the platform supported third-party apps! Overnight, anyone with programming proficiency could produce their very own iPhone apps and make money trading them on the App Store. This fuelled the explosive growth of apps that made them ubiquitous until today.

iphone The inaugural iPhone. Source: mybroadband.co.za

In the meantime, Google wasn’t about to be left behind. The behemoth sprang on the app bandwagon and developed the open-source Android platform. Developers now could pick between making apps for the iPhone or Android devices; many chose to develop for both platforms. Android gained fame through apps such as RAM boosters and CPU overclocking that let users squeeze a little more juice out their phones. A mid-range smartphone could now behave like a high-powered device. The Android platform is wildly popular among smartphone users who like its openness and highly customizable features. On the other hand, Apple is a walled garden and its phones cannot be customized by its consumers. But it is holding its own by maintaining stringent quality requirements, rewarding developers with higher app revenues and promoting certain apps exclusively through the iTunes App Store.

android Android, the open source mobile platform and formidable challenger to iPhone’s dominance. Source: sparkwiz.com

Progress in device hardware positively influenced the evolution of apps. App consumers used to be confined to operating their apps via numerical keypads or Qwerty keyboards. Not anymore, no siree. The development of touchscreen technology and the introduction of hardware such as GPS, accelerometers and gyroscopes allowed imaginative app developers to create killer apps. It used to be that PC and consoles were the go-to for video games, something like robux a free online PC game (how to get free robux) but now mobile games are taking over the competition with ‘free’ games! With taps, swipes, pinches and zooms on the touchscreen, we can now track our fitness routines via health apps, play physics-based games such as Angry Birds and upload photos with automatic location stamps to Facebook. These killer apps made such an impact on our culture and lifestyle that the world is changed forever.

touchscreen iPhone touchscreen technology. Source: computer.howstuffworks.com

 The Flight Of Flightless Birds. Have you ever been so angry, so mad at somebody, that you wanted to fling yourself, kamikaze style, toward them using a giant slingshot? Perhaps such intemperate anger would not emerge in most of us, but we are all too familiar with the bunch of adorable birds with an anger management issue. Meet the Angry Birds. From the cool-looking leader, Red Bird, to the cute Pink Bird and her bubbles of annihilation, we have played with, laughed at, and even eaten, Angry Birds. That’s right! Angry Birds have become so trendy that some food companies have mass-produced Angry Birds fish balls.

angry-birds-fishballs Angry Birds fish balls. Source: http://lil-by-little.blogspot.com

Angry Birds was conceptualized on the drawing boards of Finnish game developer, Rovio Entertainment. The Angry Birds story is remarkably simple. Mean, hungry but gorgeous green pigs decide to plunder some eggs from their neighboring flightless feathered friends. These birds resolved to unleash a vendetta against the pigs by hurling themselves toward the pigs and obliterating them using a giant catapults. Adopting the same physics codes used in the free game, Box 2D, by Erik Catto, Rovio released Angry Birds version 1 in 2009.

As simple as it sounds, Angry Birds became a huge success. In 2012, Rovio announced that Angry Birds had been downloaded a billion times! The whimsical theme music of Angry Birds became one of the top ringtones in the market. Angry Birds screensavers were plastered on almost every computer and smartphones. Savvy entrepreneurs printed Angry Birds on clothes in hopes of cashing in on the game’s madness. And they were not disappointed as kids screamed at their parents to buy them matching Angry Birds shirts and shorts. Video clips, musical covers and short animations were made out of the crazy, delightful terrestrial birds. Angry Birds was so successful that it was named the most successful app ever.  There are even plans for an animated flick in 2016.

So, what “slingshot” technique did Rovio Entertainment use to reach the skies with this simple app? The developers at Rovio made sure that Angry Birds was continuously updated with newer levels that were distributer free or could be purchased in-app. They released versions of the app that were adapted from successful movies such as Rio and Star Wars. Rovio even pooled resources with NASA engineers when they created Angry Birds Space just to make user experience of microgravity as authentic as possible. These factors plus the commitment Rovio had for maintaining top notch content were what kept Angry Birds soaring through the app cosmos.

The Overnight Pro Shutterbug. Social media networks have always been an activity-filled virtual world where opinions and experiences are shared among like-minded individuals. There, you can make instant friends just as quickly as you can drop them from your network. In the last couple of years, social media has also evolved to include photo sharing. Users would upload raw, unedited photos to their social media accounts to be shared with friends. Only those who took the trouble to download the images into their desktop and used Photoshop could edit and enhance their photos – by adjusting their colors, brightness and contrast, and adding effects – before sharing them on Facebook and Twitter.

Along came the Istagram photo sharing app. What was once a project called Burbn – a play on the slang Burb and urban – by developers Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, Instagram became a huge hit with many amateur photographers with smartphones. The app was initially intended to be a “check-in” app for photography lovers where they were able to snap photographs, upload and share them, all via their phones.

Then, filters were added to Instagram to allow these amateurs to transform their raw piccies. Almost instantly (no pun intended), a whole new culture was born. Teens and young adults alike were posting trivial but “professional-looking” photos of their everyday activities. Pictures of everything and anything, from a favorite cup of coffee, to pet tricks, to the most mundane object, began flooding social network sites. Some Instagram users find it almost impossible to stop taking photos with Instagram because Instagram has turned these amateurs into overnight shutterbugs.

instagram The Instagram effect – creating rock stars out of ordinary folks. Source: designyoutrust.com

Instagram was originally developed exclusively for the iPhone. It then elected to include Android in 2012, which proved to be a rewarding move. Today, half of those using Instagram come from Android devices. Instagram achieved nearly four million downloads by 2012 and was valued at $500 million. The app and its entire team was then acquired by Facebook for $1 billion and the Instagram mobile app was integrated to function alongside the Facebook app. Users were now able to share their filtered images on Facebook instantly.

You Will Never Go Hungry Again. If you think apps are only for your smartphones and tablets you now hold, think again. Samsung will roll out refrigerators with a built-in Android tablet to track the food you have inside, and to order more stuff when they run low. And of course, the built-in tablet allows you to scribble notes. So gone are the days of sticking Post-it’s onto the fridge. Users of the smart fridge can also call up their music collection from their Samsung smartphones or laptops wirelessly. Soon, mothers will be able update their Facebook status, tweet their recipes and play a round Cut the Rope on their intelligent fridge while the beef stew is simmering. Meal preparations in the kitchen will never be the same again.

samsung-fridgeThe Samsung T9000 smart refrigerator runs on Android. Source: gadgets.ndtv.com

There is Google with their Google Glass. These eyeglasses with built-in communications and data retrieval capacity let the wearer obtain real-time information of their environment while communicating with people. All without the need of a phone.  Take a picture, record what you see and share them live with friends. Display a virtual map and driving directions right in front of your very eyes. Send messages and reply emails via voice commands. Ask anything and obtain instant answers. See your schedule and be reminded of your next rendezvous. The world will never be the same after you have seen it with Google Glass.

google-glass

Google Glass – information in the blink of an eye. Source: mobileshop.eu

And what about the highly speculated Apple iWatch? Tech pundits have speculated this future wrist-hugging device to be a full-fledge iOS smartphone coupled with activity and health monitoring services. The iWatch will accept voice commands via the platform’s intelligent personal assistant, Siri, which has, ironically, become many a lonely iPhone owner’s best friend. One must also wonder if the iWatch is able to tell the time too.

iwatch Will the rumored iWatch look like this? Source: technobuffalo.com

Mobile apps are becoming wearable for sure. But to what extend?  Once confined to the phones carried around in your jeans’ back pocket, they are now embedded in eyewear and watches. Mobile apps are not just permeating every facet of our lives. They are, slowly but surely, seeping into our pores, consuming our bodies and capturing our minds.

References:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/App_Store_%28iOS%29
http://9to5mac.com/2012/05/09/angry-birds-passes-one-billion-downloads-video/
http://blog.instagram.com/post/47035276788/instagram-for-android-one-year-later-one-year
http://www.technobuffalo.com/2013/03/04/apple-iwatch-concepts/

 

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