A History of Apps: How Mobile Computer Programs Took Over the World in Just 25 Years
In 2010, Nevada Public Radio explored a form of technology unfamiliar enough that it still required an introduction.
“An app is like a mini-software device that resides on your phone or another mobile device that can serve up anything from weather to games to news to whatever else a person is interested in seeing,” explained Aron Ezra, Chairman and co-founder of the software company Plan A Technologies.
Host Dave Becker assured listeners these apps would potentially be “changing the way we live, work, and travel.” Indeed, he noted they were already having a major impact with “over five billion downloads in just under two years — yes, that’s billion with a b!”
Of course, apps have kept right on growing. Six years after Ezra announced this new fangled "app" concept, over 140 billion apps were downloaded. By 2021, annual downloads topped 230 billion.
These numbers become even more impressive when one remembers that there are less than eight billion people on the entire planet. And they turn downright mind-blowing when you recall the first app only appeared in 1997.
Technology has a way of making the past feel __ distant — the pre-light bulb world is dramatically different from the one in which we reside today. And there have always been tech breakthroughs that turned obsolete almost overnight — in 1860, the Pony Express allowed Missouri to communicate with California in a mere 10 days! It was a triumph and remained one all the way to 1861, when Western Union built its first transcontinental telegraph line. Coincidentally (or not), this was also the year the Pony Express went out of business.
Yet the rise of apps is still remarkable, as they have achieved ubiquity in a seeming blink and, equally swiftly, reshaped the way we live our lives.
But first, we had to figure out the phone.
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The Slow Trip to Smart Phones
While there’s still debate over who invented the phone, it is indisputable, however, that Alexander Graham Bell got the U.S. patent in 1876. Thus began its gradual rise. By 1900, there were over 76 million people in the U.S., yet only 356,000 phones. By 1970 — nearly a century after Bell’s patent — there were over 200 million people in the U.S. and 120,218,000 phones.
The phone itself evolved at a measured pace. In 1973, Motorola engineer Martin Cooper made the first cellphone call, but of course — as those who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s remember all too well — cellphones didn’t instantly replace landlines. The first commercial cellphone, Motorola's DynaTAC, became available over a decade later in 1984.
DynaTAC was not an immediate sensation. In today’s dollars, it cost over $10,000 and it weighed nearly 2 pounds, meaning it was off-limits to all but the wealthiest — and strongest — of consumers. (Although rumor has it that the battery is still fully charged).
Still, the foundational technology was there. In 1993, IBM and BellSouth unveiled Simon, the world’s first smartphone. Its makers described it as the “first real personal communicator because it was designed to be a cellular phone — a communications device — first, and a computer second.” Still, one likely won't recall the Simon Personal Communicator. In 1999, a more memorable device arrived: the Blackberry. In 2007, Apple unleashed the iPhone onto the masses.
But we get ahead of ourselves. Because a revolution kicked off with a simple game.
It Starts with a Snake
Snake was by no means an innovative video game. You controlled a snake and, as it grew, you tried to avoid trapping yourself. (The premise had appeared in earlier titles, such as 1976’s Blockade.)
But in 1997, Snake became very unique. Why? Because it came with the Nokia 610 phone.
Suddenly, we had an app.
In 2014, TechCrunch’s Matthew Panzarino wrote that early apps let you transform your phone into a “mostly mono-purpose device”: “Now it’s a phone. Now it’s a calculator. Now it’s a messaging tool.”
Thanks to Nokia and the Snake, a phone became a game player.
For consumers, this was a radically new understanding of a phone. After all, they hadn’t even been able to buy cordless ones until the 1980s!
But real app advance kicked off in 2008.
Apple and Apps
In 2007, Apple put out the first iPhone. The next year, Apple opened its very own App Store.
How was it received? Well, 8/10 of you are most likely reading this story off an iPhone.
Steve Jobs put it this way: “The App Store is a grand slam, with a staggering 10 million applications downloaded in just three days.”
While at this point it was still million with an m instead of billion with a b , Jobs had every reason to be pleased. As Ezra noted in that 2010 interview: “[The App Store] unleashed the flood of technology we’re seeing today.”
Looking back, Ezra said, “That flood just kept flooding.”
It sure did. In their “grand slam” press release, Apple boasted that “800 native applications are now available on the App Store.”
That’s right: 800.
Today, the App Store offers nearly 3.8 million apps, as well as over 1 million games.
While he expected apps to succeed, Ezra still marvels at the speed with which they exploded: “Some companies went from viewing apps as a novelty to recognizing them as an absolute necessity overnight.”
How a Technology Takes Over So Quickly
The first reason, of course, was the public’s embrace of mobile devices (particularly smartphones). An App Store isn’t much use if no one can access it. It was big news when Apple first sold a million iPhones. Now they sell over 200 million each year … all the while still trailing Samsung.
The second reason is the ease with which you can acquire apps: You just pick up your phone and within seconds you have one, most likely for free. Compare that to the initial rise of the telephone.
Seriously, go listen to the Glen Campbell song “Wichita Lineman” and appreciate how difficult building and maintaining those telephone poles could be.
The third reason is more complex. It’s a cycle most of us have experienced. We realize we require apps to do our work and generally get through our days … which in turn alters how we use our time … which more often than not results in more app usage and since we’re using them anyway we might as well get the right ones, so ….
It all adds up to billions with a b. And by at least one measure, trillions with a t.
Tech and Total Transformation
Much like apps, Ezra’s life has changed radically in the last dozen years. When Ezra conducted that interview in 2010, he had yet to co-found Plan A Technologies. Back then, he was still the CEO of his first startup, MacroView Labs. He was appearing on Nevada Public Radio to discuss two apps that offered “geo-targeted content” for the Las Vegas area. (The host repeatedly mentioned the unusual term and asked him to explain it.)
Ezra went on to sell MacroView Labs in 2011. He sees Plan A Technologies as a logical evolution from his former company.
“Back then, we were focused on creating one type of technology solution — mobile apps," he said. "2008 was a great time for it, since almost overnight just about every company wanted one.”
“Today, mobile apps are still important, but HTML5 and the mobile web have made huge strides since then, and many companies do just fine with a responsive mobile-friendly website rather than a native app," he said. "These days our team has branched out into creating not just mobile applications but complex custom software platforms and digital transformation solutions for all kinds of different organizations.”
Despite the progress made on the mobile web, native apps are here to stay. In 2021 alone, people spent 3.8 trillion hours using mobile apps. Indeed, mobile apps now consume a third of Americans’ waking hours.
Is this just the way things are now? Are apps as permanent a part of our lives as light bulbs … or are they a bit more fleeting? Not a blip like the Pony Express but a bridge to something else, much as the telegraph helped lead to the telephone?
Ezra doesn’t claim to have the exact answer, but notes there’s a rule that holds true in tech: “What’s cutting-edge today will be a museum relic soon enough."
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