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A brave new world of apps

Toby Shapshak | 2012-02-27 00:13:18.0
Toby Shapshak. Stuff editor. File photo.
Image by: Times LIVE

ALL the little app called "Mirror" did was turn the green screen of the PalmV black, giving it enough reflectiveness to function as a mirror. It was 1999.

There were many other clever "third-party apps", as the computer industry called them at the time, but this very simple one demonstrated the innovative ware appearing on those small personal digital assistants.

There were others that let you read Microsoft Word documents, or functioned as basic e-readers. When Mark Shuttleworth went into space, he used a Palm with a special app written by a South African company for his task management.

It was the era before smartphones. Before cellphones had a contacts system that let you store more than one number per contact (it was the legendary Nokia 6310 that introduced that in 2002). Before the mobile internet arrived. Before your e-mail followed you like digital heroin. Before the always-on, super-fast, blah-blah-blah that we now take for granted. It was an age when cellphones were still phones and Snake was the most-played game because it was included on every Nokia phone.

Apps have been around for a long time and have been providing additional functionality to portable computers for well over a decade. But some time in the next month, the 25billionth app will be downloaded from Apple's iTunes store to an iPhone and a milestone will have been reached.

We are now, well and truly, in the age of the app economy.

Apps, those clever little software programs that run on our smartphones, are now making millionaires of their developers and have changed the way we consume media, read the news, interact with friends on social networks and, obviously, play games.

The kudos, as is often the case, is going to Apple, whose iPhone 3G allowed apps to run on it. Launched on June 9 2008, the App Store sold 1billion downloads within nine months. It hit 5billion two years later (in June 2010) and had reached 18billion by October 2011.

Though the average price was $1 (R7), many apps are free. When they are paid for, Apple retains 30% of the purchase price and gives the other 70% to the developer who made it. In the three months of the first quarter, Apple said it had given out $4-billion (R30-billion) to developers.

Apple has put a ticker on its website's front page which counts the app downloads - it was on 24728885378 when I started writing this yesterday - and it is offering a $10000 (R76000) iTunes gift card to the lucky person who download the 25-billionth app.

Apart from Apple's usual mastery at creating hype out of essentially nothing, it reveals how much we live in a new era of computing.

One estimate puts the number of apps downloaded last year at 31billion, and the apps economy will be worth $52-billion by 2016, according to Juniper Research.

Apps are the new gateway to the internet's content: repurposing news, sports scores, social network feeds and YouTube into the best way to view them on a cellphone and, increasingly, tablets.

And, of course, there's the poster child of the industry: Angry Birds, which has been downloaded more 250million times and has wasted more productive time than any other app out there. Yes, including FarmVille (really, people, it's just sheep and fields. And they're not even real.)

Sadly, with the focus shifting to mobile devices (as they take over from personal computers) the cyber criminals are shifting their malware offensives too - mostly to Android apps. Additionally, privacy concerns have flared up with recent revelations that our contacts and browsing history have been quietly tapped.

Apps are the new gold rush in the computing world.

  • Shapshak is the editor of Stuff magazine

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