Everyone wants a piece of the app pie.
More than 300,000 fill the iTunes App Store. There are another 100,000 to download through the Android Market. And there are more than 10,000 in BlackBerry App World.
Analysts predict Apple will sell its 10 millionth iPad this month, a landmark figure that no doubt brings dollar signs to eyes of app developers.
Most of the small, software applications for mobile devices are free or cost a few bucks. They're great pacifiers for whining toddlers (Wheels on the Bus for Android) and bring down the blood pressure of hyper-organized professionals (Mobile Checkbook for BlackBerry). Games lead the pack, and it's not your stereotypical basement-dwelling, Doritos-munching "gamers" who are downloading them. The 99-cent app Angry Birds is the most-downloaded game for the iPhone and has a strong female following. Board game adaptations (Monopoly, Uno) follow closely behind in popularity.
Influenced by the buzz, CEOs - everyone from shoe producers to fast food retailers - have put app development at the top of their list of digital priorities. Wireless providers and phone manufacturers now boast about the app experience and data packages in their products and services, rather than less sophisticated features, such as text messaging and cameras. In a report prepared this spring by Chetan Sharma Consulting, researchers projected app downloads would shoot up from 7 billion in 2009 to almost 50 billion by 2012.
Breathless attention has been spent on apps for magazines, hyped as the saviour of print journalism. Media tycoon Rupert Murdoch is betting millions on "The Daily" - a magazine app designed for the iPad.
But here's the thing: the media buzz is way ahead of user adoption.
Kristen Purcell, the associate director for research at the Pew Internet & American Life Project, notes that one in 10 of 1,917 adults surveyed this spring by her institute wasn't sure if his phone came loaded with apps. Of the ones who did have apps on their phone (or at least knew they did), about one-third said they didn't use them.
"Yes, there is this incredible apps market growing right now, but it is a little bit ahead of the average consumer. The average cellphone user isn't there yet," Ms. Purcell says.
She bets they will catch up, and so do manufacturers of mobile devices. Microsoft (always late to the party) just launched the Windows 7 Phone: an operating system it hopes will take away a share of the mobile app market, currently dominated by Apple. Also nipping at Apple's core is Research in Motion, makers of BlackBerry, who plan to launch the BlackBerry PlayBook (a challenge to the iPad) next year.
But evolving alongside apps are their predecessors: websites.
HTML5, the next major upgrade in HTML (the coding language used on the Web) could dramatically change the mobile Web. It will allow developers to display graphics and typography in compelling ways. And the price tag won't be as hefty, either. Instead of having to code apps to run on iPhones, BlackBerrys, Android and Windows 7 devices, developers can, in theory, code once and have the same content displayed on all platforms. Which will be the future the net?
THE APP PRIMER
Load up your favourite site through the browser on your mobile device and you travel back: the page loads slowly kilobyte by kilobyte. Instead of content-rich fields, you're greeted with grey boxes (Apple doesn't support flash on its devices). All that's missing is the robotic beep-boops of a modem connecting to dial-up Internet.
While the Web browser is still a powerful tool on laptops and desktops, on mobile devices - save for tablets - screen real estate is limited, which means consuming content requires an elaborate routine of scrolling, panning and zooming.
"The evolution of the browser has dramatically slowed in the last five years," Michael Keefe, a partner at the Mobile Institute, a Toronto-based group that promotes mobile development, says. "Apps filled that vacuum."
Apps are designed for specific systems (the Windows platform, for example) and, in some cases, devices (the Motorola Droid X). They're different from the programs you run on your laptop or desktop in that many harness built-in features specific to your mobile device. If you whip out your BlackBerry, loaded with the Urbanspoon app, at any major street corner in Canada, the app taps into the device's GPS capabilities to spit out nearby restaurant recommendations.
The success of a mobile app isn't limited to its Internet-enhanced features. In fact, the most downloaded app in the app store requires no connectivity. A game in which a user flings a flock of angry birds at green pigs, Angry Birds is a 99-cent marvel. Built by a small mobile development firm in Espoo, Finland, it has racked up more than 42 million paid and free downloads. The app's runaway success is no fluke. The characters are bright and animated. The touch screen creates a lively user experience, the aim is simple and, perhaps most important, it's cheap, which makes it the perfect impulse purchase.
"The whole trick to having a successful app is having a clear focus of what separates you [from competitors]and pushing everything else to the side," Scott Michaels, the vice-president of client services at Vancouver-based Atimi Software Inc., says.
His company, which has designed such apps as the New York Times Reader and ESPN SportsCenter, rejects clients who ask for apps to be turned around in less than two months. To produce something "decent" takes at least three to four months worth of work, Mr. Michaels says.
After the market survey comes the coding (performed by software engineers), rigorous testing, and market submission. While the submission process is simple for the open-source Android market (post your app and it can be up for sale within 10 minutes, the gatekeepers at Apple test apps on their own and have stringent criteria in place that some developers resent. Your app may be rejected if the market is flooded with others that perform the same function, or if it promotes "excessive consumption of alcohol or illegal substances."
Finally, the transaction: developers take a 70 per cent cut of revenue from app sales offered through searchable storefronts, while the companies behind the storefronts take 30 per cent.
The relatively low standards for app development have led to marketplace clutter.
"This isn't the Wild West Internet. People need to be able to find these things. If there's a lot of garbage, it makes it harder for everyone," Mr. Michaels says.
If you're trying to find a particular GPS driving app but aren't sure of the exact name, you could spend hours browsing before you find it.
The app model runs counter to how we think about software
We've gravitated toward the cloud-based model of computing: we're storing more of our data and carrying out operations (such as sending e-mails or creating spreadsheets through Google Docs) on remote servers that we can access anywhere. This movement is fuelled by a need for data portability, but also the way we've streamlined our collections of software. (And those "Install this update to get version 2.1.4 of program you barely use" alerts are also pretty irritating)
Getting guaranteed value out of an app is a complete gamble. More than half of users surveyed by Nielsen say they've deleted apps they've downloaded, most often because they weren't useful. While more "freemium" apps have entered the marketplace - apps that offer free trials -only one in three adults surveyed by Nielsen last December about their app use said they'd converted from a free trial version to a full paid version of an app.]/note>
Apps don't let us browse and share
Let's face it: we're a society of DADD sufferers (that's Digital Attention Deficit Disorder). We jump from a news feature on congenital heart failure to the PDF study it references to related stories from other sources. Most apps, in their very design, run counter to those instincts. They're also inherently anti-social: there's little opportunity to e-mail your friends links, see that magazine article shared on Facebook or to comment on content.
"So far, every published app I've found has been far less social than the Web is," says Joe Hewitt, Facebook's software engineer whiz kid who built the first three version's of the social network's iPhone app. "All those benefits of the Web are lost in that mad rush to capitalize on the apps store phenomenon."
TOYS FOR YOUR NEW TOY
If you've been gifted a shiny new mobile toy this holiday season, load up your device with at least one tested winner:
The app: Dropbox
Sync files across all your devices (so you can connect to that spreadsheet on your desktop via your iPad), upload files to a remote server that can be accessed anywhere, share those videos of your kid's first steps with the only other people who will care: his grandparents.
The app: OpenTable
Search for a nearby restaurant, make a reservation straight from the app and add reservations to your calendar.
HTC Incredible (Android)
The app: CardioTrainer
Track your running route via GPS, count your steps, create custom workout music mixes and get voice notifications of how many calories you've burned.
Samsung Focus (Windows Phone 7)
The app: Shazam
What is that song that plays in that coffee commercial? Hold your device up to the TV the next time it plays and figure it out. Learn lyrics, artist info and buy the album, too.