Ironically, Steve Jobs was firmly against the idea of iPhones running third-party software — as Walter Isaacson wrote in his acclaimed Jobs biography, the Apple co-founder “didn’t want outsiders to create applications for the iPhone that could mess it up, infect it with viruses, or pollute its integrity,” preferring that developers instead build robust web apps for mobile devices. Jobs eventually changed his mind, and in doing so, helped bring to life a new, mobile-first industry. Now we navigate, read, call cars, pay bills, find jobs, waste time, get high and search for love with help from the apps we carry with us every day, and at this point that seems unlikely to ever change.
You don’t need us to tell you that the intervening years have seen the number of apps available explode, or that they’re they are more sophisticated than ever. (The number of fart apps available for download now is, thankfully, a far cry from what it used to be.) And Apple is always keen to talk about the App Store’s financial impact: Developers have collectively made more than $100 billion since launch. After ten years, though, it’s important to keep in mind how Apple’s App Store changed the way average people thought about software. It wasn’t just something for computer aficionados to obsess over — downloading apps without a second thought became part of the fabric of everyday life. The era of using your smartphone for literally everything started in earnest ten years ago today, and I’d argue it’s because of one thing: accessibility.
At the risk of sounding obvious, Apple didn’t pioneer the idea of a centralized place to download software tailor-made for your machine. One of the first commercial examples appeared in 1991 as a way to distribute and manage the rights for Steve Jobs’s NeXT computers — a niche market if there ever was one. For much of the 90s and early 00s, though, traditional PC users had to dig up new software the hard way.
Consider Windows. Finding handy new software meant lots of trawling the web, reading forums and blindly installing .exes. Portals like Download.com and Softpedia certainly helped, but finding that one crucial bit of software to solve a problem very frequently felt like picking a needle out of a haystack. For a long time, Linux users arguably had an easier time of things since they could easily access software repositories to install not just complete software packages but system tweaks and drivers with a little command line magic. These repositories were helpful, sure, but could be tricky for novices to navigate and didn’t help the majority of people using more widely used operating systems.
Things weren’t much better for the basic cell phones and early smartphones of the day. The kind of software available for the former generally wasn’t much to write home about — games were pretty basic and the limited horsepower available meant you were often hard-pressed to find valuable third-party utilities. Carriers were the big players in software distribution — they got in on the action by building out digital stores like Verizon’s Get It Now (2002) and AT&T’s MEdia Mall (2004), with the added benefit of being able to stick application charges right onto your monthly bill.
If you were using, say, a Windows Mobile device, there was plenty of free and paid software out there for you — you just needed to know where to look. Meanwhile, finding boxed software for Palm’s Treo in a store was fairly common, but you could also purchase applications straight from Palm and either sideload from a PC or initiate an install right from the phone’s web browser. The results were usually worth the effort, but the process was typically less than elegant.
And then came the iPhone and its App Store. Compared to the thousands of apps already available for Treos and Windows Mobile devices, the 500 apps in the App Store at launch seemed paltry at best. Since developers couldn’t officially publish software for the iPhone outside of the App Store, working inside Apple’s walled garden was the only way most people could add new features to their iPhone. (While it’s far less popular than it used to be, let’s not forget jailbreaking was a viable alternative for a long time.)
The process of finding and installing apps on early smartphones was awfully similar to how things worked on traditional PCs — you’d sometimes find lots of software in one place, but otherwise, you had to spend time searching elsewhere for the right tool. Apple’s insistence on keeping software strictly within the App Store’s walls might have pissed off early power users, but it ensured that the ability to flesh out its devices with new functionality would only ever take a few taps on a screen.