How apps are changing our phones - and us

Imagine the most exotic use for your cellphone you can think of, and more likely than not there's an app for that - the word "App," as you know, being short for application. Daniel Sieberg has the story:


Just what makes a "smart phone" smarter? In a word, apps.

It was even Word of the Year in 2010. And if it comes as no surprise, it might be because you recently downloaded a few.

Not long ago, Apple reported the 10 billionth download from its apps store, which, at last count, has more than 350,000 apps to choose from.

That's not to mention the hundreds of thousands of apps available elsewhere.

And they're not just for phones. Apps now run on tablets, even in cars.

Apps are even driving how tech companies design their devices-using GPS, cameras, and touchscreens.

A recent study found that apps are second only to e-mail and texting in terms of what we use phones for. In third place? Talking!

It seems as though apps are essentially turning our devices into mini-computers.

It all got us thinking: What if you applied apps to everything you did?

Your day might start with your alarm clock app. Fortunately, all of them have snooze bars.

Does your morning include a dog walk? Apps have maps. If your pooch eats something he's not supposed to, well, there's an app for that, too... it's called Pet First Aid.

Then there's an app to buy your coffee at Starbucks.

If it's Sunday morning and you've got other plans, there's an app that offers virtual confession, though the church says it isn't meant to replace the real thing.

Or, what if you find yourself in a place you don't recognize? Well, you can use an app like Google Goggles to take a picture of a nearby landmark - and discover that you're actually in ... Barcelona!

Home to the annual Mobile World Congress, which connects 60,000 programmers and developers to talk shop about, well, phones, with CEOs like Eric Schmidt of Google:

"Last year I predicted smart phones would outstrip PCs in two years," Schmidt said. "As usual. I was wrong. Smart phones outstripped PCs on a quarterly basis last week."

The place to be at the congress? The App Planet, which is where we met Sascha Segan of PCMag.com.

"Apps are what has caused the smart phone revolution to take off," Segan said. "Smart phones aren't just about e-mail and the web. They aren't just about the built features. They're about being anything you want them to be. Being people's new computers. And what makes those computers personal is the apps. So that's why we have hundreds of thousands of apps out there right now."

"What is the big deal with these little programs? We are talking about software with Apps, right?" Sieberg asked.

"We are talking about software," Segan replied. "But especially with phones, you find that people get very personal about things. A phone is almost an extension of your body for a lot of people. It's definitely an extension of your clothing. People buy their phones sometimes based on the way they look, based on how they want to look to others.

"Yeah, they're programs, they're little utilities that help you do what you want to do, but they have part of that psychological mystique around your phone - kind of an extension of my hand. This is kind of an extension of my brain. And now I have more abilities."

As the popularity of apps has taken off in the past year, tech companies like Google have noticed.

Its mobile operating system called Android is available on all kinds of phones, and just this past week it became the most popular type of smartphone in America.

And if you still don't understand quite what Android is, don't worry.

"Well, most people shouldn't have to worry about what Android is," said Matias Duarte, who developed the latest version of Android. "They should just have to worry about, do they have the phone or the tablet or the device that lets them do what they want, lets them get to the apps that they want and care about?"

Duarte says apps are all about individuality.

"The apps are exactly how the device kind of grows to fit you like a glove," he said. "The apps you choose are the same as the wardrobe you choose in the morning, except that it's much more than just about self-expression. It's all the tools that let you get through the day. It's kind of a combination Swiss army knife, suit, car, telephone - everything you want. You know, an app basically becomes that piece of your Internet-connected life."

"You can tailor it the way you want," Sieberg said.

"Exactly."

Those making apps have a lot at stake. It's estimated the global app market will exceed $38 billion by 2015. Clearly not kid's stuff.

Or is it?

"Does it seem like app programmers are becoming like the new rock stars?" asked Sieberg.

"I think you definitely have the potential to be called a rock star and become famous if you make an application," said Cameron Cohen, 12.

Back when he was 11, he created his first app called iSketch.

"And it always seems to impress people, like, 'Oh, what do you do?' 'Well, I'm a boy doctor and a boy lawyer and I created an application in my free time.' 'Oh whoa. You created an application?' So I think it's definitely like a cool thing if you do, 'cause everyone knows about them. Everyone's heard of them and everyone's used 'em. So to see someone like create one, it's definitely like a really cool thing!" he laughed.

In 2009 Cohen was suffering from a benign tumor in his leg and underwent surgery. While recovering - rather than just stare at the TV, he decided to teach himself how to make an app.

It's like learning a foreign language," he said.

The result: the iSketch app, which shot up the charts on Apple's app store, turning a tidy profit - half of which Cohen then donated to the Mattel Children's Hospital at UCLA. so kids there could play with iPads and iPhones.

And it seems that games app-eal to kids of all ages ... especially a certain game that pits birds against pigs.

Angry Birds is made by the Finnish company, Rovio. It's the number one app in 69 countries, including the United States. Part puzzle, part goofy animation, it has been downloaded almost 100 million times.

And yet, Rovio CEO Mikael Hed says even good apps don't always turn a profit.

"Yeah, well, in the app store, it is quite a brutal market," he said. "I would say the top 100 games are making a nice amount of money. And then that steeply declines from there on."

Hed says the company struggled with more than 50 apps before hitting the big time with Angry Birds.

"Yeah. Well, you never know what happens with games. That's the beauty of games, so anything is possible there," Hed remarked. "And there is one part to game making which is the science of it and how to make it work. And the other part is the art of what works for people."

While popular apps make the news, there's even an app that IS the news. Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation released The Daily this year, with contributions from journalists all over the world (including Sieberg).

"I think that a lot of the media has spent enormous amounts of time trying to save their old brands rather than trying to look to the future of what these machines can do, and for inspiration," said Jesse Angelo, The Daily's editor-in-chief.

"It's the first major news publication that is available ONLY as an app.

"When we first started we thought to ourselves, 'Are we making a daily newspaper? Are we making a daily website?' " Angelo said. "And then once we started designing it and showing it to people, everyone said, 'Wow, that magazine looks amazing.' And then we said, 'Well, but what about all the video? Maybe this is a daily television show.' Eventually we just said, 'We're The Daily.' "

Wait a minute - if the app revolution starts to overwhelm you, just remember there's even an app that will help you log out once in a while.

Of course there is.