The App Revolution Will Be Mobilized

Cell phone apps are all the rage. applications software scitech
"Apps," for the uninitiated, are the latest big thing for people with state-of-the-art cell phones. These days, keeping up with apps can be a full-time job, as Science and Technology Correspondent Daniel Sieberg shows us:

They have become the modern-day Swiss Army knife. Smartphones are getting even smarter with the help of tiny, often quirky applications, nicknamed apps. They can be downloaded directly to an iPhone or BlackBerry or Google's Android phone teaching it to perform everything from the practical to the parlor trick.

"Is it possible to get addicted to the apps?" Sieberg asked Apple customer Shon Tylor.

"You know, you like them so much, you just keep downloading a bunch more," he said.

"I've got Twitter on here, Facebook," another app addict told Sieberg.

"I have every screen of apps absolutely full," a third app fan said.

More than two billion total apps have been downloaded from Apple's App Store, the online megamall of apps for iPhones. When the store launched in July 2008, there were just 500 apps.

Today there are more than 100,000, including apps to keep lists and to keep you from getting lost. Some apps simulate musical instruments, and others work like simple tools.

"It's like having your own computer in the palm of you hand," an app fan told Sieberg.

"One of my favorites is something called Spell Check," "Mad Men" star Elisabeth Moss told Sieberg.

Celebrities like Moss and "Saturday Night Live"'s Fred Armisen have found a place in their iPhones for apps.

"I like the People application, you know, like People magazine," Moss told Sieberg. "You don't actually have to bring a magazine. You can do it on your phone."

Wired magazine's senior editor Nick Thompson said apps have indeed ushered in the latest technological revolution.

"How popular are apps today?" Sieberg asked Thompson.

"Immensely, hugely," Thompson said. "They're where software is going. They're the hot market for young software developers. For new interesting things, apps are where it's at."

"There are lots of gimmicky apps that tap into the touch screen, that tap into the tilt part of the phone," Sieberg said.

"Absolutely," Thompson said. "So the people who actually have these new phones and actually know how to use the apps are often young and dorky. So you want to create apps for people who are young and dorky. For example, me, I'm young and dorky, so I like apps."

We found dozens of apps designed to look like lighters with no fear of burning your fingers. Many are both silly and smart. Can I Drive estimates whether it's safe to drive after alcohol consumption. After you have that drink, SitOrSquat locates the nearest and cleanest bathroom complete with user reviews. By capturing bar code information, Savvy Shopper helps find a deal.

Increasingly sophisticated apps are even sensitive to touch and sound. Shazam samples music clips to identify the artist and song title. It's the ultimate "Name That Tune."

"You hold it up to your phone, whether it's from a radio or a street musician, and it will take a shot and see what song it is," Thompson said.

Though there may still be a few kinks to work out when we failed to have the app identify what a street musician was playing.

"I guess this is the limitation of the iPhone apps," Sieberg said.

"Limitation of the iPhone apps," Thompson said.

[To be fair, as CNET has pointed out, the app only helps with recorded music, not live music.]

"So turns out apps can't do everything," Sieberg said.

"They can't do everything," Thompson said.

Not yet anyway. But nothing has upgraded smartphone apps like the addition of GPS navigation technology.

"They are talking to satellites up in the sky," Thompson told Sieberg. "It's all popping on your screen immediately and telling you where you can get the best sushi."

The apps provide technology to help you remember where you parked the car, avoid speed traps and red light cameras, even find a lost phone. And the sky is not the limit. It's just the setting for another app: the Google Sky app identifies constellations by cross-referencing the user's location with the date, compass and time.

Some apps makers charge for all these goodies but many of them are free. The advertising revenue alone makes them big business. Apps are a $343 million a year industry. Even the most novel ideas such as one app that celebrates flatulence - think of it as an electronic whoopee cushion - rakes in thousands of dollars a day for its creators.

"A lot of the best software coders are going into this business because they think that's where the action is," Thompson told Sieberg.

People like Bart Decrem, CEO of one of the most successful app makers, Tapulous. The company's interactive music games called Tap Tap Revenge are top downloads and a test of finger flexibility that would make Beethoven jealous.

"It's a very simple music game," Decrem told Sieberg. "You basically tap and shake your phone to the beats of the music that you're listening to."

Beyond the mindless distraction the game offers, Decrem and his small team see the long-term potential of this cutting-edge market.

"It really marks the beginning of the mobile decade right," Decrem told Sieberg. "I think your next computer or your first computer was a PC, and your computer today's probably a laptop, and your next computer is the one that's always with you, and it's your phone."

Because just as the mainframe was replaced by the PC, consumers are shifting to smaller and smaller devices.

"The technology has come so far, and it's amazing how dependent we are on our phones," an app fan in New York's Times Square told Sieberg.

"In Silicon Valley, we have a word for this," Decrem told Sieberg. "It's called disruptive technology."

Disruptive technology, a breakthrough innovation that improves our lives in ways the market didn't anticipate like the advent of the automobile, or the Internet, and now the smartphone.

"That's how you get these gold rushes," Decrem told Sieberg. "And right now the iPhone and the App Store are where it's at. It's disruptive, there's big new opportunities and people are running to be the leader, and we're one of those."

A gold rush with revenues expected to increase tenfold from where they stand today becoming a $4.2 billion industry by 2013.

"And no sign of this slowing down?" Sieberg asked Wired's Thompson.

"No sign," Thompson said. "I can guarantee you there will be way more apps next year than there are today. And I almost guarantee you unless we get rid of phones and start doing everything through our eyeglasses, you will have much more, many more apps in five years than now."

For more info:
Apple's App Store
Blackberry App World
Android App Market