The rise of the ‘app’, the fall of the application?
I don’t know if I was behind the times, but three years ago I had never heard the term ‘app’, and if someone had said the word to me I wouldn’t have know what it meant. Today, ‘apps’ are everywhere. It’s not just that we need to get used to what, to some, might be a slightly annoying word, we also have to get used to the facts that apps are changing computing, in the technological sense, in the economic sense and even in a cultural sense.
Of course apps are just software programs, but that doesn’t get close to describing them. Put it like this. I have looked back at my records, and in 2007 – just four years ago – I bought three major software applications: Microsoft Office (the then latest version), Adobe’s Photoshop, and Parallels Desktop for the Mac. The total bill for these programs was over €800. So far this year I have already bought five software applications for my Macintosh, and I haven’t yet spent €20. Has there been a revolution? Well, not exactly. Even in 2007 I could have ‘bought’ five applications for €20, though they would presumably have been ‘shareware’. Many of the ‘apps’ now sold online in the new Apple App Store are really also just shareware in a new shop window. But the point is something different: the culture of this whole market has changed, and amongst the apps that are really just dodgy games and minor utilities there are also major business and productivity programs now retailing there for €2.99 each.
Of course the change came via smartphones, and more recently the iPad, and now this has spread to more traditional computing. Computer programs are not seen any more as instruments for geeks, but as tools and entertainment for the masses. And it has changed the business model. Possibly the most expensive thing you’ll find at first glance in the App Store is Apple’s photo editing programme, Aperture. It is retailing there for €62.99. When it was first sold by Apple in 2005 it cost over €500. The industry leader in photo software, Adobe PhotoShop, still retails for over €800; how long will that last? Within a year or so the company will need to make it available, with all bells and whistles, for a fraction of that price.
Will this affect software quality, as developers receive much less income from sales? Or will a mass market and virtually no physical product (all is down via downloads) actually increase revenues? Whatever the answer to that may be, we can be sure that the future will be very different. And interesting.