Word came down this week that Blackberry was opening an online application store called App World, a clear rival to Apple's popular App Store, Google Android's App Store, Windows Mobile Apps, or the Palm Pre's App Catalog, or... you get the idea. There are a lot of app stores out there.
We can credit Apple with this concept, changing the game by encouraging small, often independent software developers out there to develop specialized applications and sell them through a certified download site in return for a share of the profits. Small apps for Apple range from a leveling device that uses the iPhone and iPod Touch's built-in accelerometers, to various competing "fart" apps that do exactly what you would expect. Prices vary from free to hundreds of dollars, although the bestsellers are usually in the $1 to $2 range. Some apps are useful, some are fun, and some are WTF, LOL, WUT, ZOMG! (Ask your teenage daughter to translate.)
Naturally other companies wanted to copy the idea, which is a huge earner for Apple and a handful of app makers as the number of micro transactions pile up. The Apple App Store (www.apple.com/iphone/appstore/) already has thousands of apps available when you include books, games, and free promotional materials from movies, etc. Just like Apple says in the commercial, "there's an app for that," any conceivable use from figuring out tips, to converting measurements and currencies.
The interesting thing about apps is the impact they're having on programming, giving small developers a legitimate way to develop and mass market pieces of software. Some recreational programmers have reportedly quit their day jobs to develop apps on a full time basis.
In that sense apps are game-changing for the computer industry - the range of software opens so many new possibilities, and the creative uses programmers are finding for touch screens, cameras and motion-sensing accelerometers is an eye-opener.
Where the app market falls short right now is in industry-specific applications. Imagine if a builder could access blueprints, GPS data, compass, levelers, etc. from a single app, or if paramedics could plug you into an app that reads your vital signs and advises courses of action. The possibilities are immense, and I expect we'll see some real productivity apps in the next year.
Another possibility for apps is the ability to seamlessly synchronize with your desktop and laptop so your information is always available and your software ports from one device to the next. Imagine if your phone was an extension of your computer, letting you read and manipulate files on the go, instead of a companion to it?
There are also many scenarios where apps could work together. For example, you could buy a "traveler" app set that includes GPS maps, currency converters, language translators, reservation tools, cultural guides, travel itineraries, and other travel aids. Or how about a hockey fan pack with links to news sites, game videos, team rosters, news, and ticket websites? Or a geek set with different calculators, science news feeds, and math puzzles. Or a health nut pack with exercise guides, calorie counters, pedometers, weight and BMI tracking, and readers for popular health websites. Apps that do a few things are appealing, but app sets could represent even better value to customers.
Lastly, it's time to erase the distinctions between music, television/movies and apps at the various online stores because there's so much opportunity for crossover. Let's say you like the movie Ironman . What if you downloaded a special edition of the movie to your iPhone, and it came with an Ironman game, copies of a few Ironman comic books, and songs from the Ironman movie soundtrack? What if you bought the new Tragically Hip album, and it came bundled with videos, some live or unreleased songs, a book of Hip lyrics, tabs so you can learn to play the songs on guitar, and a portal to access the fan site where you can get updates on the band and purchase advance tickets for their next show?
What if you could buy an app that goes with your specific car, where you can record all your gas purchases, mileage and servicing info, where you can easily look up things like engine oil type and tire pressure, where you can order special parts and upgrades, and where mechanically-minded people can get instructions for doing minor repairs themselves?
Having so many app stores selling incompatible software is a problem. Ultimately the company with the biggest installed base is going to get the best apps, but it sucks that apps are not universal, that Apple iPhone users won't be able to use the top apps for the Pre, and vice-versa. I'd really like to see app emulators or ports where you can run any app on any mobile device, or a standard language for building apps that makes it easier to build for all mobile devices.
Website of the Week
For quick, deep, and oddly beautiful Flash Games I'm digging the selection at Armor Games (www.armorgames.com). The games are fun, replayable, and have nice little touches you don't see in other games, like the ability to save online and slightly higher production values. The music score to The Space Game was stuck in my head for days.