Star Trek got one thing especially right about cell phones: we don’t know where we’d be without them.
Cell phones changed the course of human history, and not just because they made it easier to connect to people. The first cell phone came out in 1973, and since then, we’ve come full circle to having some of the most advanced technology just in our pockets to use on a whim. Whenever we take a call, play a game, or answer a forum question, we’re using technology that changed the world.
Apps are a part of how, and why, that happened.
The story of how apps developed is excellent: it started with Steve Jobs, of course, who spoke at a conference in Aspen about his idea for a futuristic version of a record store, where you can buy software over the phone. Sound familiar? It gets better.
In 1983, the earliest idea of a laptop - the Psion Epoc, which used the Symbian operating system - came with in-built applications like a diary. 1993 brought more built-in apps to the market with the Newton Message Pad, an Apple-made PDA: this one had a diary, a web browser, a calendar, and an address book - and it recognised cursive handwriting, which was a big step forward for the time, but was ultimately a commercial failure due to the fact that it was a little too ahead of its time.
1997: Nokia, and everyone’s favourite doctor’s office waiting game, went to the masses. Snake is considered the first true mobile game app, the idea which wireframed the apps that followed.
In 1999, the Wireless Application Protocol, which standardised the way that you could access information over the wireless and on mobile browsers, was released. We don’t use this today - it was superseded by HTML - but in the early 2000s, everything was written to conform to WML, the markup language the WAP could read.
The next big change happened in 2007: the iPhone launched. Apple developers were working on native apps for the iPhone, and early indications were already in place that Jobs wanted to make his vision from 1983 into a reality. In 2008, he did just that: the App Store launched and changed the way we interacted with technology - for good.
There were setbacks. There were apps that didn’t work. Technology is a spectrum of successes and failures - and the roadmap for how apps came to be is a perfect example of that. First movers that shifted the playing field weren’t successful immediately; they had to work on it, fail, and go back.
Here’s a few you have definitely heard of before.
1994: Bezos founds Amazon in Seattle.
1997: Amazon goes public.
1998: Amazon starts out selling music and videos, then adds books, videogames, consumer electronics, games, and toys.
2002: Amazon launches Amazon Web Services, which analyses websites for popularity and traffic to help marketers and developers.
2006: Amazon expands on its AWS portfolio to include data storage, and started their fulfilment by Amazon programme, which allowed individuals and small businesses to sell on Amazon.
Innovations: the concept of overnight or two-day shipping, 1-click checkouts, and having one website serve as the digital version of a big box store.
Amazon is probably one of the most well-known marketplaces in the world, and it caters for everything you need: that’s a big part of what makes it attractive to use Amazon as a solution for all your shipping needs, especially in areas where shops which sell particular items can be hard to come by.
When Amazon launched, there were e-commerce websites already: Books.com was the precursor, followed by eBay.com, IndiaMART, ECPlaza, and Zappos. Online shopping needed to become far more widely available before it could really come into its own, and Amazon’s adjustments to their online shopping services helped push e-commerce into a wider range of acceptability. They added 1-click checkout services, created the Amazon Prime model, and pushed for expedited shipping - a model which other websites now copy.
In between, Amazon failed, and failed hard. Their Amazon Fire Phone debuted in 2014 and was discontinued in 2015, invested in two failed dot.com startups, and tried to create their own version of Reddit, which didn’t really get off the ground. They also started - and then adapted - the idea of an online auction site, which later became the earliest version of Amazon Marketplace.
Their first-mover advantage gave them a lot of benefits: they'd moved into a space that they could then grow around themselves, and competitors who wanted to take Amazon on couldn't match their infrastructure, which meant they'd be discounting their products significantly just to keep up.
2009: Uber founded as UberCab, strictly designed as an on-demand cab company.
2010: Uber goes live in San Francisco and expands rapidly over the next two years.
2013: Uber adds ridesharing to its list of offerings and allows drivers to use their own vehicles.
2014: Uber adds a courier service using bicycle messengers, kicking off a new phase in Uber’s development as a logistics company. Uber also starts a delivery service - UberFRESH.
2015: Uber rebrands UberFRESH to UberEATS.
2017: Uber overhauls their app to show destination, ride options, prices, and driver contact.
2022: Uber has expanded into all sorts of deliveries, including grocery and freight.
Innovations: ride-share options, prices on ride apps, food delivery services.
Uber started out as a way to deliver products and people from A to B faster, cheaper, and with a guaranteed pick-up. They added a fleet of cars and technology to an industry that was on the cusp of outdated, and in doing so, they created a new economy: the sharing economy.
Food delivery and ride-sharing services both owe a lot to Uber’s early days, and app design for ride-sharing apps have Uber to thank for the prices that crop up every time you want to get from your house to anywhere else. Uber’s app went through a few reiterations, mostly cosmetic, but the idea that you could hail a cab from anywhere, going anywhere, and know exactly when that cab would come was a big deal for the time.
Now, it’s kind of a given that your ride-share app will tell you when you’re going to get somewhere and how much it’ll cost. But that didn’t used to be the case.
Uber also brought to light how important digital security was for apps that dealt with personal details. Several times over their history, customer information was stolen and put up for sale on the darker corners of the internet, leaving Uber scrambling to figure out a way to protect their data.
2007: AirBnB, at the time AirBed & Breakfast, offers short-term living quarters for attendees of the Industrial Design Conference. The creators, Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, offer space in their loft for people who were unable to book a hotel room.
2008: the airbedandbreakfast.com site is launched.
2009: Airbedandbreakfast.com is shortened to airbnb.com and expands its range of available properties beyond airbeds: they now offer entire homes, apartments, private rooms, castles, and more.
2011: Airbnb expands into Germany after the acquisition of Accoleo, a clone of their service. Airbnb also opens seven more international offices.
2012: Airbnb expands into Asia with the launch of their new office in Singapore and buys NabeWise and Localmind, businesses that focus on getting the local perspective. This begins Airbnb’s hyperlocal focus.
Innovations: short-term rentals, room-sharing, faster and more convenient rentals
Airbnb brought private rental into the mainstream: before, your only choices for private rentals were websites like Craigslist or hotels that operated at a higher premium than typical rentals. Furthermore, the hotel room industry only had a finite number of rooms to offer: once they were sold out, people who couldn’t get any accommodation had to figure out alternative solutions.
Offering rental accomodation at a much lower price made it easier for a greater number of people to get in on the rental market, and for others to find rooms, and bridged the distance between the people who had accomodation and the people who were looking for somewhere to stay. And by making it all happen on an app, it further increased the convenience of renting.
Where Airbnb failed was in abiding with the local laws and regulations of where they were based, leading to some pretty costly fees on their end.
2009: Instagram, then named Burbn, is in development.
2010: Burbn changes its name to Instagram and registers 25,000 users in one day.
2011: Instagram adds hashtags to make it easier to find photographs and users. It also goes live in the App store bundled up with new and live filters, high resolution photographs, and other photographic features.
2012: Instagram is bought by Facebook.
2013: Instagram introduces photo tagging where you can ‘tag’ a user in a photograph and adds video sharing to their product offering. It also later introduces Instagram Direct, which allows you to send a picture to specific users through an in-built messaging system.
2014: Instagram launches photo editing tools and introduces new business tools to offer insights and analytics.
2015: Instagram increases its advertising capabilities with new ad formats that allow stores to install apps, sign up for an email newsletter, or link to an external site for product purchases. Later, it also allows 30 second ads for advertisers and globalises their approach to advertising.
2016: View counters added to videos and Instagram switches its feed to prioritse posts doing well by its algorithm. It also launches new analytic tools that will allow users to see audience demographics, post impressions, and reach.
2017: Instagram adds the option to follow hashtags in addition to users.
2018: Instagram launches IGTV to compete against Youtube.
2019: Instagram launches shops to capitalise on virtual storefronts.
Innovations: image hashtags, live filters, high resolution photography, filters.
When Instagram launched, sharing photographs on the internet was relegated to places like Facebook and Myspace, and the options to add to or edit those photos were a little limited. The hashtag search system hadn’t yet been implemented for photography, so consolidating it into one place on a mobile device made a lot of sense - and it helped users new to Instagram figure out quickly what sort of environment they were working in.
Instagram had a hand in creating the modern influencer, in pushing for the design aesthetics that we now see in bigger corporations, and in focusing on the way that things look and how that could be leveraged. As a social media, it changed the way that users interacted online: from static text to images, from images to beyond.
However, just because Instagram was a first-mover in that category doesn't mean it's immune to innovation: Tiktok, a first mover in its own right, has taken such a chunk of Instagram's audience that Instagram has implemented - and insists on - short form videos into its own platform.
With technology changing so quickly, the opportunities for app design just keep getting more and more advanced. We can’t say with absolute certainty whether the apps we have now are the pinnacle of what can be done with app design, not when we keep seeing technology push at the boundaries of what can be done.
Even if your first idea doesn’t pan out as truly original, or fails, it shouldn’t stop you from going back to the drawing board. All of the apps we mentioned above that started out as an idea and ran into roadblocks along the way still managed to make a mark on history that is indelible.
And if you have an idea and it evolves into something more: great. All the first movers we mentioned started out with one thing - books, DVDs - and grew because of their first-mover advantage.
Great! We’re always on the lookout to work with more people and their interests, so if you have an idea that you think could make a good app, drop us a message, and we’ll see what we can work out together.