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The App Store has changed the world. Over the last decade society as we know it has been irrevocably shaped by the App Store and its products.
Just as no one 10 years ago could have predicted where the App Store would have brought us today, so is it impossible to guess what the next decade might bring. There's no stopping us from trying though.
As we close out our App Store anniversary week coverage, here are our hopes and expectations for the next 10 years.
Apple predictions often age badly because the company has a tendency to not directly follow the latest market trends; at the very least, they offer their unique twist on ideas others have been experimenting with for some time. However, based on how the App Store has evolved for the past 10 years, I see some interesting signs in its trajectory that are pointing to obvious changes coming down the road. So, even though I may turn out to be dramatically wrong in 10 years, here's my list of App Store changes I believe will occur over the course of the next decade.
Over the past week we've released articles and podcast episodes documenting the stories of Apple and third-party developers during the App Store's decade of life, but as our celebration week nears its end, we wanted to shift gears and share our own stories.
The story of the App Store doesn't just belong to Apple, nor is it limited to the developers who have made the App Store such a vibrant marketplace. Everyone who has ever downloaded an app on their iPhone, iPad, or even iPod Touch has their own story of the App Store's impact on their life. In that vein, here are the MacStories team's personal stories of what the Store and its products have meant to us.
I told the story of how MacStories came to be before. After dropping out of university (where I thought I was going to study Philosophy – it's funny to imagine another timeline where I ended up a Philosophy professor), I got a full-time job as a seller at a physical eBay store. Those stores, which were quite common before the smartphone era and the mobile-marketplace app boom, helped folks who didn't know how or didn't have the patience to sell old items on eBay. My job consisted of assisting customers who came into the store with boxes full of stuff, explaining to them how eBay and our fees worked, putting items up for sale, monitoring the auction, and taking care of shipments. It was a fun job, but it was also repetitive and somewhat boring after a while, yet it allowed me to save money toward the first computer I wanted to buy entirely with my own money. I wanted to buy a 15" MacBook Pro.
The App Store had just turned one when, sometime in the summer of 2009, concept artist and game developer Zach Gage published a preview video for an iPhone game he had been working on. The game was based on a simple premise: Gage's girlfriend liked playing Tetris for iPhone, which he thought was a rushed adaptation of the console game that didn't take advantage of the iPhone's unique hardware. "I just looked at it", Gage told me in an interview on our podcast AppStories, "and I thought – I can make a better game than this". So, in his spare time between different projects, he got to work.
The game, which launched in fall 2009, was called Unify. On his website, Gage described it as "Touch-Tetris for both sides of the brain". In Unify you can see traits that would define Gage's later work on the App Store: the game takes a well-known concept and adds a twist to it – blocks come in from both sides of the screen rather than falling from the top as in classic Tetris. Graphics are minimal, but instantly recognizable and somewhat cute in their simplicity. Unify is entirely controlled via touch, eschewing any kind of console-like onscreen controls. "I was trying to imagine what Tetris would look like as a game designed for multitouch", Gage added. "And that kind of got me hooked. After that, I just kept making games".
Unify has all the elements for an ideal App Store origin story: a basic preview video uploaded to Vimeo 9 years ago, before YouTube became the de-facto standard for videogame trailers; an independent artist and game developer who, years later, would win awards for innovation in mobile gaming; a funny backstory that stems from big publishers' inability to adapt console games to touchscreens a decade ago.
You'd think that Unify would make for the perfect case study in app development and mobile creativity, if only for historic purposes. Except that Unify is gone from the App Store, as if it never existed in the first place.
Nowhere has the App Store’s impact been more profound than the game industry. Roughly one-third of the 500 initial apps that debuted on the App Store were games. The percentage of games on the App Store has risen over the past 10 years, but not by much. By some estimates, between 35 and 40 percent of the App Store's apps are games today. What has changed is the size of the Store. With over 2.1 million apps currently available for download, that means around 800,000 are games.
Mobile gaming has become the primary driver of growth in the game industry over the past several years. According to a recent report by Newzoo, the mobile game industry, in which iOS plays a central role, will be a $100 billion market in just three years time.
The success of games on iOS parallels the phenomenal success of the iPhone and App Store. The iPhone’s hardware played a significant role with its novel design that provided game developers with the flexibility to experiment. Just as important, though, was the advent of In-App Purchases. Games, like other apps, were originally free or paid. When In-App Purchases came along, a whole category of games that offered in-app, paid consumables, level packs, and other digital goods was born that has been wildly successful for many game developers.
Now, free-to-play games with In-App Purchases dominate the top grossing charts and a relatively small cadre of games soak up the majority of money spent on the App Store, making it harder than ever to succeed as a game developer on the App Store. It’s a familiar story faced by app and game developer alike. Notwithstanding the stiff competition in the games category though, the mobile game market’s sheer size has allowed creative, independent game developers to find ways to succeed on the App Store.
Perhaps most exciting of all though, the success of mobile games has led to an enormous influx of people into gaming who would never have considered themselves gamers. That creates a tremendous opportunity for Apple and game developers which has become all the more interesting as the constraints of early iOS devices have been replaced by hardware that approaches the capability of game consoles. Mobile games stand at a pivotal moment in time that has the potential to upend preconceptions about the distinction between mobile and other video games, but to understand what the future might hold, it’s instructive to start by looking at the past 10 years.
The App Store is a wildly successful product. In 2017 alone it brought Apple somewhere in the range of $11.4 billion, and app developers pocketed $26.5 billion – an increase of 30% over 2016. To kick off 2018, New Year's Day alone yielded $300 million of App Store purchases. With ever-more Apple devices in the world, the rest of 2018 is sure to end up in the record books.
When the App Store first launched in 2008, it was an unproven concept in the software market. Historically when you wanted to download software for your computer, you would usually visit the developer's website, which handled both the payment and actual download. While it could be argued that smartphones at that time weren't proper "computers," the computer designation undoubtedly fit the iPhone. With its powerful operating system built on Mac OS X, the expectation from many developers was that, eventually at least, the device would gain access to native third-party apps through traditional means. Instead, the iPhone – and subsequently, the iPad – has remained a closed platform. And for 10 years now, the App Store has been that platform's sole gatekeeper.
Apple's vision for the App Store has always been driven by privacy and security. Rather than sending users out to a host of unvetted websites to find software that may or may not be what it claims, the App Store was a single unified market for approved, malware-free software to live. As a user, you could download any app in the confidence that it wouldn't be able to bring harm to your device – and you could do so without providing your credit card details to anyone but Apple.
Apple created and has maintained the safety of its closed platform thanks to its thorough review procedures and guidelines. Every app on the App Store must follow Apple's rules, which for the most part is widely accepted as a good thing. If an app's aims are nefarious, it should be rejected by Apple and, hence, not allowed in public view. However, throughout the App Store's life, there have regularly been controversial app rejections that stirred up the Apple community. Here are a few of those controversies.
Everyone acknowledges the societal and technological effects the iPhone has had on the world. In late 2007, Time named the original model its "invention of the year," and rightfully proclaimed it "the phone that changed phones forever." Eleven years on, it is genuinely difficult to remember the world before the iPhone existed. Whatever your platform allegiance, there can be no disputing that the first iPhone pioneered the notion that everyone should carry a touchscreen supercomputer with them wherever they go. In hindsight, Steve Jobs wasn’t exaggerating when he boasted Apple would reinvent the phone.
Yet for everything the iPhone has meant to smartphones and to the world, there is a segment of users for which the iPhone has been truly revolutionary: disabled people. For many people with disabilities, myself included, the iPhone was the first accessible smartphone. The device’s multitouch user interface and large (for the time) display represented a total break from the smartphone conventions of the day. An unheralded ramification of this was how accessible these features made the iPhone. For example, the soft keyboard allowed users to compose text messages and emails without struggling with the T9 keyboards that were commonplace at the time. Likewise, the iPhone’s 3.5-inch display was considered large for the day, which made seeing content markedly easier than on the postage stamp-sized displays that dominated cell phones then. It’s a testament to the original iPhone’s greatness that its fundamental components were so solid that they redefined accessible computing, all without being "accessible" in the traditional sense. Its impact is put into greater perspective when you consider the first two versions of iOS (née iPhone OS) didn’t contain discrete accessibility features. The first bunch, VoiceOver, Zoom, and Mono Audio debuted in 2009 with the 3GS.
The case for native third-party apps on the iPhone was apparent immediately. By creating a device that blends into the background – with functionality entirely driven by software – Apple built a mobile computing platform that could become anything, so long as there was an app to drive the experience. The idea that the iPhone might be limited to a handful of stock Apple apps felt like a horrible waste to developers who were hungry to build their own apps.
When developers arrived in San Francisco for WWDC in 2007, they were eager for news of a native iPhone SDK. Instead, Scott Forstall took the stage and introduced iPhone web apps as Apple’s ‘sweet solution'. It didn’t go over well.
Fortunately, Apple’s flirtation with web apps was short-lived. By the fall of 2007, Steve Jobs confirmed that the company was working on an iPhone SDK for third-party developers, which was released in March 2008.
About four months later, the App Store launched on July 10, 2008, with around 500 apps. Ten years later, the Store offers over 2.1 million. Of course, a lot has happened in between too:
- 2008: The App Store was launched with roughly 500 free and paid apps and games.
- 2009: In-App Purchases were added for paid apps, followed by free apps a few months later.
- 2010: Apple launched its iAd in-app advertising platform.
- 2013: By its 5th anniversary, the App Store featured over 900,000 apps.
- 2015: Apple Senior Vice President Phil Schiller took over responsibility for the App Store.
- 2016: Apple expanded the categories of apps that can use auto-renewing subscriptions, discontinued iAd, and launched a search ads program. Free, time-limited In-App Purchases were also used for the first time to approximate free trials of apps.
- 2017: Apple redesigned the App Store with daily editorial content.
- 2018: As of WWDC, the App Store offered over 2.1 million apps and had paid developers over $100 billion in 10 years.
It’s hard to overstate the meteoric growth of the App Store as a marketplace. Over the course of a decade, the App Store’s history has been dominated by rapid growth and constant change that’s been highlighted by spectacular successes, failures, and controversies. Nowhere has that change been more pronounced than the economics of the App Store. It’s a story that has had a profound effect on the way software is sold and how users relate to the apps they use.
It's hard to remember using an iPhone before the App Store. However, for the first year, the iPhone could only run the handful of apps that Apple created for it. Anything else required using mobile web apps in Safari.1
On March 6, 2008, just nine months after the original iPhone went on sale, Steve Jobs and Scott Forstall announced that Apple would ship an SDK for third-party developers to write applications that could run natively on the iPhone, without the clumsiness inherent in web apps.
After Forstall took some time going through the details of the SDK, Steve Jobs came back on stage to answer a question that had no doubt been circulating the room:
How do you distribute software on a device like the iPhone?
The answer was an App Store.