How the App Store changed my world (and prob­a­bly yours, too)

With its con­ve­nience, va­ri­ety, and safety, the App Store boosted pro­duc­tiv­ity 40 years ahead.

Macworld (USA) - - Contents - BY LEIF JOHN­SON

Alit­tle over a decade ago I bailed on the PH.D. pro­gram that had con­sumed my life for three years. The piles of pa­pers— filled with high­lighted quo­ta­tions—had started to look like sky­scrapers. Keep­ing the whole mess or­ga­nized felt like re­build­ing the Golden Gate Bridge from its com­po­nent atoms. My soul screamed for an app that would let me com­pare pho­tos on the fly. I had bet­ter rea­sons for jump­ing ship, of course, but it’s these frus­tra­tions that slice through my me­mories all these years later. All things con­sid­ered, I don’t re­gret my de­ci­sion.

And yet. All the re­cent talk about the App Store’s 10th an­niver­sary ( go.mac­world. com/as10) makes me won­der if I’d have fin­ished it if I had ac­cess to the same apps I now en­joy on my iphone and my ipad. That some­times makes the frus­tra­tions feels al­most fun. Dis­cus­sions of the App

Store’s im­pact tend to fo­cus on how it gave thou­sands of small-time de­vel­op­ers a good way to make money or how it changed our so­cial lives; we give rel­a­tively lit­tle at­ten­tion to how it sim­pli­fied our rou­tines. I don’t think I’d be the same per­son I am to­day with­out it. Heck, I’ll bet the same could be said about you.

The in­ter­net it­self was re­spon­si­ble for a lot of this, of course, but it’d been around for years by that point. Prob­lem is, even in the mid-2000s it tended to in­volve in­ter­act­ing with a chunky ma­chine on a desk.

Out in the streets, life still largely re­sem­bled what we knew in the ’90s. Needed to con­sult a the­saurus? You had to scrounge for books, which of­ten wasn’t an op­tion if you didn’t live in a ma­jor city. Needed to scan some­thing? You’d have to shell out some heavy cash for a scan­ner (or ear­lier, find a copy­ing ma­chine) in or­der to get the same ef­fect you get for free through Scannable. Ye gods, you even had to talk to peo­ple, which isn’t al­ways the thrill ride some folks make it out to be. Even at its worst, Ap­ple Maps sure as hell beat the time I was stuck ask­ing sus­pi­cious na­tives for di­rec­tions in ru­ral Alabama.

Oh, sure—there were pre­cur­sors. I should know. In 2006 I was still tot­ing my Black­berry Pearl and har­bor­ing good me­mories of my Palmpi­lot and the apps I used with them. Even Steam, the pop­u­lar cloud-based gam­ing plat­form and mar­ket­place, had al­ready made its de­but a cou­ple of years ahead of the App Store, of­fer­ing us a way to down­load the games we bought any time we wanted them.

But these were false starts. Steam was (and largely re­mains) a niche plat­form.

Apps on Pearl and Black­berry de­vices were sim­ple things, aimed mainly at or­ga­ni­za­tion and con­strained by the tac­tile in­put in­ter­faces. For that mat­ter, in­stal­la­tion was a pain.

The App Store, though, put pos­si­bil­i­ties in our pock­ets. Nowa­days, a sin­gle ipad can re­place pa­per piles that plagued my apart­ment. Even an iphone would have done the trick half the time, pro­vided I was fine tot­ing around a Blue­tooth key­board. I can com­pile all my notes in an app like Scrivener. I can take pho­tos of pri­mary sources and up­load them with note-tak­ing apps like Ever­note. Heck, if I need to take hand­writ­ten notes, I can do it in an app like Nota­bil­ity. In­dex card apps like Card­flow+ help me or­ga­nize my ideas. And won­der of won­ders, all this in­for­ma­tion is es­sen­tially al­ways there when I need it, thanks to the magic of icloud. With all those apps and more at my fin­ger­tips, I could have sent off my dis­ser­ta­tion with­out ever print­ing a sin­gle piece of pa­per or pos­si­bly even us­ing an­other de­vice. It’s so rev­o­lu­tion­ary that it’s stag­ger­ing.

FIND­ING WHAT WORKS

Yet it’d be wrong to say the App Store thrives merely be­cause it adds con­ve­nience. After all, it has com­peti­tors these days that do the same. No, the App Store does so well in part be­cause it pairs that con­ve­nience with a re­mark­able de­gree of se­cu­rity, so that we’re rarely ter­ri­fied that a Nige­rian “prince” is si­phon­ing our data or that it’ll turn our iphones into $1,000 bricks. We know it’s safe to down­load them.

This is great for my peace of mind. It’s cer­tainly great for my pri­vacy. But more im­por­tantly, Ap­ple’s cu­rated ap­proach al­lows me to ex­per­i­ment. No longer am I con­strained by the word pro­ces­sor I’m “sup­posed” to use. If I don’t like one, I can eas­ily buy or try out an­other from a com­peti­tor within min­utes. There’s no need to go to a store.

When all goes well, this ex­per­i­men­ta­tion im­proves my pro­duc­tiv­ity. Good­ness knows how many weeks of my life I wasted re­search­ing promis­ing but lit­tle-known in­die apps on my PC in or­der to make sure they weren’t go­ing to ruin my life with a virus.

With Ap­ple’s vet­ting process, though, I know I can down­load ev­ery lit­tle app that

caters to my idio­syn­cra­sies with­out wor­ry­ing too much about whether it’s go­ing to force me to un­der­take a fresh OS in­stall next week. That cer­tainly wasn’t as true in the days when my lit­tle Win­dows lap­top was my en­tire life, when I risked the de­struc­tion of weeks of work solely be­cause I wanted an app that helped me out­line bet­ter.

A DOL­LAR A DOZEN

And so much of it is cheap. I think that’s too of­ten for­got­ten when pun­dits talk about the rea­sons for the App Store’s suc­cess. We can talk all day about how ex­pen­sive the ac­tual phones are, but IOS apps sell for al­most noth­ing com­pared to the prices we used to pay for desk­top soft­ware. (Mac apps some­times re­main out­ra­geously ex­pen­sive, as in the case of Things 3, which charges $50 for an app that goes for just $10 on an iphone.) I’m con­fi­dent that I would have been able to ex­per­i­ment with at least some apps even with my laugh­able grad­u­ate stu­dent stipend.

These all look like sim­ple changes, but that’s just a sign of how thor­oughly they’ve changed our lives. In most cases, I think they’ve changed them for the bet­ter. It’s been a long time since I’ve found my­self frus­trated with the tools I use for writ­ing and re­search; after months and years of ex­per­i­ment­ing with the “per­fect” apps for each task, I usu­ally sim­ply find my­self frus­trated with the ac­tual busi­ness of writ­ing. Any writer will tell you that you can’t re­ally help that, so it’s an en­vi­able po­si­tion to be in.

Has the in­ter­net as a whole been the great gift to hu­man­ity we of­ten claim it is? Lately I have my doubts. I do be­lieve, though, that the App Store is one of the few de­vel­op­ments that we can point to as a Good Thing, whether for its va­ri­ety, con­ve­nience, or the sim­ple fact that Ap­ple gives devs a se­cure way to earn money with­out the fear of piracy (even if we can crit­i­cize that mas­sive 30 per­cent cut).

For us, be we pro­fes­sion­als or starv­ing grad stu­dents, ru­ral or ur­ban, the App Store al­lows us to find more ef­fi­cient ways of cre­at­ing. It al­lows us to find these meth­ods quickly, of­ten in­ex­pen­sively, and with­out fear. For that mat­ter, it re­minds us that there’s al­most al­ways a choice. And, of course, that’s to say noth­ing about the ways it lets us call driv­ers to pick us up, meet new peo­ple, or even shop, but plenty of words have been writ­ten about all that else­where.

In an age that’s in­creas­ingly fraught with fears about safety, ris­ing costs, and mis­in­for­ma­tion, the App Store gives us a rea­son to look for­ward to the fu­ture. ■

The trees were prob­a­bly ex­cited about Ap­ple’s re­lease of the App Store, too.

Some­times Ap­ple does come off as too dra­co­nian, as in the case of the Steam Link app, which never saw re­lease on IOS.

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