Apps: Tapping into the zeitgeist

Mobile apps have brought the world to your fingertips and promise a revolution in communication. We select the best, and Rhodri Marsden explains why they are important

Sunday 23 October 2011 05:13

Here’s an exchange that’ll bring glorious memories of the year 2002 flooding back: “You know my new phone?” “Yeah.” “It’s got a camera in it.” “You’re kidding me.” “Honest. On my mum’s life.”

Prior to this bizarre technological leap forward, mobile phones pretty much stuck to their brief of, well, being phones, with the added thrill of text messaging for those of us perched on the cutting edge. But embedding a lens in the underside of a phone kicked off a series of rapid developments which culminated in the 21st century equivalent of the Swiss Army knife. The attractive black lozenge that I fork out some 35 quid a month for the privilege of using allows me to watch BBC1, check whether my shelves are level (they’re not), play a quick game of Throttlecopter, control my computer remotely, pinpoint my position on the globe, sell stuff on eBay, check whether the trains are running on time, and stream live video back on to the internet of myself gasping in awe at all this. It even doubles as a metal detector, for goodness sake.

(“You’re kidding.” “Honest. On my mum’s life.”)

Several rounds of applause are due for the way the miniaturisation of technology has allowed accelerometers, magnetometers, cameras, GPS and – most importantly – wireless internet access to be packed into into something smaller than your hand, and still operate (just about) without being plugged into the mains.

But our access to this technology, and the world of possibility it affords, is via the app. (Apple might complain about the way that the word “app” has come to mean any application running on any mobile device – not just the iPhone, but also Blackberries, Nokias, Windows Mobiles and Android phones – but it serves them right for coming up with something so snappy.) Mobile apps aren’t new; they’ve lurked on phones for years, allowing us to browse the web (albeit grindingly slowly), keep a diary or set an alarm.

Nor, in many cases, are today’s apps doing stuff that we couldn’t already do on a mobile; the astonishing music-recognition app Shazam, for example, has worked for years just by dialling 2580. (If you see someone holding their phone up to a speaker in TopShop, they haven’t lost their minds, they’re just using Shazam.) But attractive apps on gorgeously scrolling touchscreens have made mobile phone multi-functionality a treat, rather than a frustrating test of patience. No longer do you have to launch a web browser and type in a lengthy web address to find out if the Northern Line is delayed. It’s a one-finger operation.

The other reason we’ve become so app-happy is the ease with which we can get our hands on them. Distribution of apps used to be either controlled by your network provider, or required you to download the software to a computer and transfer it to your phone. But the App Store and its various copycats – Android Market, Blackberry App World, Nokia’s Ovi Store and upcoming versions from Samsung and Microsoft – give Apple, Google and thousands of independent developers a relatively quick and easy route to our fingertips. Many of the apps are free; we can try them out, and if we don’t like them, we can dump them.

The apps we love we invariably show off to our friends, and these end up driving phone sales. Everyone’s happy, not least Apple, which recently reported its two billionth app download. One industry figure confidently predicts that apps will be “bigger than the internet by 2020”; admittedly, he’s a spokesman for an independent mobile app vendor (GetJar) but it still gives some idea of their phenomenal growth. We’re reaching a point where anything your laptop can do, your phone can do – a bit smaller, sure, but in many cases better. Location-aware apps perfectly demonstrate the capability of these phones; if you don’t know where on earth you are after a heavy night on the town, your phone can tell you. Then, if you urgently need a local taxi firm to help you get home, your phone can find one. And if you need a friend to help you into the taxi, your phone can tell you who’s nearby.

Productivity apps are no longer the clunking monstrosities they once were; notes, memos, voice reminders and to-do lists can be effortlessly created and ticked off. Uninspired trudges around supermarkets that end with the inevitable purchase of a frozen ready meal can be banished for ever, with instant inspiration from recipe apps. Men can reinforce stereotypes by enabling their phones to make farting noises, while women can do the same by reading their horoscopes. And as a gaming platform, Snake and Tetris have been shunted aside to make room for the likes of Crash Bandicoot Nitro Kart 3D. Give me a phone and your index finger, and I’ll show you the world. Well, some of it.

Click here for the Independent guide to the best apps

Click here for The Independent's free iPhone app

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments