Cloud Four Blog

Technical notes, War stories and anecdotes

iPhone App Store: The Surprise of 2008

I realize it’s a little late for end of year retrospectives, but the story of the iPhone App Store and what it meant for mobile in 2008 is something worth revisiting.

There is no denying that the App Store has been a huge success. Apple recently announced that there have been 500 million application downloads.

At this point, it seems like a no-brainer that the iPhone App Store would be successful. But if you think back to early 2008, the success of the iPhone App Store doesn’t seem so intuitive.

And even if you thought the App Store would be successful, it would have been hard to predict the gold rush mentality that has developed.

Part of the reason I’m surprised by the gold rush mentality is because in many ways the iPhone App Store flies in the face of the preceding technology trends.

Think back to the way technology was being covered before the App Store launched. It was rare that you would see a desktop application covered by sites like TechCrunch. The release of a new version of Photoshop would pass without notice.

In fact, if you search TechCrunch for Photoshop, you will find the coverage dominated by talk of online Photoshop alternatives and the release of Adobe’s own online photo editing application.

The point is that the trend was away from desktop applications—in other words, native applications—towards online applications. The question for developers of desktop applications was how were they going to compete with web-based alternatives. How was Microsoft going to compete with Google Docs and Spreadsheet?

Let’s look at some of the specific trends from Tim O’Reilly’s definition of Web 2.0:

  • The Web As Platform — Building complex software designed to run in the browser and taking advantage of network characteristics.
  • Harnessing Collective Intelligence — “Network effects from user contributions are the key to market dominance in the Web 2.0 era.”
  • End of the Software Release Cycle — “One of the defining characteristics of internet era software is that it is delivered as a service, not as a product.”
  • Software Above the Level of a Single Device — “One other feature of Web 2.0 that deserves mention is the fact that it’s no longer limited to the PC platform.”
  • Rich User Experiences — “Web based applications with rich user interfaces and PC-equivalent interactivity.”

For the most part, these are trends that iPhone applications ignore.

The platform isn’t web-based. There isn’t much collective intelligence in a 99-cent fart application. Software cycles are back and longer due to the App Store review process. The software only runs on Apple hardware. And while iPhone applications obviously provide rich experiences, the trend O’Reilly identified was that web-based applications were competing with native applications for rich experiences.

The definition of Web 2.0 is somewhat dated. If I were to go back to the beginning of 2008 and create a list of the current technology trends, the list would look something like this:

  • Social networking and social graphs — Who can forget 2007’s near obsession with Facebook?
  • Web services and mashups — Interesting services were being built by combining web services from places like Flickr and Google Maps to present information in a new way.
  • Software as a service business models — Inspired by the success of Salesforce on the high-end and 37Signals on the low end, businesses looked for ways to sell subscriptions to web software as a way to fund continued development and ensure recurring revenue.
  • Cloud computing — Offerings like Amazon Web Services, Google App Engine, and Sales Force Platform as a Service promised to decrease operating and development costs for web applications.
  • Mobile web — The early results from iPhone usage showed huge increases in mobile web usage prompting some to declare native mobile applications a dead business model.

Again if you go down the list, how many of these trends apply to the iPhone App Store? Sure there are examples of applications that utilize some of these trends, but overall iPhone applications have more in common with desktop applications than they do with the web-based technology that dominated 2007 and early 2008.

So with that historical context in mind, isn’t the success of the iPhone App Store astounding?

And perhaps a better question to ask is: Does the success of the iPhone App Store invalidate those previous trends?

5 Comments on “iPhone App Store: The Surprise of 2008”

  1. Scott Becker says:

    I think the astounding success of the App Store has a lot to do with the poor user experience of web apps on the iPhone, as compared to web apps on a desktop machine. On a desktop machine, most of the things a typical user does can be done in a web browser, and the user experience is fast and responsive. On the iPhone web-based apps are very slow, and even for web apps that attempt to use AJAX to speed things up, there is a noticeable lag between the time you click something and the time it responds. Native apps are fast and can access features of the phone that the browser can’t. If future versions of the iPhone web browser speed up and becomes a decent platform for apps that can run with desktop-like speed, the popularity of native apps could diminish.

    Another factor is that on a desktop (or laptop) machine, you can generally expect to have a consistent connection to the internet. So you can start to depend on that, and start using the browser for things like email, word processing, spreadsheets, and other formerly-desktop-only things. I think the same thing will happen all over again as phones improve, connection speeds get better, etc.

  2. Jason Grigsby says:

    @scott I agree that performance and connectivity is part of the explanation. I plan on writing more about them soon.

    Short version: they are factors, but not all native apps are faster (NetNewsWire vs. News Gator’s iPhone interface) and mobile web applications can be written to have utility when the off network, but developers often don’t do so.

    I’m actually a little more interested in the rapid change in business model and development processes. Those seem like more significant shifts in philosophy.

    Thanks for commenting.

  3. [...] Last January, I wrote about how the iPhone App Store was the surprise story of 2008. [...]

  4. Tim O'Reilly says:

    Grigs –

    Don’t be so sure that Web 2.0 principles don’t apply to the App Store. (See my latest post on the subject: http://radar.oreilly.com/2010/03/state-of-internet-operating-system.html)

    Ask yourself what are the most important core apps on the iPhone: communications (phone, messaging), maps, the App Store itself. All of these are network apps. Now how about popular apps like FourSquare. Ditto.

    The phone doesn’t change the trends I described as web 2.0 – if anything, it amplifies them.

  5. Jason Grigsby says:

    Hi Tim,

    Oh believe me. I think they still apply as well. :-)

    -Jason