The App Store turns five: A look back and forward

Five years ago, the App Store was born. A million apps, billions of dollars, and an uncountably high number of Angry Birds later, the store is unquestionably a smashing, unrivaled success. These days, customers download more than 800 apps every single second.

When the iPhone launched in 2007, Steve Jobs famously told developers that they could write “apps” for the device by creating Web apps. Developers mostly scoffed at that pronouncement—some went so far as to jailbreak their phones just so they could play around with creating software for the revolutionary new device.

Respite came in March 2008, when Apple laid out the roadmap for iOS development—including a software development kit (SDK) for programmers to write their own apps—and announced that it would provide a storefront through which developers could sell their software.

The App Store launched on July 10, 2008, with a whopping 552 apps on its virtual shelves; the most common prices were $1 and $10, and there were a mere 135 free apps.

In the intervening years, the App Store has made some developers fabulously wealthy; gave some a new, stable career; and left others with broken dreams and disappointments. But owners of iOS devices didn’t focus on the App Store lottery—they simply cheered the many awesome new abilities their devices gained.

This is the story of the App Store’s success; it's a success that has come in the face of plenty of issues with the store, many of which persist even to today. But more on that in a bit.

Not-so-humble beginnings

Steve Jobs announces the App Store.

Among those 552 launch apps were many that still grace our home screens: MLB.com At Bat, Facebook, Yelp, Shazam, and Super Monkey Ball, to name a few. The App Store launched simultaneously in 62 countries; then, as now, it was accessible from a devoted iOS app, or as a feature sort of crammed into iTunes.

The App Store’s first weekend saw more than 10 million app downloads. Less than a month later, Sega’s Super Monkey Ball hit 300,000 downloads, netting Sega $3 million and Apple more than $1 million of its own, thanks to the store’s 70/30 revenue split.

By September, the store had surpassed 100 million downloads, and when the end of 2008 rolled around, the most downloaded app of the year, with 5 million downloads, was Facebook. Of course, since that particular app was (and remains) free of charge, those downloads didn’t translate directly into dollars for Facebook or Apple. But as the App Store’s fortunes rose, so too did the iPhone’s, and later the iPad’s. And Facebook’s mobile usage went through the roof.

You know what’s cool? Two billion downloads.

In January of 2009—just six months after the App Store’s launch—Apple announced the store’s 500 millionth app download. The store at that point offered 15,000 apps for sale, and the numbers kept accelerating.

While a rising tide may lift all boats, there are challenges as volume increases. When you were one of 500-some apps in the App Store, it was fairly easy to get discovered. By the time the App Store hit 15,000 apps, though, discoverability was a problem. Even today, developers are dependent upon either the press or Apple shining a spotlight on their apps in order to stand out from the ever-denser crowd.

Doodle Jump

And the number of apps in the store wasn’t about to start dropping. In April 2009, the App Store hit 1 billion downloads. By September, it had crossed 2 billion downloads, offering more than 85,000 apps from 12,500 developers.

Several major apps launched in 2009: The acclaimed Doodle Jump has earned more than $10 million since its launch in April of that year. Real Racing launched in 2009, too, as did ESPN’s Score Center. The former became one of the most popular game franchises on iOS; the latter became the App Store’s most downloaded sports app.

At year’s end, Facebook once again ended the year as the most downloaded app, alongside a game called Paper Toss.

The iPad and 5 billion downloads

The App Store showed no signs of slowing in 2010. At the start of the year, the downloads total soared past 3 billion. Also soaring was Angry Birds, which blew up in 2010: Apple featured the app in the App Store, and Angry Birds sales increased by a factor of more than 50.

Angry Birds

The most significant App Store development of 2010, though, came from Apple: The iPad launched in April 2010, ushering in a slew of novel and clever software categories. Netflix’s app arrived in the App Store at the same time as the tablet, heralding the age of instant video on-the-go. If you eschewed moving pictures for the comfort of words, there was also an influx of magazines: Time became one of the first on offer.

By June of that year, Apple announced that the App Store had eclipsed 5 billion downloads, with more than 225,000 apps in the store—11,000 of them specifically optimized for the iPad.

In June 2010, Apple said that it had paid out more than $1 billion to developers since the App Store’s launch two years prior. The store, by this point, was available in more than 90 countries. Citizens of most of those countries were probably playing Cut the Rope or Angry Birds, two of the most popularly downloaded games of 2010.

The year also saw the launch of Instagram—maybe you’ve heard of it? The free app launched exclusively on the iPhone. Two years later, Facebook bought it for $1 billion, which, however unfairly, did not propel the app to the top of the App Store paid apps chart.

Ninjas, water, 10 billion and beyond

In January 2011, the App Store passed 10 billion downloads. The 10 billionth app downloaded was a game called Paper Glider; it’s unclear whether the fact that the developer behind the app offers free beer to its employees each Friday played any role in the company’s success.

The Daily

Subscriptions arrived in the App Store in early 2011, alongside the launch of News Corp’s The Daily. The app embraced the ability to charge customers on a renewing basis, but the publication failed to catch on with readers; it stopped its virtual presses less than two years later, in December 2012.

But while The Daily floundered, subscriptions caught on in a big way; nowadays nearly every major publisher of periodicals offers subscription-based access to their magazines and newspapers in the App Store.

Of course, that wasn’t without speedbumps either. Apple takes 30 percent of anything a developer sells on the App Store. So Apple gets 30 percent of your app’s price, and 30 percent of any subscriptions you sell via the App Store, and 30 percent of any in-app purchase, too. Apple eventually offered publishers some concessions from its initial policy, allowing them to offer subscription access outside of the App Store, too, without requiring that such subscriptions cut in Apple. Still, in other cases, Apple didn’t budge: Amazon was forced to rip the link to its Kindle store out of the Kindle reading app, since said store doesn’t cut Apple in on the ebook lucre—it remains absent to this day.

March 2011 saw the launch of the iPad 2; that’s when the App Store zoomed by 65,000 iPad-specific apps. The App Store’s reach swelled to 123 countries.

October 2011 marked the launch of the iPhone 4S, which also heralded the debut of Siri. Apple’s virtual assistant, of course, came to the company’s attention via the (since-discontinued) Siri app from SRI International. At the launch of the iPhone 4S, Apple said that the App Store now contained more than half a million apps, with downloads exceeding 18 billion; according to the company, customers were also downloading a billion apps every single month.

Siri

2011 was also the year that Temple Run exploded. After more than 100 million downloads, it’s become one of the highest-grossing apps in App Store history. Angry Birds remained one of the most popular games of the year for the second year running, joined this time around by Fruit Ninja. Still absent, however, is any mention of a lucrative crossover game where fruit-slicing ninjas must attempt to defend themselves from furious avians. (Call me!)

Billions and billions served

By January 2012, Apple had paid out more than $4 billion to developers, and by March of that year, the App Store had surpassed 25 billion downloads. The 25 billionth app downloaded was from a little upstart called Disney; the app was its hugely popular Where’s My Water game.

In 2012, the App Store grew again, reaching more than 153 countries. The year saw the launch of Paper for the iPad, a drawing app that went on to be named Apple’s App of the Year. Temple Run continued its, er, run as one of the most popular games, joined by Draw Something—at least one of those is still played on occasion in 2013.

It was also the year of the iPad with Retina display—two of them, in fact—along with the iPad mini and the iPhone 5, meaning that developers had to plan for more screen permutations than ever before.

In May 2013, just 14 months after hitting 25 billion apps downloaded, the App Store crossed the 50 billion download marker. This time, the app in question was Say the Same Thing, an app designed in part by members of the band OK Go. And in June of this year, Apple said that it had paid more than $10 billion to developers, an increase of $6 billion in a scant 15 months. That’s about $400 million per month over that period—not too shabby.

There’s an app for that

The App Store isn’t perfect by any means, but it’s significant that it achieved all these milestones despite its flaws. Over the years, developers have continued to wrestle with the much-maligned review process, which convinces some not to even start building potential apps for fear that they might be rejected. Then there’s the strict sandboxing—enforced from day one—that limits apps’ ability to interact with one another. Not to mention the still-clunky App Store search and discovery process on iOS, in iTunes, and on the Web.

The App Store is clearly flawed. At the same time, though, it’s clearly wonderful. Double-tap the Home button on your nearest iOS device, and swipe through the apps you used most recently. Sure, you probably rely on Apple apps like Messages and Safari, but it’s pretty likely that you turn to at least a few remarkable third-party apps each day, too.

In my case, I use apps like Tweetbot, Instapaper, and Reeder for staying informed; Mailbox and Fantastical for email and calendar; Scribblenauts and Words With Friends for fun; and MyFitnessPal and Fitbit for staying reasonably healthy. And a whole lot of HBO Go.

I also use iOS apps to deposit checks, read books and magazines, make music, and write. It’s a reasonable bet that you use iOS apps for a whole lot of things, too; some of them may overlap with my list above, others might be apps that I’ve never even heard of.

The App Store begat a lot of things, including the Mac App Store, a slew of gaming franchises, and roughly 400,000 Twitter apps (and the same number of “fart app” jokes). More than anything, however, the App Store’s crowning achievement isn’t the obscenely high download numbers it’s attained or even the bundle of money it’s paid out to developers.

The App Store’s singular accomplishment is turning our iPhones from useful to indispensable. Before the App Store’s launch, everyone’s home screen looked exactly the same. Now, our iOS devices all look different, and they all reflect precisely what we want our devices to do for us.

Sure, the iPhone (and later the iPad) were game-changers and, for many of us, life-changers, too. But imagine your iOS devices with only Apple’s stock apps—including the Stocks app—and you’ll realize, as Apple has, that these devices better our lives in large part because of the vast, thriving third-party app market. The App Store’s success is iOS’s success.

Apple will continue to trumpet impressive App Store numbers in the years ahead: 100 billion downloads, $25 billion paid to developers, and on and on. But the real lasting achievement, the real window into the App Store’s success, is the ever-increasing amount of time you spend—and the joy you feel—using your iOS devices.

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