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.

ios11 app store icon
Apple

A little 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 all 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 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.

GoodNotes on 9.7-inch iPad Leif Johnson/IDG

The trees were probably happy excited about the release of the App Store, too.

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 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.

steam link app Valve

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

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 matters, 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.

  
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