The app’s incursion changed so fast that many incredible things we can do in our lives are now taken for granted without considering that 20 years ago, they didn’t exist, and we couldn’t even think of some of them.

But this behavior is not new in technology, all the contrary. This is how significant disruptions in technology usually happen. They appear, they become standard, and nobody thinks about the past anymore. In 1907 the personal transport was taking place mostly by bicycle or by horse. Only ten years later, in 1917, there were 5 million registered cars, and nobody would think about horses anymore.

Before going into the full details of creating new apps, we wanted to dedicate a few words to the apps’ history. How they appeared and how they were able to grow so fast and disrupt the way we communicate. 

Apps Aren’t That Old

One could have the temptation of feeling old when talking about how life changed thanks to apps, but it probably shouldn’t, because apps started to be popular only 12 years ago since the writing of these lines! 

Twelve years is just like a breath even in modern history. Software engineers like to say things like “5 years is an eternity in technology,” but the truth is that it is not. Let’s choose a reference, imagine  Game of Thrones. Did you like the series? It was on air for nine years, and the world didn’t change that much during that period.

(Yeah, I know, one of the nine years there wasn’t any chapter, but the time remains in 9 years)

However, apps have changed how we do things in so many ways that the world before apps looks like an ancient memory from the past century.

If you are reading this post, the chances are that you remember traveling in your car using a paper map and looking for a reference in the street to position yourself on it. Maybe your wife was choosing the music from a collection of CDs and your kids were fighting with each other.

Nowadays, you would just follow an app’s directions while listening to your favorite music from a catalog containing almost every CD in humans’ history. 

Wherever you would be, you would have access to infinite travel guides. Find in seconds the best restaurants and hotel recommendations in the area with the feedback of thousands of other people who have already been there, including pictures of the food they serve and even the updated daily menu.

If you still have doubts for some reason, and you wanted to ask that old friend for the recommendation he had given you a time ago, you could just video-call him at the same moment.

Unfortunately, your kids probably would be fighting each other. But in the end, they probably love each other, so that’s ok.

The interesting point about these two scenes is that there is a tiny time frame between them. Many relatively young people – people in their 30s and 40s – grow in the first scene and live in the second one. 

So, how all this change started? 

The Beginning of the Apps

The “official” beginning of the apps is often accepted when Nokia included the Snake game in their Nokia 6110 in 1997.

Nokia was starting to understand that phones could be more than phones, and it focused a lot of its resources on Symbian, their operating system, and probably one of the most relevant for the time. There were alternatives like Windows CE and Palm devices, but those were more expensive niche devices. So for the sake of simplicity, we will focus on the path of the Symbian ecosystem that was the one that most of the customers would know. 

Apart from being the base operating system for hundreds of mobile phones, Symbian established the foundations to build more complex software on top of it. 

At that moment, new colored and larger screens were arriving at the market, and Nokia was looking for new ways to take advantage of them. That’s why they introduced the S60 Platform at the end of 2001. It was a full software platform for mobile phones running on top of Symbian that pretended to be the beginning of the smartphone era. 

The S60 platform allowed developers to create new software for the new phones using standard programming languages like Java, C++, and Python. It also set up some user interface standards like the menu button and the arrows joystick. This platform opened a world of new possibilities. Suddenly mass production phones were able to install software after customers purchased the device. Users could add new features to their phones, and that was huge. The era of Nokia and Blackberry was just starting.

However, this was only half success. The developer tools’ complexity and the lack of standards to find and install those apps on smartphones prevented apps from getting popular immediately. 

There were, at the time, very few incentives to create new software for small developers. 

Most of the time, apps needed to be found and downloaded to a computer first and then transferred to the smartphone using some proprietary software that was difficult to find or wasn’t always compatible with every PC. Some proprietary cables were also expensive and impossible to buy in any local hardware store.

But still, despite this complexity, many excellent and useful software was written for the S60 Platform. TomTom, for example, had an app that, in combination with a Bluetooth GPS antenna, enabled every S60 phone to provide maps with a similar experience to what we would expect today. There was also an S60 version of Microsoft Office. Maybe opening a Word document on a 200 pixels widescreen wasn’t the best user experience, but I guess someone in the world would use it (maybe?).

Indies also had their place in this platform with an infinite catalog of video games. 

Even if these apps were limited to early adopters, it is fair to say that apps were already popular before 2008. People were already reading and replying to emails from the smartphone. It was possible to navigate a small version of the web using WAP. It was possible to take pictures and send them using MMS. You could add and listen to some mp3 during your commute……

And why has everything suddenly changed?

2008 the iPhone Changes the Game

Well, this is the part that probably needs fewer explanations. It doesn’t matter how much knowledge you have in technology or software. Infinite authors told the presentation of the iPhone endless times. The iPhone was a game-changer because the UI, connectivity, and capabilities of that device were probably ten years ahead of any other competitor. It felt even kind of unfair to call competitors to the rest of the market’s flagship devices. 

However, one of the essential details changing human history and human relations might not be evident for the final user. 

The iPhones ran an utterly new operating system that was, in the end, a full desktop-class operating system. The iPhone felt and behaved more like a desktop computer and less like a phone with added capabilities.  

Taking leverage of this new operating system, Apple launched the AppStore and the iPhone SDK next year. The app store and the iPhone SDK were the masterpiece movement that was closing the circle. 

Suddenly Apple had a fantastic device, an incredible development platform based on Mac ( allowing Mac developers to immediately start writing software for the iPhone with very little pain), and finally but also important: an easy way to sell and install the software.

From one day to the other, developers found a potential market of thousands – and later millions – of users, and they started creating apps for the iPhone.

In the beginning, games like that one that simulated drinking a beer got the public’s attention. Who doesn’t remember the iFart? 

However, as developers and companies started to learn how to develop software for smartphones, apps became more complex. They stopped being little utilities to become complex systems and moved the world to the Mobile-First era.

Android was at that time recently acquired by Google. It was a startup that was creating an Operating System to compete with Blackberry. However, after the iOS presentation, they immediately shifted their goal to look more like iPhone OS and less like Blackberry OS.

This shift sparked Steve Jobs’s anger because he felt that Google was copying the iPhone. And that´s mostly true. But the importance of Android is enormous as well, as it brought iOS-like capabilities to cheaper phones. It allowed the mass customer market to have similar features, one that the iPhones probably would never fit.

Instagram would have been a lot different from how we know it if it had to be ported for Blackberry OS or S60 instead of iOS and Android.

While it is good that we remember the contribution of those old operating systems to history, it is even better that we moved forward.

Rubén Vázquez

Rubén is an iOS software engineer and IoT enthusiast from Galicia, Spain.