Everyone wants a piece of the app pie.
More than 300,000 fill the iTunes App Store. There are another 100,000 to download through the Android Market. And there are more than 10,000 in BlackBerry App World.
Analysts predict Apple will sell its 10 millionth iPad this month, a landmark figure that no doubt brings dollar signs to eyes of app developers.
Most of the small, software applications for mobile devices are free or cost a few bucks. They're great pacifiers for whining toddlers (Wheels on the Bus for Android) and bring down the blood pressure of hyper-organized professionals (Mobile Checkbook for BlackBerry). Games lead the pack, and it's not your stereotypical basement-dwelling, Doritos-munching "gamers" who are downloading them. The 99-cent app Angry Birds is the most-downloaded game for the iPhone and has a strong female following. Board game adaptations (Monopoly, Uno) follow closely behind in popularity.
Influenced by the buzz, CEOs - everyone from shoe producers to fast food retailers - have put app development at the top of their list of digital priorities. Wireless providers and phone manufacturers now boast about the app experience and data packages in their products and services, rather than less sophisticated features, such as text messaging and cameras. In a report prepared this spring by Chetan Sharma Consulting, researchers projected app downloads would shoot up from 7 billion in 2009 to almost 50 billion by 2012.
Breathless attention has been spent on apps for magazines, hyped as the saviour of print journalism. Media tycoon Rupert Murdoch is betting millions on "The Daily" - a magazine app designed for the iPad.
But here's the thing: the media buzz is way ahead of user adoption.
Kristen Purcell, the associate director for research at the Pew Internet & American Life Project, notes that one in 10 of 1,917 adults surveyed this spring by her institute wasn't sure if his phone came loaded with apps. Of the ones who did have apps on their phone (or at least knew they did), about one-third said they didn't use them.
"Yes, there is this incredible apps market growing right now, but it is a little bit ahead of the average consumer. The average cellphone user isn't there yet," Ms. Purcell says.
She bets they will catch up, and so do manufacturers of mobile devices. Microsoft (always late to the party) just launched the Windows 7 Phone: an operating system it hopes will take away a share of the mobile app market, currently dominated by Apple. Also nipping at Apple's core is Research in Motion, makers of BlackBerry, who plan to launch the BlackBerry PlayBook (a challenge to the iPad) next year.
But evolving alongside apps are their predecessors: websites.
HTML5, the next major upgrade in HTML (the coding language used on the Web) could dramatically change the mobile Web. It will allow developers to display graphics and typography in compelling ways. And the price tag won't be as hefty, either. Instead of having to code apps to run on iPhones, BlackBerrys, Android and Windows 7 devices, developers can, in theory, code once and have the same content displayed on all platforms. Which will be the future the net?
THE APP PRIMER
Load up your favourite site through the browser on your mobile device and you travel back: the page loads slowly kilobyte by kilobyte. Instead of content-rich fields, you're greeted with grey boxes (Apple doesn't support flash on its devices). All that's missing is the robotic beep-boops of a modem connecting to dial-up Internet.
While the Web browser is still a powerful tool on laptops and desktops, on mobile devices - save for tablets - screen real estate is limited, which means consuming content requires an elaborate routine of scrolling, panning and zooming.
"The evolution of the browser has dramatically slowed in the last five years," Michael Keefe, a partner at the Mobile Institute, a Toronto-based group that promotes mobile development, says. "Apps filled that vacuum."
Apps are designed for specific systems (the Windows platform, for example) and, in some cases, devices (the Motorola Droid X). They're different from the programs you run on your laptop or desktop in that many harness built-in features specific to your mobile device. If you whip out your BlackBerry, loaded with the Urbanspoon app, at any major street corner in Canada, the app taps into the device's GPS capabilities to spit out nearby restaurant recommendations.
The success of a mobile app isn't limited to its Internet-enhanced features. In fact, the most downloaded app in the app store requires no connectivity. A game in which a user flings a flock of angry birds at green pigs, Angry Birds is a 99-cent marvel. Built by a small mobile development firm in Espoo, Finland, it has racked up more than 42 million paid and free downloads. The app's runaway success is no fluke. The characters are bright and animated. The touch screen creates a lively user experience, the aim is simple and, perhaps most important, it's cheap, which makes it the perfect impulse purchase.