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Five years in, the iPhone's greatest legacy: Its apps

How will the iPhone be remembered? Most likely, for how it reinvented the perception of software.


The very best feature the iPhone ever had didn't exist until a year after the iPhone first debuted. It wasn't the Web browser. It wasn't the touch screen.

It was the apps.

While I remember the magical parts of owning the first iPhone, those aren't really what I think it will be remembered for. After all, touch screens, cameras, and all its other iconic elements have been appropriated by competitors.

The lingering bombshell that the iPhone has birthed is, needless to say, the idea of apps. Apps as a commercial prospect. Apps as a celebration of a device's identity. Apps as fun. Apps as independent spirit. I say "idea of apps" because, after all, Apple didn't invent apps, nor was the iPhone the first smartphone. However, Apple and its App Store became the spark that marketed and reinvented the perception of apps...and the business model for selling software.

The iPhone before the App Store: One screen. CNET

Five years ago, when the iPhone first appeared, it had its own built-in apps and open spaces for where, you could only guess, future apps would be, but there was no App Store, nor had Apple announced one. Downloadable applications already existed: Palm had them, BlackBerry had them, and most other phones had them, too. They were often hosted by service providers on ugly-looking portals. I remember plenty of people cradling Palm Treos and brandishing styli, excited about the PDA-style applications they could use on the go.

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Software had been in the hands of independent developers for years, but on PCs the result ended up being freeware or shareware unless a clear niche could be established. The free-market feel of an app store suddenly allowed masses of creative free thinkers to suddenly dream of making millions nearly overnight, or create ideas that normally would be hard to encourage average people to adopt.

Apps: iPhone as Swiss Army Knife Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

Apple succeeded in making apps fun, relevant, easy to use, and exciting to buy. Apple marketed the existence of its apps better than anyone before. Apple made software cool again. That effect trickled into other ecosystems and created industries.

The App Store is a walled garden: apps require approval, and apps can't be used anywhere other than Apple's ecosystem. That was initially seen as a disadvantage on the iPhone and iPad, but that closed-off, simple design helped make the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch easier to use, and harder to infect with malware. (The closed-off part of the App Store -- that your purchases can't be transferred to other platforms -- also ensures that people stay on the platform, and are hesitant to switch to a competitor.) That clean design also made the iPhone and iPad appealing for corporate use.

Apps kick-started the iPhone. The vibrant, grass-roots feel of many apps turned the iPhone on its head and transformed it from a gorgeous but crystalline high-end phone in 2007 into a playground and tool-for-all in 2008.

The iPhone's best features have been demonstrated via apps. Apple realized this and started making iPhone ads celebrations of apps, too. The iPad has taken the same approach; after all, it's also app-based.

The transition between iPhone and iPad was eased by apps. Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

Apps have allowed Apple to keep its lead over competitors, because no one else has been able to wrangle as many developers and content-makers in one place.

The app revolution started in phones, but it's rippled from there. From phones to tablets, smart TVs, and even video games, the appification of the known world has produced a shift in the power structure of developers, the perceived value of goods, and the way services are marketed. Thanks to apps, video games gave birth to phenomena like Angry Birds. Thanks to apps, services like Twitter became truly powerful. Thanks to apps, HBO Go and dozens of other video-streaming services have turned phones and tablets into TV accessories. Many of these apps spread their wings and became cross-platform, reinforcing an app industry that has gathered far more force than traditional software models. Now, even Microsoft is becoming appified.

Windows 8/RT was influenced by apps. Screenshot by Lance Whitney/CNET

The smartest thing Apple ever did with the iPhone is open up an opportunity for excited developers to create their own love letters and tributes to the iPhone, to show Apple and everyone else what their device could become. That crowdsourcing of content threatens Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft, and many others, and has forced them to be equally open and aggressive in attracting outsiders. Without those creative developers, the iPhone, no matter how well-designed, couldn't have survived on Apple-made software alone.

In another 15 years, maybe the App Revolution will have cooled; maybe we'll have moved on to other ways of using mobile computers, whatever they'll be called. In five years, however, apps will be how all of computing works. We're headed there from all directions. Technology may come in many shapes, but apps are becoming the bridge.

And after the iPhone, there will still be apps.

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