How the iPhone’s App Revolution Changed Everything

Dave Johnson

As kids, today’s adults imagined a future with Marty McFly hoverboards, Rosie the Robot automated maids, and perhaps the occasional spa vacation on the surface of the moon. We didn’t get any of those things (yet) but we did get the completely unexpected smartphone—a powerful computer that can give you real-time driving directions, call your mom, take stunning photos, and pay for your Starbucks order—and it fits in your pocket. As Apple celebrates the 10th anniversary of its revolutionary take on the concept by releasing the iPhone X, it’s worth a look back at how just one small part of the iPhone—apps—helped change the world.

Birth of the smartphone

The original iPhone was not the first smartphone. A number of older models can make reasonable claims to that title, including the Ericsson R380—a phone with a low-resolution greyscale touchscreen which debuted in 2000—or even the Simon Personal Communicator, a similar stylus-controlled phone from way back in 1992.

And around the time that the iPhone launched in 2007, there was already a line of Windows mobile smartphones from Microsoft, not to mention the keyboard-centric BlackBerry and PDA/phone hybrids that ran on the Palm OS operating system—all of which did many of the same things as the first iPhone.

Even so, everyone remembers the iPhone as kickstarting the smartphone industry because it got so many disparate features right: a sharp color touchscreen, an integrated camera, an interface so simple even your grandma could master it, and easy-to-install apps that seemed to endlessly expand the phone’s capabilities.

Apps weren’t meant to be

These days, it’s impossible to think about smartphones without their app store and millions of third-party apps. But it didn’t start out that way; at the time of the iPhone’s launch, third-party apps were specifically verboten.

The first set of developer guidelines for the iPhone did not allow anyone but Apple to create apps for the iPhone; instead, developers were encouraged to create so-called web apps, which were essentially sophisticated web pages that didn’t have access to phone components like the camera or GPS. You could be forgiven for not even remembering that web apps existed; they weren’t popular.

While initially the only easily accessible apps were those that came pre-loaded onto new iPhones, savvy users installed cracked versions of the operating system—a process called “jailbreaking”—which allowed for more dynamic third-party apps to be installed despite Apple’s rules. Within a year, Apple relented and released a software development kit that allowed outside companies to create their own iPhone apps. Apple’s app store, designed for those third-parties to sell their applications, finally debuted on July 10, 2008, and the floodgates opened. In 2009, there were 23,000 apps and games in the App store. Today? Somewhere in the neighborhood of 3 million.

Apps improved wireless networks

Apple’s decision to initially keep third-party apps off the iPhone wasn’t an arbitrary one—Steve Jobs thought that outside apps might not meet his exacting quality standards, and would reflect poorly on the iPhone.

Moreover, there were serious concerns back then that cellular networks weren’t up to the task. And here’s when the first big change emerged. Can you remember how slow and poor wireless quality was in 2007? Most of the country’s cellular infrastructure has been upgraded twice since those early days of mobile tech, going from 2G to 3G service and now to 4G or LTE. 3G was about 25 times faster than 2G, and LTE is about 10 times faster still. “[The iPhone] forced network operators to upgrade because the apps on the iPhone were consistently downloading—putting a strain on the networks. Before the iPhone, this wasn’t a problem,” says Hazim Alaeddin, a digital marketing expert who specializes in the telecom industry.

So, the next time you get annoyed by a creepy location-based push notification—say from Yelp pointing out a hot new brunch spot in your area on Saturday morning—remember, you kinda-sorta have to thank it for that 5G connection you use to stream HD action movies on your phone.

Apps replaced all the things

It’s a common joke that the iPhone (and smartphones in general) have become gadgets that can do more or less anything. Indeed, smartphones have become general purpose appliances that perform an array of tasks as diverse as whatever collection of apps you choose to install. There was a time when being tech-forward meant owning a camera, GPS receiver, Personal Digital Assistant, and perhaps an iPod and a portable game player. Not only was each piece of gear pretty expensive, but that meant you had to carry a half-dozen different gadgets everywhere you went. That was only something the geekiest of consumers (and Batman) were willing to do. But the explosion of apps means that a single phone performs all of those functions—as well as serve as an alarm clock, digital recorder, answering machine, flashlight, credit card, and a consolidated remote control for a broad array of smart home devices.

It’s this Swiss Army knife-like flexibility that has depressed sales of most of those product categories. Today, there’s far less need for a digital camera when your phone is always in your pocket and synced up to Instagram or Snapchat. Consequently compact digital cameras, whose sales peaked around 2009, are almost extinct today. And of course, even Apple discontinued the last of its iPod family last year, with several popular streaming apps providing music directly to your iPhone.

Apps took over web browsing

High-end digital cameras aren’t the only devices to fall to apps. To a large degree, they’ve replaced web browsing, too. To be sure, there are still many phone-users viewing web pages by navigating to them in Safari, Chrome, or another browser. Indeed, Google Analytics for many common web sites reveal that half or more of the traffic is coming from mobile browsers—and that’s led to many popular sites being built using a technique called responsive design, which reformats the site automatically regardless of the size of the browser.

Despite that elegant innovation, the reality is that few people type specific URLs into their phones today. Instead, phones are filled with apps (the average phone has 60-90 apps) that deliver a custom, curated experience of a single web site on the phone. From news sites like CNN to social media to banking and retail sites, there’s literally an app for that, and people rely on them far more than the browser on their phone.

Apps contributed directly to the explosion of social media

Social media was around in 2007, to be sure, but it certainly wasn’t the phenomenon that it has become today. Facebook had a mere 100 million users in 2008—the year before the release of the first Facebook mobile app. Then, starting in 2009, with the release of convenient mobile apps for all of the major smartphones, Facebook’s growth exploded. Today, there are a stunning 2 billion active users—and most of them are your parents, who “discovered” Facebook when it became an easy-to-use way to share smartphone pics of the grandkids without futzing with a laptop.

Apps enabled entire new industries

Finally, mobile apps have had a particularly intriguing unintended consequence—new markets and industries that probably would make no sense in a world that didn’t have third-party apps on smartphones.

Major companies like Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, and ParkWhiz are predicated on users requesting services while on the go. Uber, for example, simply wouldn’t be convenient enough if you had to navigate to a bookmarked web site, log in, and scroll around a web site to request a car. But apps that launch with a tap and then deliver an optimized experience, complete with access to your camera and GPS, if needed? That’s a recipe for the birth of an entire industry.

Uber, for example, is an international company currently valued around $50 billion. Even food delivery service DoorDash is circling around $700 million.

As Alaeddin says, “Companies like Uber, Lyft, AirBnB, DoorDash, and PostMates began seeing traction and growth when smartphones combined with LTE became ubiquitous. Now there is an app for everything, and as phones and networks become more sophisticated, so do the apps that are developed.”