Today's Mobile Apps Are Just an Appetizer

For a Glimpse of the Future, See the Evolution of the Web

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This post originally ran on Appolicious.

In grand historical terms, this whole mobile app thing is only now climbing out of the primordial ooze.

Which, believe me, is what you want to hear. It would be pretty depressing if the evolution of mobile apps was destined to stop at Ask Happy Buddha. Or iFart.

I know, you're thinking that apps for the iPhone, especially, have already reshaped the connected world. Why, you can use GPS to find the nearest Waffle House! You can identify a cool song playing over the health-club loudspeakers by using that miracle called Shazam!

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But bear with me for a second. Think back to the early days of the World Wide Web, just after the invention of the Netscape browser -- a cultural and technological moment that looks roughly equivalent to the birth of the iPhone App Store.

Mobile apps today remind me of early website "apps" in the late 1990s. A few things on the web then, like instant messaging and eBay, were glorious revelations.

The rest? Well, there was the Zima refrigerator. Zima -- an alcopop drink introduced by Coors Brewing Co. in 1993, which Coors in 2008 ceased selling everywhere but in Japan -- was one of the most aggressive early brands on the web. In a breakthrough campaign, it put up a graphical interactive refrigerator that, for instance, let Zima lovers download tiny audio files of the sound of a bottle opening.

Then came the Miller Beer Pager. It was a forerunner of Twitter, if Twitter focused solely on herding groups of friends to the nearest happy hour. The Beer Pager was a downloadable widget created by the Miller Lite people. If all your friends also downloaded a Beer Pager, you could use the thing to post a message about where everyone should meet to get toasted.

Toys, right? Silliness, compared to what's come since. Yet by the mid-2000s, the web was full of life-altering app-like sites such as Facebook, iTunes and MapQuest, not to mention web-based business applications such as Salesforce.com. Still, back in the day, we marveled at the Zima refrigerator and Miller Beer Pager. They were the best the web could do in its infancy.

Fast forward to today's mobile apps. In July, a study by Distimo Report found that nine of the top 15 paid apps from iPhone's App Store were games, and the No. 1 paid app -- classified as "entertainment," not a "game" -- was The Moron Test. Among the 15 most downloaded free apps were Paper Toss (toss a virtual paper wad into a virtual trash can) at No. 1 and Flashlight (which just turns on all your screen's pixels so you can use your iPhone as a bright white light) in fifth place. Coming in at No. 14 was the SpongeBob Tickler Lite.

Fun stuff, maybe. Life-altering, no.

Even if you get beyond iFart, which of course has its uses, the App Store is crowded with downloads like the Date App, which supposedly helps dorks figure out what to talk about on a date, and TexasPro, which serves up the names and contact information for every member of the Texas State Legislature -- in case you get the urge to contact a third-tier politician while driving across I-20. A lot of the other popular apps are just pocket versions of existing websites, whether Facebook, LinkedIn, CNN or The New York Times.

But mobile apps are clearly evolving. Like Zima and Miller on the web in the 90s, big brands are mucking around in mobile apps, trying to figure out what will stick. Some of the brand apps are uninspiring.

Like, Coke offers Spin the Coke -- basically spin-the-bottle on an iPhone screen. Whoop-de-doo.

A few brands, though, are following the Beer Pager lead and trying out interesting ideas. Benjamin Moore's Ben Color Capture app falls into that category. Use the phone to take a photo of a color that pleases you -- the leaves of a tree in autumn, the water off a Caribbean beach -- and the app will show the closest matching colors in the Benjamin Moore catalog. Something like that could literally change the way people think about the colors in their homes.

Some other clever stuff is popping out of the 65,000-plus offerings in Apple's App Store -- which at this point is the most advanced app ecosystem.

Disney World Wait Times & Morehints at the way real-time information will solve big and little life problems. Its idea is to aggregate feedback from people who are at Walt Disney World waiting in line for rides -- people who also happen to have iPhones loaded with Wait Times software. The more feedback Wait Times gets, the more accurately it could tell you how long you have to wait to get on Space Mountain or any other ride.

Right now, Wait Times is a seed of an app in a small corner of most people's existence, but imagine when the same basic idea gets applied to any place people encounter maddening waits -- the DMV, hospital emergency rooms, popular restaurants. It could save billions of hours of wasted time.

Music apps helped push the web forward -- think of Napster, Internet radio and iTunes -- and now they are similarly pushing mobile apps forward. Shazam, Pandora's mobile app, and WunderRadio (which aggregates 36,000 radio stations worldwide and lets your iPhone, Blackberry or Windows Mobile phone tune into them) are just teases for the way mobility plus connectivity plus location will create new ways to find and listen to music.

Personally, I'm counting on a web-like evolution of mobile apps -- counting on the idea that apps will constantly get better and more interesting. I'd like to see a pick-up soccer app, so I could use GPS to locate the nearest ongoing game that I could jump into. How about geo-history apps that let you find out everything that's ever happened on the spot where you're standing? Could be a natural for The History Channel.

As happened on the web, business apps that truly do things never before possible will emerge, going far beyond the Quicken Online personal finance app -- or apps, like Salesforce Mobile offered by Salesforce.com, that just give users mobile access to existing business services. Some clever programmer will use mobility and location to create a business app that's barely imaginable right now.

Yeah, so if you think mobile apps are the bee's knees already, that's cool. But keep in mind that this is mobility's Miller Beer Pager moment -- and a mere hint at what's to come.

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Kevin Maney is a journalist and author who has been writing about technology for nearly two decades. His latest book, out in September, is 'Trade-Off: Why Some Things Catch On, and Others Don't.'

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