The Brief History of the Mobile App

While the term “app” (abbreviation for application) is now common, its history shows a gradual process, from technological advances in hardware and software.  Made available through distribution platforms, apps are available through a variety of mobile operating systems including App Store, Google Play, Windows Phone Store, and BlackBerry App World.  The evolution of the app (including pricing, e.g. 20-30% to distributor, the over 50% now that use apps vs. web browsers, and with 90% of the 102B apps being free with remainder generating $26B) continues today.

In 1983, a “brick” cell phone from Motorola included a “contacts” application (while retailing for about $4000).  A key part of the early developers was secrecy – “open source” did not exist to outside developers, so only proprietary applications were primarily developed.

Gaming apps, e.g. Nokia’s Snake, Pong, Tetris, Tic-Tac-Toe, and others appeared during the 1970s and 1980s.  The prohibitive costs of having a mobile phone, however, precluded the majority of people being able to use such apps.  Four things changed – (1) prices dropped related partly due to competition, (2) battery life and size improved; (3) reception areas with more satellites increased; and (4) size of devices allowed these to carried easier.  With a high demand from customers being unmet by manufacturers, some channels were opened to outside developers of apps.

Facing subsequent challenges such as upload speeds, low res screens, limited storage and processing power, and bandwidth costs, again practicality in the 1990s did not exist for such widespread app use.  Limited by JavaScript and Flash (800×600 pixels), it wasn’t until a dedicate protocol was available, termed WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) that things improved.

WAP, a “stripped-down” HTTP (web) protocol, was written in Wireless Markup Language (WML) – simpler in construction than the WWW pages of the worldwide web.  WAP also allowed manufacturers of handsets to set up a browser which shipped and developers could create content.  While major news sites had phone displays, these were limited.  Also, payment methods for such apps did not exist.  Hence, limited options such as SMS (Short Message Service) were used, URLs had to unfortunately be put into address bars (rather than simply words into search engines).

A bridge formed between desktop and mobile programmers, with similar languages being used – hence one could program for the other.  Common platforms included – Java Micro Edition, Palm OS, Symbian OS (Nokia, Sony Ericcson, Motorola, Samsung); and Apple iOS for iPhone joined in 2007.  Along the way, ranging from the 1990s to present-day, smaller apps (such as wallpaper to ringtones, that allowed some level of personalization) have markedly been developed.


Perhaps key to any app is its user interface (UI).  This is controlled via the provider.  Numerous providers exist presently.  A partial list of some of the popular such providers include Amazon AppStore, Apple’s App Store, BlackBerry World, Google Play, Nokia Store, Windows Phone Store, Windows Store, and Samsung App Store.

A “BYOD” (Bring Your Own Device) practice in businesses requires a user to bring a device into an organization, which is subsequently incorporated into that business’s infrastructure (or adapted, at least) via at least two options.  These include: (1) app-wrapping vs. native app use; (2) Enterprise mobility management (EM) which allows native apps to be still run without the strict and unchangeable (once set) format in the app-wrapped case.

Future Apps

The future of technology is difficult, as always, to predict.  A view into today’s most popular applications can be some indicator, however.  Today (as of beginning 2015), in order, Facebook, YouTube, Google Play, Google Search, Pandora, Google Maps, Gmail, Instagram, Apple Maps, and Yahoo Stocks constitute the most popular apps.  With some of these standardized with phone delivery, however, the most popular can be categorized into social media, video, music, geo-location (maps), and other messaging.

App immediate future ideas include greater personalization on the home screen, “feed-forward” displays based upon past user’s preferences, voice-write-interact abilities more seamlessly, and perhaps more along the wearable theme (like Google Glass, despite its recent decision to not proceed forward for now, or do so on a very limited basis).

Wearable technology recordation-related apps continue to abound, and mass aggregation of data may allow further rectification of the supply-demand curve.


(Portions of this information have been acquired from numerous sources, including,, (Clark JF), and

Ravish Patwardhan, MD