What is an app – and why should you care?


5 minute read
Alumni: Charlie Harman

Alumni: Charlie Harman

Marketing Manager

Digital Insights

Mobile Technology

Ask yourself: what is an app?

Your mind will undoubtedly settle immediately on mobile apps. After all, 130 billion of them were downloaded from the Apple App Store to 2016, and a further 65 billion from Google Play. The value of the global mobile app economy is set to hit $6.3 trillion by 2021, according to recent reports.

But mobile apps are only one part of the story.

Today, ‘apps’ mean more than Instagram and Candy Crush – changing the way we work, play, manufacture and create in ways many of us are unaware. These are the ones you need to know about.

In the beginning

Remember Minesweeper?

Before the internet dominated our digital lives, computers ran software programs that helped users perform certain operations – whether word processing or playing chess against a virtual opponent. These functional technologies were the original ‘apps’.

Today, any piece of mobile, desktop or specialist software can justifiably be called an ‘application’. These can be downloaded, in the case of a mobile app or software written to a piece of hardware, or accessed via a web browser, as with Google Docs or Netflix.

Smaller screens

The rise of the mobile phone and the smartphone put applications in our pocket; tablets and smartwatches followed. These devices run the software we now know as ‘apps’: bitesize, easy-to-download applications that can perform a limited set of functions, either remotely or on the move.

Forming a rich marketplace of their own – witness the fortunes of app-first businesses like WhatsApp and Instagram – apps have also changed the way established businesses interact with customers, not least in the banking sector. And apps on mobile and tablet are changing constantly too. Apple recently made older apps incompatible with their new operating system, while Google’s Instant Apps technology will soon allow people to use apps without downloading them first.

Generally speaking, ‘apps’ can do one of three things. First, perform a function using the technology in the device alone – as in the compass app pre-installed on new phones. Second, offer an interface for a large or complex online service – like Spotify, Skype or the Met Office’s weather viewer. And thirdly, they can offer an interface for controlling or monitoring a smart device connected to your phone, whether by wi-fi, Bluetooth or otherwise – for example, with smart washing machines.

Internet of (many) things

Put simply, apps are software controlling digital hardware. Today, this includes ‘Smart Home’ devices, like Nest thermostats and smart doorbells, all managed and maintained using a smartphone or tablet.

This type of app is only set to become more common, with the ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) – the tech ecosystem that connects software and hardware – projected to grow from 15.4 billion devices in 2015 to 75.4 billion in 2020 (IHS 2016). While cyber security remains a key concern for effective IoT ecosystems, app-enabled hardware has the potential to revolutionise retail, hospitality, healthcare, urban planning and engineering.

Experiences, everywhere

Smartphones are cameras, compasses, iPods, fitness trackers and telephones. For many users, the smartphone is less useful as a telephone than as an internet-enabled screen and speaker, offering digital information and rich media wherever, whenever.

Our work with organisations like the National Trust depends on the multi-functional nature of smart devices. Smartphones have ushered in a new age of app-driven heritage experiences that deliver audio-visual content based on users’ location, demographic information and preferences. AR (Augmented Reality) overlays images onto camera screens, or triggers audio tracks based on the user’s movements. VR (Virtual Reality) transports the user to a different time and place by sensory trickery. Beacon and GPS-enabled heritage apps deliver content based on the user’s location at a particular site.

In each instance, the heritage site offers the visitor a richer, more immersive and engaging historical experience – whether exploring the streets of Florence or unearthing the rebellious history of Soho’s alleyways. To see more of our own app-enabled heritage experiences, click here.

Invisible apps

Some apps do away with screens altogether.

Take our award-winning ‘Lost Palace’ experience for Historic Royal Palaces, currently in its second season. Using bespoke smart devices, visitors to London’s Whitehall were taken on a unique audio-locational tour of the site of one of Europe’s largest historical palaces – itself burned to the ground 350 years ago. The audio device contained no screen or buttons, with users triggering rich audio content by touching the device on certain street furniture, in turn focusing the mind on an immersive educational experience.

Smart, voice-activated hardware like Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home form another category of ‘invisible app’. Controlled by the user’s voice, these ‘apps you talk to instead of tap’ are seen by some commentators as the next major frontier for app development. The apps are the voice technologies controlling the devices, not the devices themselves. Siri, Bixby and Google Now all feature in the invisible apps category.

The ‘app’ is a shifting, evolving entity, meaning different things to different people in different situations. At its heart, however, an ‘app’ is a software technology, working to simplify a human function digitally. What the term will mean in a decade remains to be seen.

For more app inspiration, check out our mobile and tablet application case studies or visit our blog for regular app insight and updates.

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