Jan 6, 2020
Picture this. It’s 1983. The International Design Conference in Aspen has a special speaker: Steve Jobs from Apple. He’s giving a talk called “The Future Isn’t What It Used To Be.” He has a scraggly beard and really, really wants to recruit some industrial designers. In this talk, he talked about software. He talked about dealers. After watching the rise of small computer stores across the country and seeing them selling, and frequently helping people pirate, apps for their iconic Apple II, Steve Jobs predicts that the dealers were adept at selling computers, but not software. There weren’t categories of software yet. But there were radio stations and television programs. And there were record stores. And he predicted we would transmit software electronically over the phone line. And that we’d pay for it with a credit card if we liked using it. If you haven’t listened to the talk, it’s fascinating. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KWwLJ_6BuJA In that talk, he parlayed Alan Kay’s research into the DynaBook while he was at Xerox PARC to talk about what would later be called tablet computers and ebooks. Jobs thought Apple would do so in the 80s. And they did dabble with the Newton MessagePad in 1993, so he wasn’t too far off. I guess the writers from Inspector Gadget were tuned into the same frequency as they gave Penny a book computer in 1983. Watching her use it with her watch changed my life. Or maybe they’d used GameLine, a service that let Atari 2600 owners rent video games using a cartridge with a phone connection. Either way, it took awhile, but Jobs would eventually ship the both the App Store and the iPad to the masses. He alluded to the rise of the local area network, email, the importance of design in computers, voice recognition, maps on devices (which came true with Google and then Apple Maps), maps with photos, DVDs (which he called video disks), the rise of object-oriented programming, and the ability to communicate with a portable device with a radio link. So flash forward to 1993. 10 years after that brilliant speech. Jobs is shown the Electronic AppWrapper at NextWORLD, built by Paget Press. Similar to the Whole Earth Catalog, EAW had begun life as a paper catalog of all software available for the NeXT computers but evolved into a CD-based tool and could later transmit software over the Internet. Social, legal, and logistical issues needed to be worked out. They built digital rights management. They would win the Content and Information Best of Breed award and there are even developers from that era still designing software in the modern era. That same year, we got Debian package managers and rpm. Most of this software was free and open source, but suddenly you could build a binary package and call it. By 1995 we had pan, the Comprehensive Perl Archive Network. An important repository for anyone that’s worked with Linux. 1998 saw the rise of apt-get. But it was 10 years after Jobs saw the Electronic AppWrapper and 20 years after he had publicly discussed what we now call an App Store that Apple launched the iTunes Store in 2003, so people could buy songs to transfer from their Mac to their iPod, which had been released in 2001. Suddenly you could buy music like you used to in a record store, but on the Internet. Now, the first online repository of songs you could download had come about back in 93 and the first store to sell songs had come along in 98 - selling MP3 files. But the iTunes Store was primarily to facilitate those objects going to a mobile device. And so 2007 comes along and Jobs announces the first iPhone at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference . A year later, Apple would release the App Store, the day before the iPhone 3G dropped, bringing apps to phones wirelessly in 2008, 25 years after Jobs had predicted it in 1983. It began with 500 apps. A few months later the Google Play store would ship as well, although it was originally called the Android Market. It’s been a meteoric rise. 10 years later, in 2018, app revenue on the iOS App Store would hit 46.6 billion dollars. And revenue on the Google Play store would hit 24.8 billion with a combined haul between $71 billion and 101 billion according to where you look. And in 2019 we saw a continued 2 digit rise in revenues, likely topping $120 billion dollars. And a 3 digit rise in China. The global spend is expected to double by 2023, with Africa and South America expected to see a 400% rise in sales in that same time frame. There used to be shelves of software in boxes at places like Circuit City and Best Buy. The first piece of software I ever bought was Civilization. Those boxes at big box stores are mostly gone now. Kinda’ like how I bought Civilization on the App Store and have never looked back. App developers used to sell a copy of a game, just like that purchase. But game makers don’t just make money off of purchases any more. Now they make money off of in-app advertising and in-app purchases, many of which are for subscriptions. You can even buy a subscription for streaming media to your devices, obviating the need for buying music and sometimes video content. Everyone seems to be chasing that sweet, sweet monthly recurring revenue now. As with selling devices, Apple sells less but makes much, much more. Software development started democratically, with anyone that could learn a little BASIC, being able to write a tool or game that could make them millions. That dropped for awhile as software distribution channels matured but was again democratized with the release of the App Store. Those developers have received Operating systems, once distributed on floppies, have even moved over to the App Store - and with Apple and Google, the net result is that they’re now free. And you can even buy physical things using in-app purchases, Apple Pay through an Apple credit card, and digital currency, closing the loop and fully obfuscating the virtual and the physical. And today any company looking to become a standard, or what we like to call in software, a platform, will have an App Store. Most follow the same type of release strategy. They begin with a catalog, move to facilitating the transactions, add a fee to do so, and ultimately facilitate subscription services. If a strategy aint broke, don’t fix it. The innovations are countless. Amazon builds services for app developers and sells them a tie to wear at their pitches to angels and VCs. Since 1983, the economy has moved on from paying cash for a box of software. And we’re able to conceptualize disrupting just about anything thanks to the innovations that sprang forth in that time where those early PCs were transitioning into the PC revolution. Maybe it was inevitable without Steve Jobs right in the thick of it. Technological determinism is impossible to quantify. Either way, app stores and the resultant business models have made our lives better. And for that we owe Apple and all of the other organizations and individuals that helped make them happen, our gratitude. Just as I owe you mine for tuning in, to yet another episode, of the history of computing podcast. We are so lucky to have you. Have a great day!