The Age of Apps

Technology evolves at a rapid pace, a fact with which we are all intimately familiar. But there are times when even technology evolves and expands so rapidly that it surprises us. One area where this has been the case is mobile applications, or “apps,” as they are known. Apps are perhaps best known from smartphones such as the iPhone, but they now exist on nearly every active digital device we use, from wristwatches to cars. Clearly, application software has been around a long time. But the new generation of apps is fundamentally different in many ways, and arguably represents a democratization of technology that is unprecedented.

Apps are inexpensive, most costing from $0.99 to $10, and they are relatively easy and remarkably inexpensive to develop. This has led to the emergence of a large number of developers, including many who were already well-established software houses. Apps are well integrated with the convergent smartphones devices they run on, and they are often engineered to interact with other devices and services, such as home security systems and banking services. Apps are simple to use and readily available from online stores such as the Apple Apps Store, Google’s Android Market, Blackberry’s App World, and numerous others. When Apple states in its commercials that, “there’s an app for that,” they’re probably right — there are reportedly now over 150,000 different apps available through the Apple Apps Store alone, and that number is growing rapidly.

The Value of the Apps Market

Indeed, apps have defined the iPhone platform as its most remarkable feature. Research firm Gartner projects that 4.5B smartphone apps will be downloaded in 2010, a market estimated at $7B. Gartner predicts this will grow to $30B by 2013. Smartphones are being used much more extensively for their apps-based “smart” capabilities such as content creation, information accessibility and dissemination, multimedia communication, and various other functions. Research shows that smartphone owners are spending more time on data functions than on voice communication.

I recently traveled with a colleague who performed all functions related to air travel with her BlackBerry, from e-ticketing to check-in with an e-certificate on the device display, and then boarding by having the e-certificate on the display scanned at the gate. This is only one example of the sophisticated and extensive services now available on smartphones. Ford, widely publicized for implementing the Microsoft Sync voice control system in its cars, is now launching voice control links between the onboard auto system and the driver’s Android and BlackBerry devices. Ford and Microsoft have announced the development of an application that will allow owners of Ford electric-powered vehicles to manage home electricity use while vehicles recharge.

Apps Continue to Evolve
Apps are becoming highly robust and ubiquitous, and they are literally transforming many activities of our daily lives. Companies have embraced apps not only to offer online services, but also as a critical new form of marketing. They are pouring resources into this new digital communication area, and there are conferences and consulting services offered by leading advertising agencies focused specifically on strategic development and use of smartphone apps. An interesting question is whether apps will ultimately become an almost separate communication system, or whether they will be an extension of the Internet and Web. This distinction has enormous implications, and companies are lining up on both sides.

For example, Apple has stated it will no longer offer Adobe Flash software apps through its App Store, forcing developers to embrace its own proprietary development software. Yet Flash is standard fare on the Web. Microsoft has now integrated desktop Office software with Facebook to facilitate collaboration among Facebook friends (95 percent of college students are estimated to have Facebook accounts). Google has launched an enormous effort to support third-party apps development for its Android OS, and many expect to see a strong alliance develop between Google and Adobe. Many analysts are already betting that Google’s Android will soon supplant the industry-leading iPhone. This has become a strategic war between technological giants.

Apps for Education
So what does all this mean for education? As noted by the Horizon Report, smartphone apps represent powerful instructional devices for those who are forward-thinking enough to embrace the technology. Smartphones have become permanent features of our culture, and apps offer enormous pedagogical potential. They already support e-books, online student services, and even specialized software, such as molecular modeling. Apps are now assuming much of the capability of laptops by virtue of the multifaceted power of the devices and the creativity of developers.

As is the case with technology in teaching and learning in general, I suspect that students and younger faculty will drive the acceptance and eventual widespread use of apps in education. But for many, the gap between generations will continue to widen as technology develops more rapidly than ever.

About the Author

David W. Dodd is vice president of Information Technology and CIO at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. He can be reached at 201/216-5491 or david.dodd@stevens.edu.

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