Every great invention has shaped and reflected the needs of the people who’ve used it. This can be said of the sailing ship and the printing press, as well as the industrial loom, the automobile and many, many more. Nowhere is this phenomenon better illustrated than in our present age, where computers, the internet and mobile apps have redefined what it is to work, create, connect and play. Now it’s hard to watch old films in which lovers are apart without wondering why they don’t Skype; hard to see people get lost without wondering why they don’t consult their GPS. Many of us have half-forgotten how we lived back then, but if you’ve forgotten what you did last week, it’s easy to find out – there’s an app for that.
This process of cultural change seemed to happen so quickly that it can be difficult to figure out how it all began. In fact, the first internet capable phones were introduced in 1996, and it all flowed from there.
The early days of mobile internet
‘Internet capable’, by 1996 standards, was not what we would call capable today. With tiny screens, often in odd colors, and with displays that could only handle simple text, these early phones were very limited in what they could do. They used what was known as WAP – wireless application protocol – which was based on http but with reduced capability. This meant that even the most basic websites were difficult for such phones to use. The sites they could access most easily were those developed for the blind, which had already been stripped down so as to be useable by early screen-readers.
WAP was also problematic because it was slow. This meant that, rather than browsing, most people only used it to find things they intended to keep and make repeated use of, like ringtones.
Realizing the potential of mobile devices
Aware that people were enthusiastic about using mobile internet where they could, developers raced to find better ways of doing things. Anticipating this, businesses began to think about how they could make their websites more accessible, and some produced WAP-friendly versions. They realized that if they could get mobile customers to notice them, they could potentially advertise to people while they were out and about doing their shopping or looking for somewhere to eat, and it was obvious that money could be made from this. Meanwhile – with web catalogs popular on the wider internet – developers began to see the potential in curating such sites.
Proprietary platforms and the Open Handset Alliance
By 2005, solutions to the WAP problem had begun to emerge – the big companies keen to make money out of mobile were designing their own operating systems. The problem with this was that there were several of them, all competing for the same market space. This meant that website designers had to try and build platforms accessible to all of them; and in time, the rising generation of app developers were faced with the same problem. App developer kits began to emerge to simplify the process but not every company wanted to play ball, some preferring to try and hook customers in with great apps they couldn’t get elsewhere.
This began to change with the appearance of the Open Handset Alliance, an arrangement that brought together leading companies and designers to democratize the process of design and build the non-proprietary platform that became Android. Elsewhere in the market, smaller players began to cave in to the competition, with the result that it’s now necessary to make only two or three versions of a site or app in order to reach 95% of mobile customers.
The impact on business
Because these changes have done so much to simplify the process of connecting with mobile customers, there are now very few businesses that don’t have mobile-friendly websites. Companies like Worry Free Labs have come to specialize in helping even the most technophobic business owners make the transition. Some businesses also have their own apps to enhance the experience for mobile users or to provide them with useful day to day tools that also serve as advertising. This works out nicely for users who get access to still more life-enhancing apps for free.
It’s hard to remember life before apps, but all of us old enough to do so can remember how much slower the pace of it was and how often we ran into difficulties simply for want of information. Apps have changed our way of life for the better.