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10 years ago, the App Store still didn’t understand what it meant to be mobile

10 years ago, the App Store still didn’t understand what it meant to be mobile


A decade ago, iOS apps were weird

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Today marks the 10-year anniversary of the launch of the iOS App Store, which officially opened with 500 applications on July 10th, 2008 in what Steve Jobs called “the biggest launch of my career.” Those words have proven to be at least somewhat prophetic: the App Store now serves as one of the most important software stores on the planet. It has over 2 million apps, 20 million registered developers, and revenues topping $100 billion over its decade-long lifetime.

But here, on the 10-year mark, it’s easy to forget that things weren’t always this way. Back when the App Store first launched, things were a bit... weird, to say the least. In fact, looking back at the top apps from the first year of the App Store’s existence (preserved by the now-defunct iTunes list in an article by TechCrunch), it’s truly incredible to see how far we’ve come, both in what our apps are capable of and how we use our phones today.

App Store Charts

RankingTop Paid Apps (Overall, 2008)Top Paid Apps (December 2017)Top Free (Overall, 2008)Top Free Apps (December 2017
1Koi PondFacetunePandora RadioBitmoji
2Texas Hold’emUltimate GuitarFacebookSnapchat
3Moto ChaserHotSchedulesTap Tap RevengeYouTube
4Crash Bandicoot: Nitro Kart 3DEnlightShazamFacebook Messenger
5Super Monkey Ball7 Minute Workout ChallengerLabyrinth Lite EditionInstagram
6Cro-Mag RallyVideoshopRemoteFacebook
7EnigmoDark SkyGoogle EarthGoogle Maps
8Pocket GuitarFull FitnessLightsaber UnleashedNetflix
9RecorderWord SwagAIMSpotify

App Store charts (2008 versus 2017).

Simply put, 2008 was a very different time in the world of technology. It may seem odd to see services like Pandora and AIM topping the charts, but they were all that existed. Companies like Snapchat and Instagram weren’t around to compete and steal from one another. Spotify was still in early testing outside of the US, and Facebook Chat — it wasn’t even called Messenger yet — was only a few months old and still rolling out to users. Even iOS wasn’t technically a thing yet. The App Store launched just before the iPhone 3G with the release of iPhone OS 2 (which, counterintuitively, also ran on the iPod Touch).

Unfortunately, we don’t have Apple’s complete data from the first few months of the App Store — only mixed sales for both top games and apps — which is why both the free and paid charts tend to skew so heavily toward games. But even the apps that are here paint a telling story about the kinds of services and sites users valued in 2008. Things like Netflix and Twitter that seem so critical to our connected and digital life today just weren’t as important then. (In fact, neither company would offer an official app until 2010.) Even the services that were important in 2008 took some time to become mobile services, since companies had to learn how to adapt and build software for a whole new type of device that turned out to be vastly different from web and desktop services. It’s not a coincidence that most of the then-big names on the 2008 list are gone, while most of the top apps in 2018 are services that grew up and around the smartphone. (Apps like Uber and Snapchat couldn’t have existed in a pre-app era.)

While 2018’s apps are almost laughably predictable in terms of what tops the chart, the 2008 apps are far more eclectic. It’s a reflection of the early, Wild West days where developers were trying to grab people’s attention with whatever they could.

But if there’s one thing the 2008 apps have in common, whether paid or free, it’s that most of them don’t actually exist anymore. Of the top 10 paid apps, more than half are no longer available to download. For example, Recorder was Sherlocked by Apple in iOS 3 with the Voice Memos app. Other apps, like Google Maps and YouTube, are absent from the charts not because they weren’t around then, but because they were native, preinstalled apps that didn’t make it to the App Store until much later when Apple stopped offering its own homegrown YouTube app and introduced Apple Maps.

The top apps of 2008 is a frozen snapshot of a time when people still loved Facebook instead of resenting it

Gag apps like iBeer, Koi Pond, and Lightsaber Unleashed may have been novel in 2008 when developers and users alike were still enjoying the power and, well, fun of the iPhone’s multitouch display and motion sensors. 2018’s apps reflect some of the more recent trends in how we use our phones. Social media apps have taken an even more all-encompassing role on the free side of things, which lines up with how users tend to actually use their devices today. The top apps of 2008 is a frozen snapshot of a time when people still loved Facebook rather than resenting it and when the biggest issue on the platform was spammy Farmville invites, not fake news. The world is noisier now than it’s ever been, and our phones are constantly demanding our attention with notifications of likes and comments. We endlessly scroll feeds that are determined to grab our attention and squeeze every last drop of ad revenue out of it in the process. Apple is even trying to combat time spent in apps in iOS 12 with its upcoming Screen Time feature. Sure, Instagram may be a better place to see cute dog photos than 2008-era Facebook, but it’s hard not to miss the days when there was simply less happening on our phones.

Facebook 2.0.
Facebook 2.0.
Image: Facebook / Gizmodo

On the flip side, paid apps have seen a shift from novelty uses of the iPhone’s hardware toward productive, powerful creation tools like Enlight and Videoshop that allow for professional photo and video editing with photographic and computational abilities that we could never have imagined back in 2008. But even as some aspects of the App Store have changed dramatically, other things never change. Facebook is still a juggernaut on the charts, and people still seem interested in using their phones to learn to play guitar.

Ten years later, the App Store has achieved ubiquity in our lives

Ten years later, the App Store has achieved ubiquity in our lives that even Jobs likely never dreamed of back in 2008. Now, everything has an app, and the black-and-white “Available on the App Store” badge shows up on everything from taxi apps to restaurant ads. Our phones have morphed from simple communication devices to the epicenter of our lives (for better or for worse). They’re how we talk, where we spend our time, the way we chronicle memories, how we shop, and they even help us fall in love. The iPhone may be remembered as the device that changed how we thought about what the concept of a “phone” even is, but it’s the App Store that actually made that revolution possible.

It’s nowhere near as popular as it once was, but you can still download an app that lets you pretend that you’re pouring a beer with your phone.