How the App Store changed my world (and probably yours, too)

A little over a decade ago I bailed on the Ph.D. program that had consumed my life for three years. The piles of papers—filled with highlighted quotations—had started to look like skyscrapers. Keeping all the whole mess organized felt like rebuilding the Golden Gate Bridge from its component atoms. My soul screamed for an app that would let me compare photos on the fly. I had better reasons for jumping ship, of course, but it’s these frustrations that slice through my memories all these years later. All things considered, I don’t regret my decision.

And yet.

All the recent talk about the App Store’s 10th anniversary makes me wonder if I’d have finished it if I had access to the same apps I now enjoy on my iPhone and my iPad. That sometimes makes the frustrations feels almost fun. Discussions of the App Store’s impact tend to focus on how it gave thousands of small-time developers a good way to make money or how it changed our social lives; we give relatively little attention to how it simplified our routines. I don’t think I’d be the same person I am today without it. Heck, I’ll bet the same could be said about you.

GoodNotes on 9.7-inch iPadLeif Johnson/IDG

The trees were probably happy excited about the release of the App Store, too.

The internet itself was responsible for a lot of this, of course, but it’d been around for years by that point. Problem is, even in the mid-2000s it tended to involve interacting with a chunky machine on a desk.

Out in the streets, life still largely resembled what we knew in the ‘90s. Needed to consult a thesaurus? You had to scrounge for books, which often wasn’t an option if you didn’t live in a major city. Needed to scan something? You’d have to shell out some heavy cash for a scanner (or earlier, find a copying machine) in order to get same effect you get for free through Scannable. Ye gods, you even had to talk to people, which isn’t always the thrill ride some folks make it out to be. Even at its worst, Apple Maps sure as hell beat the time I was stuck asking suspicious natives for directions in rural Alabama.

Oh, sure—there were precursors. I should know. In 2006 I was still toting my BlackBerry Pearl and harboring good memories of my PalmPilot and the apps I used with them. Even Steam, the popular cloud-based gaming platform and marketplace, had already made its debut a couple of years ahead of the App Store, offering us a way to download the games we bought any time we wanted them.

But these were false starts. Steam was (and largely remains) a niche platform. Apps on Pearl and BlackBerry devices were simple things, aimed mainly at organization and constrained by the tactile input interfaces. For that matter, installation was a pain.

The App Store, though, put possibilities in our pockets. Nowadays, a single iPad can replace paper piles that plagued my apartment. Even an iPhone would have done the trick half the time, provided I was fine toting around a Bluetooth keyboard. I can compile all my notes in an app like Scrivener. I can take photos of primary sources and upload them with note-taking apps like Evernote. Heck, if I need to take handwritten notes, I can do it in an app like Notability. Index card apps like CardFlow+ help me organize my ideas. And wonder of wonders, all this information is essentially always there when I need it, thanks to the magic of iCloud. With all those apps and more at my fingertips, I could have sent off my dissertation without ever printing a single piece of paper or possibly even using another device. It’s so revolutionary that it’s staggering.

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