How the App Store Ended a Golden Era of Software
As an app reviewer in the early 2000s, I had a front-row seat to free apps’ evolution from delightful to predatory
In the few weeks since I updated my iPhone to iOS 13, I’ve been getting pop-up notifications when an app has been tracking me. It’s a new location transparency feature from Apple, and it’s a good reminder of how many of those location-tracking apps you don’t use anymore, maybe never used, and can’t even remember why you downloaded in the first place.
I’ve been getting a lot of those alerts because I have an obscene number of apps on my phone. I have dozens of folders full of apps. You know those dots at the bottom of your iPhone screen that show you how many pages you have to swipe through? I have 16 of those dots. I am officially an app hoarder who’s embarrassed to show people my iPhone. This is me, raising my hand in the AA meeting, but I’m not anonymous and the other “A” stands for apps.
I started reviewing apps nearly two decades ago, long before Apple’s App Store or the iPhone even existed. Back then, we called them applications, or software, or sometimes just downloads. It’s hard not to drown in nostalgia over those good old internet days, when a free app almost never meant that you were the product. The industry was dominated by a few big players and a lot of software cost well over $100. But there were also independent developers making all kinds of amazing games and utilities. If an application was free, it usually meant that someone had spent their spare time making something cool, just for the hell of it. You downloaded these apps directly from their creators’ websites. And maybe if you liked what they made and you found it useful, you could click that donate button or put some money in the “tip jar” on the same website and then everyone would be happy.
I wasn’t quite sure if my memory of this golden age of shareware was accurate, so I reached out to my friend James Thomson, indie iOS and Mac developer…