How The App Store Changed Digital Culture Forever

Once upon a time, we got our computer applications on shiny CD-Rom disks and endured labyrinths of laborious prompts to install them—only to find out that we lacked the proper drivers to run our new toys. Thankfully, that era is gone. “Application” has been abbreviated to “app,” and the painful installation process has been simplified into a single click in the app store emporium, the internet’s virtual clearinghouse for all kinds of digital goods, from useful lifestyle tools to addictively entertaining video games.

Though the idea of the app store has been assimilated into our technological culture in the space of only a few years (Apple’s iOS store launched in 2008), the platform is actually revolutionary: by creating a unified, accessible marketplace with low barriers to entrance for buyers and sellers alike, app stores have given audiences a way to find and purchase great programs while also enabling app-makers to expose their work to a global audience on a scale previously unimaginable.

According to an infographic published by GigaOM in May of 2011, Apple’s app store contains more than 500,000 apps that retail for an average of $3.64, factoring in those that are free (which makes up 37% of all apps). In December of 2011 alone, 280 million apps were downloaded, for a total of $250 million in revenue—and 70% of that, or $175 million, goes straight to developers. Of course, bigger studios like Rovio (maker of the now-iconic Angry Birds title) make up a large part of that profit, but the system also benefits individual creators in a game-changing way.

Independent developer and artist Zach Gage originally released his interactive sound-making program SynthPond over the internet, but “I don’t think anyone really downloaded it aside from people I was friends with,” he said in a recent phone conversation. When the app store originally debuted, Gage thought that the iPhone’s touch screen interface seemed like a perfect fit for SynthPond, so he ported a version of it to the phone (currently available in a full version for $1.99), and it became a hit. The immediate success “was a surprise at the time,” Gage explained. “I could make this work on the computer and no one would see it, or I could put it out on the iPhone and all of a sudden I would have tons of people who would check it out.”

Gage has gone on to make several popular iPhone apps including the asteroid-dodger Bit Pilot app (above) and sliding word game SpellTower (below), both downloadable for $1.99. His apps have been downloaded a total of 243,295 times—though only 80,000 of those were for paid versions. It took a difficult four years of app making for Gage to earn a sustainable living, but he can now trade on his reputation as one of the app store’s premier indie developers. He chalks his success partly up to the approachable nature of his games (fans tell him that their grandmothers request SpellTower downloads), but also to the sheer fact that a huge number of people own iPhones. Owners “really care about really good apps,” Gage said—and they’re willing to pay for them.

Though games are the app store’s most visible success story, the platform has proved fruitful for music as well, enabling bands to publish digital companions to more traditional album releases. Bjork’s Biophilia app is an interactive version of her recent album of the same name, with visualizations and games that allow users to remix and play with the musician’s original songs. The app retails for $12.99, but buyers must pay an extra $1.99 per song for the full versions, or purchase the tracks on iTunes. Biophilia was critically well-received for its pioneering use of interactive composition and the iOS platform, but the tone of its several negative app store reviews might signal that audiences aren’t quite ready for an album-length, album-price music app.

The Japanese/American musical duo Lullatone, known for their minimalist, twee tunes, released a free app called Dropophone in 2010. The app, a companion to their album Little Songs About Raindrops, is an elegantly simply music generator, with looping bloops, plinks, and synth washes controlled by tapping a grid of colored raindrops on and off. The app has been downloaded 75,000 times, and though it hasn’t brought in any added income, it did help the band stretch creatively. Aside from making records, Lullatone also hosts a kids’ TV show, creates visual experiments, and scores films and commercials. “We are always looking to keep from limiting ourselves to just being a band… making an app just seemed like another extension of that goal,” band member Shawn James Seymour wrote in an email.

Promo video for Little Songs About Raindrops

Dropophone helped the band reach audiences “who wouldn’t care about our albums anyway,” Seymour continued. The same might be said of artist Rafaël Rozendaal’s iPhone apps, interactive art pieces that continue the strategies and aesthetics of his standalone art websites. Rozendaal’s interactive graphics apps Clouds (now free for a limited time) and Hybrid Moment are sold for $.99, much less than the $7,000 his websites usually net from art collectors. “It is important to me that these works are easily accessible,” the artist wrote in an email. “I don’t like elitist tendencies in the art world; I think they are a sign of insecurity. If you believe in what you make, you should make it available to everyone.”

The app store does allow creators to make their work available to everyone, but the platform is not without its problems. Apple’s app store isn’t a truly open marketplace—the company maintains a vice grip on what appears in the store, and has a history of blocking provocative content. Still, that limitation isn’t necessarily a deterrent. “Art has always been dependent on someone,” Gage said, comparing Apple’s role to that of a commercial gallery dealer. Now, it’s the technology company and a fickle public audience that app-making artists are dependent on.