What is an app?

By Mike / On / In Appsterdam, Technology

When we talk about Appsterdam, we talk about App Makers, but what is an App Maker? And what exactly are these “apps” they are making? Common misconceptions are that “apps” refer to “Apple” or are something specific to mobile. The real answer is more interesting and more complicated than that.

To understand apps, you have to understand machines—not just the current state of machines, but the complete timeline of machines, from their inception, to their foreseeable future. I have a nice Keynote sequence I use to demonstrate this in my “Product Engineering” presentation.

Machines are actually older than mankind. They were invented by some clever ape who used a stick to fish a termite out of a rotten log. Thus was the world introduced to the first machine, and with it the meme of using tools.

At first tools were simply repurposed bits of nature, but when hominids took to the task, they specifically modified these bits to create better tools, chipping off bits of stone, for example, to create a better knife or arrowhead.

When we skip forward again to the dawn of recorded history, we see complex machines, purpose-built from smaller, interoperating parts. With this we have the introduction of craftsmanship, of artisanship, as tools are expensive, and prized, and the people who make them are valuable to society.

With the advent of the industrial age, and the introduction of interchangeable parts and assembly lines, tools became cheaper and more accessible. We gained the economies of scale. Machines gained the notion of configurability. By changing the machinery that produced new machines, new types of machines could be created.

Then a brilliant mathematician named Alan Turing had the realization that, with a large enough number of fast enough switches, we could create a universal machine, which could be reconfigured, or “programmed” to be any number of tools. Thus was born a new class of machine, which we now know as “computers.”

Computers eventually became small enough to fit on a desktop and cheap enough to fit in a family budget. Rather than something for governments, they became something for people, and the era of the personal computer signaled a new era for machinery—a universal machine in more ways than one.

That trend has continued to the point where computers are things we carry in a pocket, or in the crook of an arm. Beyond merely being personal, we now bond with these machines, as they become not just features of modern life, but a part of ourselves. This is the era we live in, the age of apps.

Looking into our wildest imaginations, we see a time when we are engineering on the molecular level, when machines are themselves made of nanomachines. Hardware and software cease to be distinct concepts when we can change not just how a machine behaves, but what a machine is.

How we turn a book into a piano.

We do not yet have the ability to turn a book into a piano, except that we do. In the context of the entire timeline of machines, something like an iPad becomes less like the Colossus and more like a poor man’s nanocolony.

This represents a fundamental shift from old-school “applications” running on a computer to the new software: “apps” that transform hardware to provide a complete experience. An app is an experience encapsulated in a product, the magic necessary to turn a piece of glass and metal into anything we need it to be.

Apps are transformational not only to hardware, but also to the way we do business. App production lends itself well to an artisanal economy of small businesses that cooperate with each other. We can proffer explanations of this, such as freedom from the demands of physical manufacturing, but it is largely phenomenology.

It seems not to matter so much what an app runs on as where an app comes from. Great apps come from great artists, who tend to be part of a great community. To a large extent, Apple’s success in this field is attributable to the community of developers who work on their platform.

But Apple doesn’t have a monopoly on quality, nor on culture. The things that make great apps are universal, and meant to be shared. Everyone deserves great apps. It is a firm belief in that idea that has Apple veterans joining with App Makers of every stripe to share their knowledge with anyone who will listen.

And I do mean anyone. We talk about App Makers, rather than developers, or designers, because it takes more than development and design to make a great app. Making, selling, and maintaining an app also takes businessmen, project managers, marketeers, lawyers, domain experts, and a very big sacrifice from our families.

Something has happened over these last four years. We’ve done an about-face, stopped looking toward the past, and started the business of building the future. That’s what it takes to be an App Maker, and that’s who it takes to make an app.