Smartphone apps and app marketplaces

Where once push email and a QWERTY keyboard put the 'smart' in smartphone, today's more consumer focused handset market is all about the apps.

The word 'apps' is used to describe the various software applications that are available for smartphones and tablets such as the iPad, some preinstalled and others available via download (either direct to the device, or transferred/synced via a computer).

Apps range from daft throwaways to business essentials; games to news and weather sources; tools to GPS maps; social networks to homepage themes. Many of the most popular take the world's favourite websites and make them easier to use on a touchscreen; Facebook, YouTube and Google Maps are among the most popular apps available.

These big name apps tend to be cross-platform, meaning that whichever smartphone manufacturer/operating system you have, they should be available. However, the same can't be said for all apps. They come in all shapes and sizes, from free to a fiver (and sometimes more), and may only be developed for one platform (such as Apple iOS, Android or Windows Phone).

Types of app

There's a mass of apps out there, so what are people using them for apart from playing games? Here are some key areas:

  • Social networking and IM: Love it or hate it, it's here to stay. Whether it's Twitter or Facebook, Windows or WhatsApp, there are apps for them all that make the transition from computer to smartphone a doddle.
  • eBooks: As touchscreens get bigger and sharper, the smartphone is becoming a legitimate replacement for the book for some people. You'll find apps for everything from The Bible to the latest bestselling novels, as well as reference books such as dictionaries and wine guides.
  • Gaming: Whether its throwaway silliness such as Angry Birds, complex RPGs and strategy games, or online games, you'll now find apps for every gaming taste. You'll often find 'lite' versions of the more expensive game too - the app equivalent of a free trial.
  • Navigation: With GPS now standard on most smartphones, map apps are getting more and more useful. Plot everything from standard sat nav directions to nearby shops and bars.
  • News/recreation: No matter whether you want up to date headlines or the latest on your football team, a weather report or the latest share prices, there are apps to give you the most up to date info without having to use a web browser.
  • Business: If you can do it online, or by phone, you can probably do it via an app. You'll find office apps, accounts apps, business card readers- even UPS trackers.

App stores

Access to apps through 'app stores' has become the standard way to download them, although many are still available via routes such as websites. We've listed some of the most prominent app stores below. Note these are the official operating system (OS) specific stores - there are many more out there, some of which aggregate apps from a variety of operating systems. However we would recommend you stick to the official stores whenever possible as they are a lot safer, particularly on Android where unofficial app markets are often used to distribute viruses.

The Apple App Store

Opened in July 2008 through Apple's already established iTunes MP3 store, the App Store centralised the buying applications under the umbrella of the OS/gadget manufacturer. Apple's App Store is the original and probably still the best, with the idea since being widely copied by its rivals with varying degrees of success. 

Offering apps for the iPod Touch, iPad and iPhone, the store passed the 100,000 downloadable choices mark in November 2009, since passing 900,000 in June 2013. By mid-2011 there had already been a staggering 15 billion downloads through the App Store. Apple has since opened a similar store for owners of its desktop and laptop computers.

Google Play Store

While arriving later than Apple's iOS, Google's clout has helped guarantee the Android OS a strong impact. And handsets and tablets made by the likes of HTC, Motorola, Samsung and Sony are certainly helping! Google Play (previously named Android Market) went live in October 2008 for all Android smartphones. 

Growth was swift, with the store matching Apple's 700,000 apps late in 2012. In July 2013 the Google Play Store officially reached 1 million apps, with more than 50 billion downloads.

BlackBerry World

BlackBerry's own app store opened in April 2009 and is available on the majority of BlackBerry smartphones with OS 4.2.0 or higher. While not in the same league as Apple's offering for quantity, it had 70,000-plus apps online for the launch of its new OS10 in January 2013 - when it became known as BlackBerry World (formerly Blackberry App World). 

It's fourth in the app number pecking order, but for its average user it can be argued this is less of a concern (especially compared to the company's other difficulties). And despite less apps, it still records good download numbers: In March 2013 BlackBerry was reporting six million downloads per day, with a total of four billion and counting.

Windows Phone Store

The official Windows Phone app store came along even later, in October 2009, launching with 246 applications (yes, 246). You'll now find over 160,000 apps though and as of June 2013 it was seeing 200 million monthly downloads.