Ben Sillis celebrates the ten apps that he believes will change the world.
The smartphone explosion has changed how we use our phones – no longer are they simply for making a call when you’re on the way home, or texting to say you’re going to be late. Just like our laptops and our tablets, they run apps, and lots of them. Millions of them, in fact – there are more than a million different apps in the Google Play store for Android right now, and another million for iPhone on iTunes. Some are fun, some are frivolous and some are useful, but some are outright life-changing. To celebrate the apps that are having an impact and not just making money, but changing the way we live, we’ve rounded up some of the most important below. Some need no introduction, others you’ll be hearing much more about in the years to come – but all of them are revolutionary in their own way. Are you on board with them?
Elevator pitch: Instant messaging on almost any phone, cutting out the need for pricey SMS fees.
It’s instant messaging, but on your phone, and without the need for a password, since it’s tied to your number. Once simply a way for iPhone and Android owners to get in on the BlackBerry Messenger action, WhatsApp has expanded to run on every smartphone today, and many low price mobiles, including some of Nokia’s cheapest handsets. Now, everyone can chat, send voice messages, pictures and even video for next to no cost, for the stunningly low price of a dollar per year. As if to prove how influential WhatsApp now is, earlier this year Facebook acquired the tiny company for a staggering US$19 billion, making it the second largest tech acquisition in history – and the biggest ever by number of employees (just 55). How’s that for influential?
2. Facebook Zero
Elevator pitch: Completely free access to the most fun part of the Internet, on any phone.
Facebook needs no introduction – with more than a billion active users it’s the biggest social network on the planet, but much of that growth came from desktop usage, not its apps. More remarkable is the quiet revolution it’s ushered in in many developing countries with Facebook Zero, a text-based version of the site that’s completely free to use (with supported carriers) and compatible with any phone. Because it’s free (and presumably funded by Facebook), it means even people who can’t afford pricey data plans on their prepay phones can keep up with family and friends all over the world. Google’s tried to take on Facebook with its own social network, the dustball gathering Google+, but the search giant should be more worried about Facebook eating its own lunch: Facebook Zero is raising a generation to make Facebook synonymous with the Internet, and use it as their go to web portal.
Elevator pitch: Smartphone taxi app that lets you work as a taxi driver whenever you want to.
You might have heard of Uber. It’s a taxi-on-demand company: you download the app, push a button and an executive car glides to a halt wherever you are within minutes. It’s also much more than a taxi-on-
demand company. Through its ‘digital mesh’ network of crowdsourced drivers, who can work whenever they want, it’s fast becoming a new network for delivering anything, not just people, and the company’s changed mission statement (the CEO says Uber could soon provide the ‘urban logistics fabric’ to any city) reflects this. Why not have those same drivers help deliver same-day packages, too, or even non-perishables for supermarkets only when they need them? Uber’s raised hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital for that reason, and is expanding rapidly around the globe: everyone from Amazon to logistics companies like DHL and UPS are going to struggle to keep up – all because of the smartphones in our pockets.
Elevator pitch: Not just all of your music, anywhere. All music, anywhere.
Apple’s iTunes download store has been widely credited with saving the music industry, or at least giving it a stay of execution, after the dawn of digital piracy with Napster in the late ’90s. Really though, it’s Swedish music streaming service Spotify (which is available on smartphones via an app, computers, smart speakers, even televisions) that’s actually changed how we legally listen to music. It’s not just that it enables you to listen to almost any song ever recorded, as many times as you want, for a small subscription fee. It’s that you can do so anywhere. You can see what your friends are listening to, or make use of its many recommendation apps. Spotify has turned the Internet into a platform for audio. It’s the operating system of music, and even if you’re not one of its six million members (it is after all still only available in a handful of countries), its model will have affected how you listen to music – whether it’s through rival services, free streaming radio channels or just because song plays are now counted in the charts. It’s just received a huge makeover on mobile bringing music discovery to the fore – if you’ve got an iPhone, Android or Windows Phone, be sure to check it out.
5. Google Now
Elevator pitch: It’s not just a voice search, it’s predictive too, and set to become even more powerful when wearables like Google Glass take over.
You might not have heard of Google Now – which is built in to Android and available on iPhone and iPad – but it may just be the future of search. Google’s regular search engine is reactive, but that’s not good enough in 2014, not when you’ve got a smartphone that can read your calendar, knows where you are and can check travel times. Google Now is the next step: it tries to predict what you’re going to need to know, and gives it to you before you have to ask. Travel itineraries if trains are delayed, boarding cards if there’s a boarding pass in your Gmail – you name it, it’s getting better all the time. It does voice recognition too, and very well. When Google’s Glass augmented reality glasses are released to consumers, you can bet this hands-free technology is what will help bring them into the mainstream.
Elevator pitch: Get rid of slow, cumbersome and expensive cash registers by accepting payments anywhere,
and sending them too.
Founded by the creator of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, payment company Square has quickly brought in income comparable to the giant social network, thanks to its simple app and card reader, which have enabled small businesses to take seamless, paperless credit and debit card payments without expensive readers and high handling fees. While most shoppers are never likely to need the app themselves, it’s making the movement of money more convenient than ever, and Square isn’t stopping there either. Released last year, Square Cash lets people send money to others just via email, even if they aren’t already registered with the service. If PayPal isn’t going to sort itself out, we’re glad someone else is going to make them.
Elevator pitch: Changing how people code, and letting everyone get involved, from anywhere.
The cloud lets us do almost anything, anywhere now, from listening to music and playing games to logging into your desktop PC back home – and now that includes coding. You’ve likely never heard of Github, but it’s revolutionised how developers create all the software you take for granted every day. Its easy ability to ‘fork’ the creations of yours and others and modify them to your heart’s content is helping the open source software scene to flourish, but plenty of private businesses are using its easy network to build commercial products too, and you can track it all from a mobile app.
Elevator pitch: 1TB of free storage means you have the space to store all your photos in the cloud, forever.
Flickr has been the pro-photographer’s choice of cloud storage and sharing for a decade now, but it’s only recently that owner Yahoo! has truly opened it up to everyone, everywhere, by removing the rather stingy 100MB upload cap for free users. Now, any user can sign up and get an enormous one terabyte (enough space for more than 500,000 photos) of free storage accessible from anywhere, and upload to it from their phone using the new looks iPhone and Android apps. Instagram’s square frames and filters are a flash in the pan, but everybody should be using Flickr for a long time to come.
Elevator pitch: Banking without the banks, just your mobile number.
Square may be changing how payments work in the West, but it’s working from Silicon Valley elites down. M-Pesa, is starting with ordinary people in Africa and working up instead, and arguably at a much quicker pace. Originally a research project spun out of a trend in the early 2000s for swapping airtime credit in place of currency, it’s now a mature mobile banking service for Safaricom and Vodacom customers in Kenya and Tanzania. So long as you’ve got an ID card or a passport, you can cut out the banks entirely and visit registered agents and retailers to transfer or withdraw money just with your mobile phone. It’s revolutionary, especially in nations where bank accounts are by no means a given, and one to keep an eye out for in other countries and continents.
10. Word Lens
Elevator pitch: Google Translate on your phone, without you having to type in the words first. It’s an instadictionary.
Word Lens hasn’t been bought for billions (though it is owned by Google) and it doesn’t have active user numbers that look like a phone number. It’s just an innovative idea that takes smartphone technology to its logical conclusion. Install the app, fire it up and point your phone’s camera at any text, in any language. It then reads the text and translates it for you there and then with a quick behind-the-scenes Internet look up and pastes it over the indecipherable text in plain English, or whatever language you need. Expect technology like Word Lens to become only more popular as wearables hit the mainstream – combined with Google Glass, it has the capacity to give anyone a babel fish.