IMHO: Apps are the new gadgets

According to figures released on Friday by App Shopper, there are now 100,000 approved apps on the iTunes App Store. Last month, Apple sent me the lat

According to figures released on Friday by App Shopper, there are now 100,000 approved apps on the iTunes App Store. Last month, Apple sent me the latest official figures from September: 85,000, up from 65,000 when I spoke to them in the summer. This graph is starting to look pretty steep - and it's only Apple's approval process that's stopping it for going exponential.

Well over 2 billion apps have been downloaded, which works out as more than 20 for every single iPhone and iPod Touch sold. This is more than just a passing fad: this is proof that apps are the new gadgets.

Perfectly priced for a post-crunch era, these deliciously disposable chunks of software are the new virtual toys for grown-up kids. Toys we don't have to feel guilty about when we grow bored with them. And while they require hardware for their existence, it's the apps themselves that are causing so much excitement and keeping Apple's 3-year-old iPhone ahead of the pack.

Back at the turn of the millennium, a design revolution turned millions of technophobes into rabid digital consumers almost overnight. Sales of iPods, phones and flat-screen TVs shot up (as did sales of Stuff). Now something similar is happening in the world of apps, as techno-refusniks are being turned on to smartphones when they come across apps that exactly correlate with their real-world interests: star maps that know where you're looking and help you name the constellations; wildlife guides that have recordings of birdsong so you can identify your garden's feathered visitors; cooking apps that provide a step-by-step guide from shopping list to tabletop. These personal appiphanies are driving sales of smartphones  - which are expected to grow 17% this year in Europe - while sales of dumbphones stagnate.

Of course, Apple's the big winner so far. Its smartphone rivals all have their own app stores now but, with the exception of Android, the shelves are looking terribly empty. Sure, you can have a Facebook app on your Blackberry - but you're not going to find a spirit level or augmented reality app that shows you which houses on your street are for sale.

But then the Blackberry is a messaging device that's struggling to embrace the smartphone world (sadly the touchscreen Storm 2 is stimied by its antiquated operating system). Nokia's OVI is similarly hamstrung by the limitations of Symbian. Palm's Pre is app-friendly but unlikely to achieve the sort of critical mass necessary to sustain an enaged developer community. Which leaves a three-way punch-out between iPhone, Android and Windows Phone. And Windows is only on the list because you know Microsoft will keep throwing money at it until they get it right - which certainly won't be before version 7 of the Windows CE/WinMob/Windows Phone OS is finally released in 2010.

Android, on the other hand, is shaping up to be a true iPhone rival. The HTC Hero scooped Stuff's Gadget of the Year not just because it was the first phone that came close to the iPhone's tactile appeal, but because it showed Android was already a powerful platform. The soon-to-be-released version 2 of the Android system will include free voice-controlled, turn-by-turn navigation - an announcement that sent TomTom's shares tumbling - plus opportunities for developers to integrate social media into applications, and use multi-touch controls.

The poster boy of Android v2 is the Motorola Droid, out imminently in the US (but with no UK launch announced). Sony Ericsson is soon to release its first Android phone. And HTC is sure to have a Hero 2 waiting in the wings. Great gadgets, all, but they're really just faceless slabs until you turn them on and dive into the apptastic world that awaits within.

Further reading:

Motorola Droid announced for the States

Android 2 coming to HTC Touch

iPod Touch 64GB review

Apple iPhone 3G S review

HTC Hero review