The App Store opened in July 2008, and Google Play swiftly followed that October. But while the end of the 2000s saw a mobile app and game market finding its feet, the 2010s was more like an explosion – a feast of ambitious, exciting apps that quickly transformed smartphones from devices you glanced at fleetingly to the ones you used most often.
Many apps have been genuinely transformative to individuals and society as a whole – for good and bad. We could so easily have trotted out the same big names everyone else is likely to in our ‘best of the decade’ list: Facebook; Instagram; Candy Crush Saga; Snapchat; Twitter; Tinder; Uber; Pokémon Go; WhatsApp; Angry Birds – because everyone’s forgotten that last one was actually released in December 2009.
We’ve instead gone for ten apps we believe showcase the ambition and excitement at the heart of mobile – those that pushed boundaries, provided joy, and made us miss too many deadlines due to having just ‘one more go’ on whatever they served up.
With photo editing apps traditionally being packed full of fiddly panels and tools, Snapseed needed to think different when arriving on iPad. It cleverly utilised touch, with you swiping vertically to select a property and horizontally to adjust it. We were fearful when Google ate the app, but – surprisingly – it survived and thrived. Today, with its non-destructive editing and massive toolset, it’s arguably the best free image editor for mobile.
Zombies, Run! (2012)
By the turn of the decade, using your phone to get fit was already old hat, what with Runkeeper having appeared two years earlier. Zombies, Run! therefore reasoned what people needed as an incentive was the thought of avoiding being torn limb-from-limb by the undead. And it really works – imagining you’re in your own personal Walking Dead on a vital supply run sure beats huffing and puffing at boring graphs.
Dark Sky (2012)
The original Dark Sky did away with the requirement to cart about a massive umbrella ‘just in case’. Hyperlocal, hyper-accurate rainfall data showed luminous clouds billowing across a jet-black map (hence the name), warning you if it was going to tip down. Now along with this minute-by-minute precipitation prediction, there’s a forecast for the rest of the day and week – and plenty of weather stats to keep Brits fuzzy and warm when it’s cold and gloomy out.
Do you have flashbacks from school, with a teacher yelling “Où est le gare?” in your face as though that would make the words stick? Duolingo reasoned there was a better way to learn languages – by making doing so fun. So began the gamification of education, with bite-sized mobile sessions that lodged new knowledge in your head with surprisingly little effort. More recent monetisation soured the app a touch, but it’s still a solid download.
Korg Gadget (2014)
Apple’s GarageBand came to iPad in 2011, and remains a remarkable piece of software. But our heart lies with Korg Gadget. From day one, its mix of synths and loop-based workflow threatened to turn every waking moment into another attempt to be the new Kraftwerk. Despite an ill-advised lurid visual makeover this year, it remains an exceptional DAW, and highly recommended for seasoned knob-twiddlers desperate to make some noise.
£38.99 / iOS
The Battle of Polytopia (2016)
For too long, mobile gamers pining for 4X larks were lumbered with a cut-down Civilization Revolution with its psychotic AI. Then Polytopia appeared. The game strips turn-based warfare back, but its limitations leave intact the ability to formulate deep strategies, while also enabling you to blaze through games relatively quickly. Updated regularly, sometimes with fantasy armies (here be dragons!), it remains essential, even now full-fat Civ has made it to iOS.
Device 6 (2013)
Many games can be said to define a platform, but Device 6 went further, upending gaming and narrative conventions. Fully utilising the touchscreen, Device 6 fashions the words of its story into the maps you explore. These are peppered with puzzles that play with identity, science, and the very nature of your own reality. Rarely has there been such a smart fusion of game, player immersion, and interaction – nor one as visually stylish, dazzling and ballsy.
£3.99 / iOS
Every platform needs its breakout puzzler, and mobile gaming got Threes! Natch, being a new idea, it was almost immediately mercilessly ripped off by a billion 1024 and 2048 clones. Still, five years later, this remarkable and furiously addictive title remains perfect for single-handed swipe-based play, with you merging numbered tiles together in a claustrophobic grid. What sets Threes! apart is its polish and character, with each tile having its own distinct personality. Try saying that about a Tetris L.
Affinity Photo (2017)
Photoshop has now rocked up on iPad, but Affinity Photo got there first. Even now, it remains more impressive than the Adobe product, offering full-on desktop-grade editing on an iPad. Two years back, this was amost unreal, properly transformative, and the final nail in the coffin of the increasingly tired and inaccurate argument that the iPad couldn’t be used for “proper work”. If anything, an increasing number of illustrators now prefer using iPad over a PC precisely because of apps like this.
Bear Focus Timer (2018)
If people regularly yell at you to put your phone down, maybe you’ve got a problem. This app is one in a long line to try and make you focus on work rather than faffing. Crucially, though, it was the first to kick off its timer when your phone is face down, and therefore effectively unusable. Genius and effective. Also, try to cheat and an angry bear glares at you. Perfect.