The App Store recently turned 15 – which I wrote about for Stuff. While researching, I headed online to find a list of the 500 or so original iPhone apps and games from the App Store. The tiny snag: there wasn’t one. Just the odd article about the launch, and fuzzy screen grabs where you can just about ascertain the names of a few titles if you screw up your eyes until they feel like they’re going to pop out of your head. Not ideal.
Defeated, I skulked over to Mastodon to confirm with PCalc creator James Thomson that his app was a day-one release and grumble about my failure to find a list. He suggested we might crowdsource it instead. That would be too late for my article, but I figured it could provide an interesting record of the state of the App Store on its launch day. More importantly, it would be another way for me to further procrastinate in the face of mounting deadlines, which is Rule Number One when you’re a freelance writer.
Spread the word
Thanks to some fine folks in the tech world, word got around. At the time of writing, the spreadsheet has about 350 unique entries. Honestly, I’d forgotten the majority of those relatively ancient apps and games, and I was surprised to find only a few dozen are a going concern today. And that could be considered good news. Mostly.
What people forget is the early App Store was a playground, but also too often a dumping ground. Apple might argue it reviewed every app to ensure quality, but many of the original iPhone apps weren’t amazing. Cunning folks recognised they could make cash by selling classic books as standalone apps. There were one-note gimmicks and Captain Obvious™ me-too products that would look archaic today. And although the iPhone later developed into a capable games machine, few developers had it sussed from the start. We therefore got an awful lot of solitaire and a paucity of ambition.
However, in key cases where the spark of excellence existed, apps have endured. The aforementioned PCalc remains the foremost traditional calculator for iPhone. Enigmo is still an engaging, tactile puzzler. OmniFocus and Things continue to provide productivity at your fingertips. And, of course, most apps with such long lives have reinvented themselves multiple times over the years.
Several hundred other App Store debutants falling into the void over the past 15 years (and many others since) isn’t necessarily a bad thing, then. Except… when it is.
Compiling this list was another stark reminder of the ephemeral nature of apps. And although some greats survived and evolved, quality has never been a guarantee of success and longevity on the App Store. Many amazing iPhone apps and games have also been consigned to oblivion, for a range of reasons. Also, what’s great is subjective anyway. What isn’t is that with digital media we’re building a history with holes in it, which has of late prompted calls for mobile app and game preservation. But it’s hard to see how we’ll ever have a full record when today even 30% of the names of the original iPhone apps are missing, and when digital platform providers are hostile to the notion of recording and preserving their own history. After all, old apps are rarely profitable.
It’s a strange thing. Without the grinder and the treadmill, we might have got stagnation and degradation on the App Store. Countless products that stick around regardless – the iPhone equivalent of a Windows 3 app on a brand new PC. Some app and game creators might argue that should be their right, and that this wouldn’t negatively impact the platform. Apple doubtless disagrees. I imagine this, then, is the one true constant of what Apple created all those years ago – an inherent source of tension that will survive should the App Store last for another 15 years.