After 15 years with apps: still based on the same logic

The past fifteen years have seen a quantum leap in what we can do with mobile phones and apps. But even though the possibilities offered by mobile applications have exploded, and the range of technical options is larger than ever before, the fundamental approach and logic behind programming an app is basically the same.

Interview with Jørgen Staunstrup, PhD in computer science and external lecturer at the IT University of Copenhagen (ITU).

“Back in 2002, we were already teaching students how to develop mobile applications,” remembers Jørgen Staunstrup, who has been affiliated with ITU for over fifteen years. He pulls an old programmable Nokia phone out of his pocket, points at it and continues:

“Back then, there were already a lot of innovative ideas about what kinds of applications and software we could stick into a phone like this one. And even though the results were rather different than what we see today, the principles behind the programming were the same.”

At the beginning of the millennium, putting software in mobile phones and developing smart applications was already very advanced. At the IT University, one strong source of curiosity about mobile applications was the progress which was taking place in countries like Japan, where a lot of experimentation with apps was taking place. But even though the technical and technological conditions were in place, the major breakthrough for mobile apps would be some time in coming.

“The lid never came off the pot. The companies were trying to drive the development and progress of the mobile apps themselves internally. This meant that development never really got off the ground,” says Staunstrup, who explains that it wasn’t technology or insufficient skill on the part of the programmers that prevented the breakthrough of mobile applications. Rather, it was the absence of an ecosystem that could help innovation thrive by creating a larger network where participants could interact.

It all took off with Apple

The breakthrough of mobile applications finally happened when Apple took the plunge in 2007. Apple was the first to introduce an ecosystem involving external participants who could use Apple’s platform to develop their own applications on the basis of their own business models. And according to Staunstrup, this is precisely what needed to happen to pave the way for mobile applications:

“Suddenly it became possible for more people to develop apps. And that’s when ideas about how to exploit mobile applications exploded – companies already had the programming expertise they needed.”

And in addition to creating an ecosystem which made it possible for multiple players to develop mobile applications and base businesses on them, Apple also created a piece of hardware (the iPhone2) which made operating the phone and its applications simple and user-friendly. These two factors, combined with their approach to design and usability, account for Apple’s massive conquest of the mobile market.

Since then, Google has joined the field and has created a huge success with a more multifaceted concept: Android. At the same time, since 2010, social media have made their influence felt, and have had a huge effect on how we use mobile applications, driving a transition from computer to mobile devices. And at the same time, there has been an enormous technological development in the hardware of mobile devices.

The same challenges for developers

Thanks to new business models, new concepts and new technology, the possibilities offered by mobile phones have taken a quantum leap over the past fifteen years.

Technological developments in particular have created entirely new possibilities for everyday mobile applications. For example, camera and GPS have not only broadened the horizon for what mobile applications can do, they have changed what developers can do as well.

"It’s very much the hardware that becomes the driver for what developers can do in terms of programming. Because the ideas were there all along,” explains Staunstrup:

“Back in 2002, we were already working on a mobile application that could determine where you were. Back then it was just based on radio masts, not on GPS like today.”

So even though using a mobile application today is a completely different experience from the user perspective than ten years ago, for a developer, programming an app requires basically the same approach and logic. According to Staunstrup, to program apps, you need to be able to do basically the same things today as in the early days.

“The basic principles behind programming apps are the same. What we teach our students today is basically the same as fifteen years ago.”

This is primarily due to the fact that programming languages are more or less a constant. When ITU began working on mobile applications back in 2002, they used Java. And Java is still one of the most widely used programming languages in the world – which also goes for apps. And although programmers experiment with new languages, and new concepts and functionalities are added to the existing programming languages, none of this radically alters the fundamental challenges or the approach programmers need to take in order to program an app.

“If the same technological possibilities had been available back in 2002, the programmers of that time could definitely have developed some of the applications we see today,” says Staunstrup.

A future without mobile phones

The technological possibilities offered by mobile applications and devices will continue to change rapidly. Staunstrup predicts that the mobile phones and mobile applications we know today will become obsolete. In the future, we will use our surroundings to interact digitally to a higher degree, and the interaction itself (for example, screens and buttons) will no longer be part of a ‘gadget’ we carry around with us. A kind of interactive reality.

And although this might sound somewhat technical, for developers, there is nothing truly groundbreaking in this scenario. The approach and the logic behind programming the applications which will create the framework for this interaction will remain the same.

“What we’ll be seeing in the near future won’t create radical changes in the approach developers need to take to programming mobile applications either,” concludes Staunstrup.


Who's who:

Name: Jørgen Staunstrup

Age: 65

Edu.: PhD in computer science from the University of
Southern California  

Title: External lecturer, IT University of Copenhagen