The Evolution Of The App Ecosystem

In just over three decades, “personal computing” has gone from towering desktops to mobile devices and an entire ecosystem of apps. So how did we get here? And what can that journey tell us about the future of mobile computing?

The Evolution Of The App Ecosystem

Another year, another anniversary for the PC. But instead of a cake, balloons, and a nice round of applause, the PC has been relegated to an afterthought. In just over three decades, “personal computing” has gone from towering desktops to mobile devices and an entire ecosystem of apps that millions of consumers have come to rely on every day. So how did we get here? And what can that journey tell us about the future of mobile computing?


Before IBM’s Personal Computer (IBM 5150) was introduced to the world way back in August 1981, one of their machines would often cost as much as $9 million (yes, million) and required an air-conditioned quarter-acre of space and 60 people to run them. As the price of technology came down, that caused a seismic shift from huge mainframes and terminals to desktops. And so the industry transformed.

As desktops became more and more popular, new companies raced to write new software so they could cash in on an entirely new market. Since we didn’t have “the cloud,” getting the software was pretty clunky. Instead of automatic updates and downloads, every time a new program or upgrade came out you had to jump in the car and head to the local electronics store to pick up a cassette tape which then evolved into a floppy disk which then evolved into a CD before finally going to the web. And so the industry transformed.

No longer did you need to physically possess a tangible product to be able to install a new program on your computer. You could just jump online and, depending on the speed of your internet connection, download whatever you needed from the comfort of your very own home. You didn’t need to go to the store and buy CDs. Very little software remained. And so the industry transformed.

Although early browsers were exponentially better than anything that had come before them, they were still rather dumb when compared to today’s standards. They were designed primarily to display information, run programs, or listen to sounds—not to be a complete programming environment. Websites operated on a server somewhere. We could click on things, but we still had to wait for photos and programs to load. Over time the web continued to evolve, laptops gave us our first glimpse at mobile computing and then—cellphones forever changed the way we interact with technology (and each other). And so the industry transformed.

And now here we are. With the widespread adoption of mobile devices and the creation of a robust app ecosystem, the latest transformation has made it possible for us to access incredibly powerful software from the palm of our hands either via a native mobile app or from the web using HTML5. In what almost seems like a blink of an eye, apps have picked up a full head of steam.

Developers are creating new apps that are more responsive and that have a better user experience and interface than their predecessors. And according to venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, this is only the beginning. They just made a $100M investment in GitHub (a place where developers share and collaborate on code) and led a $11.2M investment in Meteor, a startup whose new open source platform is primed to become the de facto standard for Web app development. “We’re seeing a broad-level occurrence happening in application development and how apps will be used for enterprise computing and that is going to upend how apps get consumed, deployed, and developed” said Peter Levine, general partner at Andreessen Horowitz. “Mobile is just getting started,” he added.


In speaking with Matt DeBergalis at Meteor, they couldn’t agree more. “We want to make it possible for weekend coders, artists, musicians, and others who have a concept to be able to build at least a first version. By democratizing the ability to create apps, we believe that will have a huge impact on innovation.”

What’s in store for the future of mobile computing and the app ecosystem? One thing’s for sure, we’re going to continue to see the same transformation that’s been occurring with technology since IBM launched the first PC way back in 1981–things are only going to get much faster and a lot more interesting. After all, when you stop and think about it computers aren’t that old and still every piece of our lives is being affected by them in one way or the other.

What do you think will be the next evolution in the app ecosystem? Share your thoughts below.

Shawn Graham is a marketing and brand strategist for startups and small businesses. Find Shawn at or continue the conversation on Twitter.

[Image: Flickr user Casey Fleser]

About the author

Shawn Graham partners with small businesses to create, implement, and manage performance-driven marketing strategies. His knowledge base includes media relations, business development, customer engagement, web marketing, and strategic planning.