Five years ago, the word 'app' was just a funny noise -- and now it's on everybody's lips. Easy to get, easy to use and insanely cheap, apps are the future. But what's the best way to get involved in the world of apps?
Perhaps the defining feature of the mobile revolution, the app is what tailors today's smart phone and tablet to our precise personal needs, and all at a low cost -- if not free. So here's our guide to choosing which family of apps is best for you, whether it's Apple, Android, BlackBerry or Windows Phone.
This article is aimed at those of us who are new to apps, and want to know what the fuss is about. It's not about comparing the relative benefits of particular phones, instead it's about giving an overview of the different app options. Let's start by asking what an app actually is.
What is an app?
Short for application, an app is a little bit of software that performs a specific task. It could show specific information, like the weather, or access a particular website or publication, such as Facebook or the Guardian. It could soup up the features on your phone, like adding special effects to your photos or giving you a streamlined keyboard. It could be a game, such as Tetris or Angry Birds.
Or it could be a starting point to get hold of other stuff, like the Kindle app that lets you read and buy ebooks, or the Comixology app that lets you read and buy digital comics. To borrow a phrase: pretty much whatever you want to do, there's an app for that.
Because apps are designed for phones and tablets, they're laid out to be easy to see on pocket-sized screens, and simple to use by tapping and touching the screen with your fingers.
How do I get apps?
Apps couldn't be easier to get hold of. Your phone or tablet will have an icon you tap to take you to the relevant online app store, where you can browse and download apps. Many apps are free, and many more cost as little as 70p. Downloading is as simple as choosing your app and pressing install; your app will then appear on your phone moments later over your wireless Internet connection. If it's a paid app, the money will go out of your account automatically, for example via your iTunes account.
Which app store you use depends on the type of phone or tablet you have, and the ecosystem it belongs to. If you have an Android phone, you download apps from Google Play. If you have an Apple iPhone, iPad or iPod touch, you get apps from Apple's iTunes App Store. If you have a BlackBerry, head to the BlackBerry App World. If you have a Windows Phone, go to Windows Phone App Marketplace.
Apps only work on the phones and tablets they're intended for, so for example an Android app won't work on an iPhone.
Without further ado, we present, in alphabetical order, the main contenders in the app world. We rate them on the variety of apps available, ease of use, and how easy it is to discover new apps.
The keyword with Android is choice. There are loads of Android phones to choose from, in all shapes and sizes, and there are loads of Android apps to choose from too. The Android app market Google Play is open to anyone to add their apps, so the choice is simply enormous.
There's even a choice of where to get your apps. As well as the official Google Play store -- formerly known as the Android App Market -- there are spin-off app outlets such as the Amazon Appstore, which is more regulated.
But the best thing about Android apps is that they can customise your phone to an awesome degree. Don't like the way your phone works when it arrives? No problem -- with the right apps, you can change anything from your home page to the keyboard or the way the camera works. And you can install widgets on the home screen that show you the latest information, all bang up to date and right at your fingertips.
This wealth of choice comes with a few caveats, however. Because Android is open to anyone to make an app, no-one's testing whether these apps actually work, or if they're safe to download. There's always a possibility that you could download an app and it simply doesn't work properly -- or worse, it could contain something nasty. Chances are you'll be fine, but you do have to be cautious when downloading apps that aren't from reputable developers.
The low barrier to entry also means a lot of low-quality apps. For every innovative and clever app, there are a glut of wallpapers, shonky rip-off games and juvenile silliness. All this dross makes it even harder to find the gems, and shows why an app store can't be judged on numbers alone.
A minor issue is that all these many phones are running different versions of Android. It's almost impossible for app developers to test their app for different versions of Android, and for all the different Android phones, each with their different screen sizes and computing power. Again, chances are you'll be fine, but it could be that an app doesn't work because you have an older, or even a newer, version of Android.
Android and Apple are the Big Two in the world of apps, so discovery is pretty easy if you watch shows such as our very own Appy Days, or read app blogs such as the Guardian's excellent Apps Rush, written by CNET UK columnist Stuart Dredge. The Android Market itself includes charts and featured apps.
- Variety of apps: Excellent
- Ease of use: Very good
- Discovery: Very good
Apple iTunes App Store for iOS
The iPhone popularised the app as we know it, thanks to Apple's knack for making techy-sounding things seem simple, and the fact that half the world is already familiar with the idea of downloading things from iTunes. You can also download apps straight to your iPhone, iPad or iPod.
The keyword with Apple is quality. Whether or not it's the best app platform, the Apple brand is certainly the best-known, and the most profitable for developers. That means companies and groups looking to make an app are probably going to launch their app in the Apple App Store first. Rightly or wrongly, some apps only ever make it to the App Store, leaving you with a long wait for an Android or Windows Phone version, if they ever turn up at all.
The extra attention lavished on the Apple App Store also makes discovering new apps easy if you look around the web. That's good, because the App Store itself only groups apps into generic categories, and only shows you an icon and a title for each app.
There's a greater guarantee of quality in the iTunes App Store than with Android. Apple tests and approves every app that goes on sale in the App Store, which means every app is guaranteed to do what it's supposed to and is safe to download and use.
Unlike Android, Apple only sells just three app-using devices: the iPhone, iPod and iPad (in various similar versions and storage capacities). They all use the same iOS software, and the specifications are consistent across the range -- which means apps are guaranteed to work on whatever Apple device you own (as long as it's not really old, but even then the odds are good).
The downside of Apple's control over what gets into the App Store is that some clever and innovative apps don't get in because they try to push the boundaries of what the iPhone and iPad can do, which Apple doesn't like. You're stuck with the default way of doing things -- no changing the keyboard, for example.
Some people can get quite het up about this issue -- you'll probably see some of them arguing about it in the comments below -- but really it's up to you whether you think Apple is protective or restrictive. The average user doesn't care, as long as everything works and is easy to understand.
It's easy to manage your apps, by plugging into iTunes and putting all the apps where you want them, and grouping them in folders. Sadly Apple apps can't display information up front, like Android apps, so no handy widgets on your home screen.
- Variety of apps: Excellent
- Ease of use: Very good
- Discovery: Very good
BlackBerry App World
Apps are something of an afterthought for BlackBerry. The most popular BlackBerry app is the built-in BlackBerry Messenger, which sends free messages to friends and family, but there isn't as much choice in the App World as there is with other stores.
Many entries in BlackBerry App World aren't really apps, but things like themes that will customise the look and colouring of your phone without actually changing how it works. There are some decent apps though, such as BBM rival Whatsapp.
BlackBerry App World is the only app store to include an official RSS feed, so it's easy to see every new app listed for you.
- Variety of apps: Poor
- Ease of use: Reasonable
- Discovery: Not great
Windows Phone App Marketplace
Windows Phone is the new kid on the block. It may look great, with big colourful squares on your phone screen, but with only a tiny number of people actually using Windows Phones it's been pushed right to the bottom of most app-makers' to-do lists.
Windows Phone illustrates the vicious circle of apps: more choice of apps will entice more customers, but you'll only get more apps on offer when there are more customers to buy them.
The situation is getting better, as some big-name apps like Spotify have been enticed by the might of Microsoft and the recent arrival of Nokia phones to the Windows Phone fold. But it's slow going, and once again the numbers can be misleading: many apps in the Marketplace are simple ebooks, for example.
One area that Windows Phone is strong in is games, as many Xbox titles are available in stripped-down phone-friendly form. You can also connect your Xbox Live account to your phone and have your avatar and all your information on screen.
Once you have downloaded apps, you can't group them in folders -- they just go in one long list.
But Windows Phone has one great feature that the rest are missing: the option to try many apps before you buy. That's handy as the App Marketplace itself doesn't offer much information about apps, just the usual charts and featured apps with only an icon and name.
- Variety of apps: Not great
- Ease of use: Good
- Discovery: Reasonable
The Apple App Store gets the vast majority of apps first, and for many apps it's the only place you can get them. But Android apps let you customise your phone to do all kinds of cool stuff, and for that we have to declare a draw.
If you just want guaranteed quality apps and are happy with the way the iPhone works, the Apple App Store is for you. If you love wading through a vast catalogue of apps and like souping-up your phone, then it's Android all the way.
Which is your favourite app experience? How do you discover new apps? Put on your appy face in the comments or on our Facebook page.