The App That Changed The World: With apologies to Simon Winchester

13th Nov, 2015

Simon Winchester’s book The Map that Changed the World was about the first geological map of England and Wales and how this fundamentally changed the way we view the world. Much like Dava Sobel’s Longitude (about the first chronometer [clock] that allowed longitude to be calculated accurately at sea) that was published six years earlier. Both chronicled a major scientific/technological advancement that hugely benefited the world and in the latter case was not only life changing (it shortened the duration of voyages, sometimes by weeks) but was life saving too (reduced risk of scurvy, and indeed shipwrecks).

Is mobile technology a similar sort of innovation? Is it life saving? Certainly where emergency services can be summoned more promptly. Is it life changing? Possibly.

Those of you old enough to remember might reflect on what it was like arranging a rendezvous before mobile technology existed. Those nervy minutes waiting in a pub or restaurant or outside a cinema wondering whether your companion had been delayed (and if so how long) or, worse, just forgotten. How long do you give them before giving up?

Not only were you alone but you didn’t even have our mobile device to keep you occupied! But mobiles changed all that – a quick call and the uncertainty could be resolved. You could even send an asynchronous message using SMS (the first mobile App?) if you didn’t fancy an acrimonious conversation about punctuality.

Now, of course, our smartphones are full of apps helping us with life management, shopping, entertainment and socialising, keeping us connected and generally helping us to do things more efficiently or easily. But are these ‘life changing’ in any sense? Perhaps not in a philosophical way but in terms of having a major impact on our lives they arguably are.

To get an idea of how important (and life changing) apps are and which ones are most appreciated, we have carried out a little pilot survey amongst colleagues, family and friends. The results are interesting. The apps most mentioned were for life management, general information/news, keeping up-to-date and socialising. Most of these were nice to have rather than essential. There were only five instances of an app having had a huge impact on people’s lives. Two were email, one was Facebook, and one was Amazon. The other one was called Navionics. This is a charting/mapping app for sailing and you can see why this could be seen as essential. It’s a good idea to know where you are and whether there are rocks or shallow water ahead.

Which brings back to Sobel’s Longitude and Winchester’s geological map. How nicely circular life is.

We plan to research the importance of mobile apps further by extending the pilot study and, crucially, linking it to our understanding of time-use and our current work with Professor Jonathan Gershuny at the University of Oxford Why are some apps successful and why are some not? And, can we identify the apps that are likely to be successful in the future?