If you’re appy and you know it…
Twenty years ago mobile phones were used for nothing more than calls. Gradually they became used for text messages. The idea that handheld devices would manage daily chores was inconceivable until the new millennium dawned, principally as the presence of Snake on a mobile phone was seen as cutting-edge at the time.
Despite its crude graphics and simplicity, Snake was one of the earliest examples of an app. The subsequent explosion in gaming ran concurrently with the development of utility apps, which have transformed mobile devices into essential tools for modern living. We now use phones and tablets to manage our finances, monitor friendships and buy everything from flowers to flights. Phone calls seem almost a fringe benefit of these ubiquitous and all-powerful pocket devices.
With 4G and HTML5 finally creating a platform that everyone can access swiftly and reliably, the race is on to see where smartphone apps will take us in future. One likely path involves the Internet of Things – once hypothetical but already becoming reality. The IoT will involve billions of previously standalone devices sharing information online and communicating with each other. At its simplest, this might involve your bathroom scales uploading your weight onto a diet provider’s website, for (albeit uncomfortably honest) assessments of how your healthy eating regime is progressing.
However, the IoT will also provide electronic devices with far greater autonomy. Your car might book itself in for a service at the local garage when the odometer reaches certain milestones, or your medicine bottles may request a repeat prescription from your GP after they’ve been open for a particular number of days. This takes responsibility from consumers and entrusts it to third parties. However, it could also help to free us from the tyranny of trivia. Imagine if your house was able to request its own buildings insurance quotes, before choosing the cheapest price from a comparison website and setting up a standing order…
There are ambitious plans for apps to go much further, metamorphosing from dormant programs that require activation, into push-content notification systems that manage our affairs for us. Wearable sensors could relay real-time information about your body to GPs, enabling them to instantly schedule appointments for any medical issues that have been highlighted. Apps already exist that can adjust domestic central heating or pre-heat the oven; in future it might be possible to cook a prepared dish remotely from your office, or program your car to drive you to a pre-reserved parking space outside your favourite restaurant. Anything that needs to be supervised or organised could potentially be managed with the right apps, making today’s swathes of on-screen icons redundant.
Of course, security is the elephant in this particular room. If apps can manage so many elements of our lives, what’s to stop phone thefts becoming endemic or hackers overriding our instructions? A partial answer involves greater reliance on biometrics, with fingerprint scanners already incorporated into many modern iPhones. Eyeball and voice recognition represent more futuristic alternatives to fingerprint ID, but even this wouldn’t prevent someone being forced to use their device against their will – or malicious third-party interference.
It could be something more simple. Your fridge might decide the absence of milk cartons means an order must be placed because you forgot to tell it you were going on holiday. Ultimately, any piece of software is only as clever as its designer, and only as effective as its user. The future for apps is genuinely exciting, but don’t expect your life to be completely managed by software in the foreseeable future.