The history of apps is a long one. Back in 1983, Steve Jobs talked about what is now known as the app store. At the time, users were required to buy applications before actually trying them out. In this sense, Steve Jobs explained how an app store would disrupt the current norm using a record store analogy. People know what records they want to buy because they get a free sample in the radio.
In Jobs’ vision, the software industry needed a similar approach where the user could first check out the app and then download it fully. A quarter-century later, in 2008, the Apple App Store was launched.
Known as a critical “user interface moment,” the inception of the App Store allowed developers to create and upload their apps easily, generating revenue and reaching millions of people. At the same time, regular users could access myriads of new programs simply by downloading them and/or buying them from the app store.
While the App Store was a revolutionary moment for mobile devices, the evolution did not stop there. Since then, apps have been changing and evolving, moving through the three stages described by Matthew Panzarino, co-editor of TechCrunch: the “information appliance model,” the “home screen era,” and now, the "age of apps as service layers.”
There is, however, a fourth stage for the evolution of apps. The prospect of Decentralized Applications or “dApps” was popularized by the Ethereum platform. In fact, the main purpose of Ethereum is the deployment of smart contracts that can interact with each other in order to create these same dApps.
To put it simply, dApps are just like regular apps except they are fully decentralized. Hosted by the nodes that run the Ethereum network itself, these dApps do not rely on any central server or third party to function. With no central point of failure, dApps are expected to be hack- and censorship-proof while being able to operate in a completely autonomous fashion.
In order to access these dApps, a special Ethereum browser is required. One of the popular examples of a dApp is Augur, a decentralized prediction market that communicates directly with the Ethereum network, without going through intermediate servers.
Two other examples are the Mist wallet and MetaMask. Being a dApp itself, the Mist wallet is one of the oldest applications on the Ethereum network. It allows users to interact with their wallet and with decentralized applications on the network. Mist requires users to download the Ethereum Blockchain, however. On the other hand, MetaMask provides a simple extension that can turn your web browser into an Ethereum browser.
However, the path towards decentralization is a long one and Ethereum is still young. Although there are hundreds of projects leveraging its Blockchain for crowdfunding, few fully-decentralized applications have been launched and even fewer have been truly outstanding. Most of the projects on Ethereum still use centralized components to deliver their product.
For example, one of the first gambling dApps on Ethereum can be used simply by sending transactions to the respective smart contract addresses which will then take care of the entire process. While smart contracts are the main component for the project, it still relies on a centralized web page in order to display the addresses and provide a front-end for users.
Other projects are leveraging the Ethereum Blockchain as one of many components for their project and not for the deployment of dApps specifically. These components can range from transactions and incentive layers to an issuing mechanism for stocks and other value-backed tokens. In most cases, Ethereum ends up being little more than an ICO platform.
Many semi-decentralized apps have capitalized on the dApp “hype,” using the word “decentralized” in a rather liberal way. It’s now clear that the path towards full app decentralization will take years. Until then, however, it seems like the market may get over saturated with all the tokens and app-specific coins that are being issued on a daily basis.
With most developers leveraging new tokens for in-app purchases, advertising and rewards, a lack of interoperability between dApps is the inevitable result.
Not only is the monopoly set up by companies like Google and Apple harming the developers and users economically, it also presents an additional set of problems such as lack of transparency when it comes to app store approval and lack of privacy for users whose data is collected and sold, often without their knowledge.
In order to solve this issue and the inherent problems found in the traditional app industry, one of the most popular app stores in the world has devised a new protocol for apps and app stores that may serve as the common ground for their complete decentralization.
The system put forward by the store seeks to remove the power from intermediaries like Google and Apple who reap most of the benefits that come from developers’ work.
Path towards decentralization
This system allows apps and app stores to become more efficient for the developers and the users. App developers also benefit from an immutable reputation system that extends to all app stores using the protocol.
While the apps and app stores themselves will never be fully decentralized, this path may create an important foundation for the decentralized app economy. Once the first step is taken, technical advancements can be made to ensure that these apps are 100 percent hack- and censorship-resistant.