By Dom & Tom

Why, you may be asking, are we trying to determine the ten best apps ever? What is this foolish human obsession with making grand pronouncements about the best—and for all time? Where does one acquire the gall and brazenness to appoint oneself the arbiter of such greatness?

We know, we know, and yet, as mobile app developers, we think about this stuff all the time. The siren song of making a best-of list is simply too strong!

Fortunately for us, there are no real rules for these best-ever lists. We decided that we wanted to think about the apps that were not only successful but have something to teach us, apps that have changed something about our world or our lives.

These aren’t necessarily our “favorite” apps or the apps we think are doing the most good, but we do think they have something to offer us if we know how to look for it. What follows, then, are our ten best apps (ever) for understanding mobile app development.

1 & 2. How to Change How We Play

We’re going to start with a two-fer cheat so you can forget we did it by the end. We have to give props to Angry Birds, which in 2010 showed us all the importance of mobile gaming design. Its simple touch controls, entertaining graphics and sounds, and convincing physics lured many of us into the world of mobile gaming for the first time. 

Not only that, but its creator, Rovio, pivoted on the success of the game to develop a whole media and merchandising franchise around it that other gaming apps will only ever dream of.

Candy Crush Saga also deserves a nod among important games. Its cute animations made mobile gaming attractive to your mom, but more importantly, the game improved on the typical match-three models with several innovations that gave it a very effective interest curve. Candy Crush showed us that a mobile game didn’t have to be epic to be totally enthralling.

3. How to Monetize Gaming

The most popular mobile game in the world is epic, though it is still relatively unknown in the West. Honor of Kings, made by Chinese company Tencent (and known as Arena of Valor to international audiences) has grossed nearly $10B total and now has reached a record 100M daily users. It’s a powerhouse of a gaming app.

HOK or AOV is a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game, meaning you join teams of stylized heroes for real-time battles in fantastic settings. 

We see three keys to their success:

Capitalizing on a Popular Online Game

AOV is Tencent’s mobile adaptation of their already popular League of Legends, an online MOBA. In other words, they knew there was an audience for a game like this.

Designing for Mobile Gameplay

Tencent was smart: They didn’t try to bring everything about the desktop version over to mobile. Instead, they designed specifically for mobile devices. Players familiar with LOL say the touch controls on their phones are very effective.

In addition, they engineered specific solutions for mobile devices. In layperson’s terms, they found ways to deliver high-quality color and graphics over mobile networks without having lots of lag or dropped connections.

Expanding Monetization Options

In addition to in-app purchases, AOV has esports integrations. Esports is its own thing. Suffice to say it has all the money-making opportunities of physical sports.

4. How to Connect Us, For Better or For Worse

The 2010s were the decade of Facebook. Love it or hate it, Facebook and its family of social apps, Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram, dominate the ways we connect with one another: They were the top four downloaded apps of the last decade.

Facebook became one of the best social apps by pretty much inventing the social network. It started with an idea and a smart design and grew from there. By the time other players tried to start something, the cost of leaving Facebook was too much for most users.

We have learned from Facebook that we want a virtual town square where we can share ideas and meet up with friends. We want to hear about cool events and host our clubs online, and we want to go off on our own with one or two people once in a while. Nowadays, we take it for granted that an app will probably be social.

In the case of WhatsApp and Instagram, Facebook bought them when it decided it was easier than trying to compete head-to-head. While buying your competition doesn’t teach us anything about developing apps, we can certainly see that even Facebook learned a lesson: It couldn’t be all things to all people.

5. How to Change Our Economy

One of the greatest disruptions ushered in by the internet is the sharing economy. Uber is the obvious leader here (from a design perspective). While Airbnb had already broken ground online and deserves an honorable mention, Uber beat it to the mobile app space when it booked its first ride in 2010.

Uber (and Airbnb) taught us how to use the social aspects of the web to build trust. Suddenly, we were comfortable hopping in a stranger’s car and getting a ride somewhere, and all we knew was their name and the make and model of the vehicle and that this very clean app had sent them to us.

We wanted that personal info for the sake of knowing which car was our ride, but between the driver’s name and their ranking, this info also functioned to create just enough familiarity to overcome our “stranger danger.”

6. How to Create Your Own Economy

You know we can’t pass a chance to talk about blockchain, and bitcoin, the original cryptocurrency app, showed us that there was a whole other way to manage financial transactions. Even if the future of cryptocurrency wasn’t as strong as it is, bitcoin proved that blockchain had real-world applications that would be adopted by consumers and that could generate wealth.

Bitcoin also teaches us that people are willing to take risks on bold new ideas when you use technology in creative ways to prove trust. The sturdiness and security of blockchain have made cryptocurrency an attractive investment to people who often confess they still don’t understand how it works.

7. Changed the Way We Do Business

2020 was the year Zoom became a verb, and for that we can’t ignore them on a list like this. We had video chat before Zoom, including Skype, FaceTime, Google Hangouts, WebEx, and GoToMeeting, but when it came time to start working from home, it was Zoom that became the world’s virtual conference room.

Zoom, again, designed for the cloud rather than back-hacking a desktop app. Its interface is simple and easy to learn, and, significantly, they have been intentional about making sure they can handle their increasing server loads.

We think Zoom also benefits from straddling consumer and enterprise spaces. It has a lot of value for individuals on its free account, but it can also serve whole companies with its premium features. That means people using it for business will be less inclined to adopt a new platform for their personal video chatting, and consequently more individuals get introduced to Zoom’s platform.

8. How We Watch Movies

Remember when we used to get those red envelopes in the mail? Back then, the name Netflix didn’t make that much sense—until it did. Netflix not only foresaw the advent of streaming but still consistently ranks highly among subscription-based apps and is one of the most downloaded streaming apps.

The reasons seem pretty clear. First, if you’ve used any of the other platforms, you know Netflix has one of the best user interfaces, offering just enough customization while also helping you find new movies and shows.

Second, they’ve been a powerhouse at developing new titles that people want to see, giving HBO a run for their money. Disney, Paramount, CBS, and all the other channels developing apps have been chasing Netflix for the whole history of digital streaming.

9. How We Listen to Music

Spotify often appears among the top 20 most downloaded apps, though it’s far from first place. We’re including it here because of its importance. When Spotify first launched, most of us had already found our preferred mode of listening to digital music. But with its free membership and the user’s ability to play any song or album she wanted, Spotify quickly eclipsed other digital platforms.

It has its controversies, of course, especially as concerns compensating artists. But as an app it shows us how important it is to understand the user. Spotify combined the experiences of listening to the radio and listening to your MP3 player. You could let the app curate tunes for you, allowing you to discover new artists and songs, or you could build your own playlists and jam to your own beats.

10. How We Get There

There was a time when we had to memorize the way to Grandma’s house downstate. Then there was GPS, and then there was Google Maps. While not the first map app, Google Maps nonetheless has long set the standard. You can get certain features and different aesthetics in other apps, but in one way or another they will all be trying to be at least as good as Maps on the core offerings of navigations and search—and they’re never going to be, because Google has had the corner on search forever.

Maps certainly show the value of embedding high-quality, contextual search in an app of its nature. More than that, however, it shows the importance of playing to your strengths. Google is an internet search company. Their best products play off of their expertise in managing data and running in the cloud. What are your company’s strengths?

11. How We Get There II

Call this a cheat or an honorable mention, but our writer asked us to hat tip the parking app SpotHero. They may not be the biggest or highest earning, but if you live in a busy place like Chicago or New York (like we do), you know how much a hassle it can be to drive anywhere. There’s the traffic, yes, but then there’s the parking once you get there. 

SpotHero is a great example of finding a creative digital solution to a very familiar problem. For people who come into the city for events or meetings, it eliminates a big stress, which is a huge value.

Takeaways From Our Ten Best Apps Ever

You may have noticed that this list isn’t particularly “sexy” or “hip.” We didn’t go scouring the Play Store for obscure apps that make us look super knowledgeable even though you don’t care about them. (That’s matter for another time!)

If we’re talking about the best apps ever, we need to talk about apps that have made a big impact. There are a lot more we considered and a lot more we can learn from. But what patterns emerge here?

First, it helps to be first to a space like Facebook, Netflix, or bitcoin. Being first is particularly important if your app serves a content or social purpose where you may need to acquire exclusive content or get people invested in your network.

Second, it helps to be second. This is the Apple thing where you take a look at what is and isn’t working in what’s out there and come out with something really good. That’s what Candy Crush, Zoom, and Spotify did, and they took over in their category.

Third, you must design to your platform, both now and in the future. Angry Birds, Honor of Kings, and Zoom built cloud and mobile-specific apps that worked great on release and were prepared for new advances coming down the pike.

Fourth, find a niche. Candy Crush and Honor of Kings make a ton of money serving very different target audiences. Uber and SpotHero each exist to solve a single problem and to do so in a way that is easy and convenient.

Fifth, know your audience. Facebook bought WhatsApp and Instagram because it knew it couldn’t woo those users away from those platforms, which served specific needs. Spotify understands how we want to experience music. Google Maps understands what we need when we’re going somewhere new.

We’re all about pretty visuals—who isn’t?—but when it comes to designing important, impactful apps, it takes a lot more than cute icons and a smooth interface.

Our ten best apps ever list shows us the importance of providing real value and thinking about aspects of development that other people aren’t. If you’d like to make a great app—maybe make a run for a list like this—let’s talk.

-Dom & Tom

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