The Evolution of the Application

Kirk Brote
Publication Date
4 May 2016

The Evolution of the Application

Sometimes change is hard to perceive. Other times it hits you with staggering force. I find the changes that do both, like the evolution of the application, to be the most interesting.

My “aha moment”, when I first came to fully appreciate the level of change applications have gone through since their inception, came during a conversation with Mobiquity’s Chief Innovation Officer, Ty Rollin. While brainstorming, Ty described an application architecture that didn’t need traditional application infrastructure. Instead, it relied on cloud services to provide what were traditionally application elements. Ideas like applications that use third party authentication to run without servers were beginning to mature a decade ago. Fifteen years ago those applications were forming. And 20 years ago only a handful of people could even imagine them.

At first, traditional applications changed so slowly that evolution is a good description. Now, the pace of change is dramatic and involves every aspect of an application.


The first major evolution in applications centers around what system they are able to run on. They evolved first from running on mainframe and mini computers through the rise of the networked desktop. From there we had the introduction of the web and web applications, into mobile. Now, we are moving beyond mobile to wearables, beacons, and the internet of things.

Applications today are able to run on a diverse set of operating platforms. And some without servers, instead harnessing the power in the clouds. Think of all the web services, RESTful APIs, and cloud data sources that exist today which have subsumed traditional application functions. Storage, identity management, session management, security, analytics, and more are all available as services that plug into an application. As an experience designer, that makes me happy. As complex as those items are, it’s nice not to lose 75% of my budget to functions we can license instead of create ourselves.


Another major change in the evolution of applications involves where they need to run. At first they were isolated to a clean, temperature and humidity controlled environment so dust free that you could perform surgery inside. Now we expect applications to run in much more demanding environments that we wouldn’t have considered supporting in the past. Why? Because in order for an application to be successful, its intervention needs to happen wherever the user is. Today an application has to run two miles below the surface of the Earth for eight hours, with temperatures reaching over 120 degrees. Another application needs to run on a mobile device used in Arctic conditions with temperatures in the -20s.


Yet another dimension of change involves the when dimension. Applications started out dealing with the past, creating and storing records of things that already happened. As they evolved, they began to get closer and closer to ‘real time’. Today, we’ve surpassed real time and moved into the world of predictive analytics. We can collect enough data to model with such accuracy that we can predict what will happen next.


But perhaps the most dramatic evolution of applications is highlighted by the shifting role of the relationship between the system and the user. It started out being all about the system. The system was a needy friend who always made it about them. It decided what could and could not be saved. It decided what data was or was not accepted. It decided when and where the application needed to run.

Soon, however, designers and developers started to ask users what they needed. From there, application design became more task oriented and user focused.


With the explosion of the web, personalization, and mobile experiences, the system has now taken on burdens that we traditionally pushed onto users. System design now takes into account who is using the application, where they are using it, and when they are using it.

As technology gets closer and closer to the user, applications can impact diverse moments. Wearable technology can enable an application to understand that you are not pushing yourself hard enough in a workout, triggering the delivery of an automated motivational intervention delivered at the moment of maximum impact. Applications today need to be aware of the user’s location, focus, intent, and even their emotional state. In a word: context. Applications need to not just know the user's context but be able to meaningfully address it to create an optimal experience.

The user is at the center now, not the system. Now let’s leverage this evolution to build amazing applications.


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