They may have started out as time-wasting phone fun, but mobile apps are now an intrinsic part of daily life and of increasing importance to Australia’s economy.
After growing by 11 per cent since 2014, Australia’s app economy is now employing more than 113,000 developers, administrators, salespeople and other employees – more workers per capita than in Europe, according to a recent report (PDF 1.07MB) from US think-tank, the Progressive Policy Institute.
It isn’t only the sheer number of apps but also the nature of those available that is driving this boom, according to Associate Professor John Thangarajah, Associate Dean, Computer Science and Software Engineering, at RMIT University.
"The whole growth in apps began with silly things, like the notorious fart app, but nowadays apps are useful things – weather apps, emergency services, ordering cabs, food – they’re becoming ubiquitous, essential for life," he said.
"It’s not just silliness now – there are millions of apps out there."
Having taught IT-related courses, including a range of programming languages, to undergraduate, postgraduate and industry personnel for more than 15 years, Thangarajah has seen the evolution of app development and the app economy at first hand.
"Twenty years ago we were talking about building computer programs, but today it’s all about applications or apps – a term coined for mobile phones," he said.
"The game-changer was the way we interact with these apps, through our mobile devices, and that’s predominantly where the app explosion took off.
"This changed the face of software, how we use it and how we view it. Then it became trendy, but now it’s a necessity."
It's no surprise that the huge rise in number and importance of apps available is creating a surge in employment, with relevant skills in high demand, reflecting a familiar pattern found across the digital economy.
With the digital economy adding 40,000 jobs to the Australian economy since 2015 and predicted to be worth $139 billion a year by 2020, a study this year found that its growth is being impeded by a worsening skills shortage.
The annual report, called Australia's Digital Pulse (PDF 6.63MB), from Deloitte Access Economics and The Australian Computer Society, found the information and communication technology (ICT) sector was increasing in importance to the country's gross domestic product, shifting from 5.1 per cent in 2014 to a forecast 7 per cent in 2020.
Launching the report, ACS President Anthony Wong expanded on findings that 81,000 new ICT professionals are needed by 2022 to fuel future technology-led growth, warning that without this skilled labour Australia’s economy will stagnate.
"Technology skills are fast becoming the engine room of the Australian economy," he said.
"To fast-track our nation’s digital transformation, and ensure the ICT skills base is there to meet demand, we need a clear strategy and dedicated investment focus in this area."
Yet despite all the talk of a shortage of skilled app developers, Thangarajah warns that with so many apps created already, it’s a highly competitive industry for aspiring app developers to break into.
"It's a tough world, a tough market to be in nowadays, and finding a niche is much harder," he said.
"Twenty years ago, there were lots of silly apps, but not much that was useful. If you had a good idea – something new, fresh – you’d probably be doing something innovative, as there was less competition."
Although there are millions of apps out there, Thangarajah suggests that young grads hoping to get started and differentiate themselves should be guided by new and emerging technologies to find new app development opportunities.
"Areas that stand out include touchless interaction and voice interaction; in other words, interacting with apps on your phone without touching or controlling it," he said.
He believes that exploring the potential in new developments in artificial intelligence (AI) and augmented reality (AR) will be the key for the next generation of apps.
"Just look at the iPhone 10 – you can already see that AR is the future," he said.
"In the future we could use this technology to see how fire-ready your house is, by simulating how a fire would spread and consequently find the weak spots in design and structure.
"We’re not there yet, but this is the potential."
With extensive research interests in AI, including multi-agent systems technology, where technologies can develop intelligence of their own and interact with other entities, including people, Thangarajah can see such technology working with AR in future apps.
"With AI techniques we could end up with apps having intelligent interactions with each other," he said.
"Although we’ve had sophisticated techniques running on computers, they weren’t enabled on mobile platforms, which has changed with powerful mobile hardware and mobile operating systems like Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android.
"As you walk around town, your apps could be talking to each other, interacting with businesses and shops as you pass them, sharing and gathering information – the scope for app development presented by this technology is huge."
Global research and advisory company Gartner predicted that the demand for enterprise apps will outstrip available development capacity by the end of 2017 by five to one, suggesting that appropriately skilled app developers will be increasingly sought after.
"The technologies are there in AI and AR, but it’s bringing them together that’s the next step and that’s where the opportunities are for graduates," Thangarajah said.
"However, just learning coding is not enough on its own; the most important thing is to gain a thorough grounding in the theory and practice of computing and technology, so you are equipped to adapt and exploit these technologies as they evolve."
Story: Daniel Walder