2009: Planet of the apps

9 Dec 2021

Image: © ifeelstock/Stock.adobe.com

Not even a recession could slow the growth of tech as apps aplenty were produced, users flocked to Facebook and Silicon Republic campaigned for action on Ireland’s knowledge economy.

In 2009, the 20th birthday of the world wide web, Silicon Republic launched the Digital 21 campaign to develop a national digital development plan for Ireland.

Digital 21 called for a decade-long programme of action to secure the digital infrastructure and services required for Ireland to build a knowledge economy. We brought together some of Ireland’s top technology thought leaders to share their views on the core issues and components of a vibrant digital economy.

Our coverage spanned digital infrastructure, entrepreneurship, innovation, and talent and education. It culminated in the publication of key actions for a proposed National Digital Development Plan 2010–2021 and a pre-Budget submission to the Government.

Among our 15 recommendations, we suggested the Government should support the development and commercialisation of low-carbon technologies, products and services. This would perhaps have been better use of the Green Party’s time in a coalition Government than proposing a tax on texts.

Investment proposals were always going to be a hard sell in an economy struck by recession, but the STEM sectors were looking like a safe port in this storm. Worldwide foreign direct investment trended down 30pc, but Ireland continued to capture significant employee-intensive R&D investments throughout the year.

And while the recession prompted cuts to IT budgets, one area that was seeing a significant rise in investment was remote working. This was spurred on by the threat of disruption posed by the swine flu outbreak, which in June had been deemed a global pandemic. One Citrix VP told SiliconRepublic.com in September, “Users will be demanding to be mobile and if there are situations where a flu pandemic will force people to work from home, they don’t want to be missing any of the functionality they can get in the office.”

There’s an app for everything

Throughout 2009, real-time social media feeds, news services, games, widgets and tools began to flood smartphone screens. In July, Apple’s App Store celebrated its first birthday with a whopping 1.5bn downloads.

Apps weren’t just for Apple users, either. After the App Store came Android Market, the precursor to Google Play, and this year saw similar app platforms launched by Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Samsung, Microsoft and Canadian company Research in Motion, the maker of BlackBerry devices (remember them?).

Filling these platforms were apps built by a new class of mobile developers. By year end, the App Store alone had more than 100,000 apps available.

There were apps from familiar tech brands such as Facebook, Skype, Kindle and Citrix, and up-and-comers such as Spotify. You could have a voice search app from Yahoo or Bing (but not Google, iPhone users). Apps could help you read the news, find your way, listen to the radio, track your bills, practise a new language or learn anatomy. Brands had their own apps and even bands had their own apps. No matter your desire – be it retro gaming, porn or Jedward – there really was an app for that.

In Ireland, an App School was launched to help businesses get to grips with the software development kit for iPhone. It was co-designed by young entrepreneur Patrick Collison with Damien Mulley involved as an online communications consultant. Collison’s own Wikipedia app had been listed among must-have apps by the New York Times, and he was also busy in 2009 building his second start-up with his brother John.

Facebook grows healthy crop of users

Games were often among the top app downloads of 2009 and Facebook was clever enough to cash in on the rise of casual gaming.

Launched on Facebook in June, FarmVille, Zynga’s free-to-play Flash farming simulator, reached 10m daily active users within weeks. As well as virtual farmers, Facebook was attracting new demographics in terms of age and nationality. Around 70pc of its users were now outside the US, and the total number of people on the platform by the end of the year – a whopping 350m – was more than the entire US population.

At that rate of growth, Facebook was trampling the old social media vanguard MySpace, which was forced to shed hundreds of jobs as it lost ground. The platform proved so engaging that one Irish employment law consultancy urged employers to take a firm line on social networking at work and some enacted a total ban –including the US Marine Corps.

Though popular, Facebook wasn’t immune to criticism, which tended to focus on its terms of service, data retention and privacy settings. “Companies like ours need to develop new models of governance,” said CEO Mark Zuckerberg in February, as he announced a new democratic process inviting users to participate in virtual town halls.

Just over 1pc of Facebook users voted on new Ts&Cs, but policy changes continued to rankle. No sooner had Facebook settled a lawsuit that forced it to shut down one of its marketing tools than new legal complaints arose, this time against changes to its privacy policy.

Amid all of this, Facebook opened its international headquarters in Dublin. 70 jobs were originally created and Irish lead Colm Long was eager to connect with the country’s developers. He told SiliconRepublic.com that they would have “a huge part to play in the Facebook ecosystem”.

Before the year was out, the US company was already doubling in Dublin.

Minecraft gets out of the blocks

On 13 May 2009, Swedish game designer Markus ‘Notch’ Persson uploaded a video demoing a new game he developed over the course of a weekend. This would be the first of a vast number of Minecraft gameplay videos online today – though at this point it was called Cave Game.

Building on some of Persson’s earlier works and influenced by the open source game Infiniminer, Minecraft was soon shared on indie games forum TIGSource. Users who paid to download the alpha version and provide valuable feedback were promised the finished version for free.

This is one of the greatest first examples of the early-access model, which provides funding for indie games development to continue while also market-testing a game.

The early Java edition of Minecraft introduced multiplayer gaming, custom skins and survival mode. Being a sandbox game, players had the freedom to shape their own world and set their own goals. The simple blocky graphics, open world of resources and objectiveless creativity charmed users, and Persson eventually made enough money to pull back on his day job to focus on Minecraft and his own games development company, Mojang.

Data retention debate ignites

In July 2009, Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform Dermot Ahern, TD, proposed the Communications (Retention of Data) Bill.

The draft legislation would oblige service providers to retain all web, text and phone data for a period of up to two years. High-ranking members of the Gardaí would be allowed to request such data from service providers for several reasons, such as investigating serious offences. Similar privileges would also be afforded to high-ranking members of the Defence Forces and Revenue Commissioners.

The controversial bill was based on Ireland’s existing Terrorist Offences Act and the European Data Retention Directive passed in 2006. This legislation was already facing challenges as online civil rights group Digital Rights Ireland (DRI) had launched a High Court action against the Government that kicked off in 2008. Led by chair TJ McIntyre, DRI said these laws amounted to mass surveillance and represented a “direct, deliberate attack” on the right to privacy.

DRI eventually succeeded in getting the EU directive struck out by the Court of Justice of the European Union in 2014. However, the debate on the data retention bill – which became an act in 2011 – continues to this day, and is further complicated by its involvement in the case of Graham Dwyer, whose 2012 conviction for the murder of Elaine O’Hara relied heavily on mobile phone data evidence.

In other news

3 January: The first 50 bitcoins are mined, creating the ‘genesis block’ of the blockchain underpinning the cryptocurrency.

17 January: Google begins work on self-driving technology at its X lab for moonshot developments.

21 January: A 90-year-old bus service becomes the first in Ireland to deploy Wi-Fi across its fleet.

27 February: Two Dartmouth researchers publish a way to construct more robust quantum gates, a fundamental building block for the future of quantum computing.

7 March: NASA’s Kepler mission to search for Earth-size planets beyond our solar system is launched.

16 March: A car equipped with GPS and camera equipment begins capturing images of Irish streets ahead of its task to map Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford for Google Street View.

25 March: A team of final-year game development students at Carlow IT wins first prize and $40,000 in the Irish leg of Havok’s Physics Innovation Contest for their PC game demo, RagCat.

26 March: Twitter co-founder Biz Stone tells Reuters that he thinks commercial bodies would pay for a premium Twitter experience.

21 April: RTÉ launches its on-demand player.

21 April: UNESCO launches the World Digital Library to expand the volume and variety of cultural content on the internet, particularly non-English and non-western content.

28 April: Crowdfunding platform Kickstarter goes online.

18 May: WolframAlpha, a computational search engine, goes public. It is used by curious web browsers to find answers to calculable questions, not a list of resources, as with other search engines.

19 May: The US Government Accountability Office warns that some crucial satellites in the Global Positioning System could begin to fail in 2010.

27 May: Node.js is released.

1 June: At E3, Microsoft introduces Project Natal, a games controller system based on tracking and responding to a player’s movement, with the help of Steven Spielberg.

3 June: Microsoft rolls out its rebrand of Live Search as Bing. It would overtake Yahoo as the world’s No 2 search engine within days.

4 June: On the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, reports emerge that the Chinese government is censoring websites commemorating the event.

25 June: Google mistakes a flood of queries for ‘Michael Jackson’ as a DDoS attack. However, the surge of searches was triggered by news of the performer’s death.

4 July: US and South Korean government, financial and media websites are hit with massive DDoS attacks suspected to have been launched by North Korea.

7 July: After five years, Gmail is finally released from beta.

22 July: Windows 7 is released to manufacturing.

1 October: Following many years of research, palaeontologists from Ethiopia and the US determine that a 4.4m-year-old fossil skeleton of Ardipithecus ramidus is the oldest human ancestor yet discovered.

26 October: Yahoo shuts down GeoCities, the free web-hosting service it acquired a decade earlier.

30 October: The first Dublin Web Summit takes place with a line-up of media leaders, political pundits and web strategists.

13 November: Web Reservations International, the Dublin company founded by Ray Nolan and Tom Kennedy and best known for its flagship brand Hostelworld.com, is acquired by private equity investment firm Hellman & Friedman.

13 November: Research from the University of Bristol confirms that the melting of the Greenland ice sheet is accelerating.

16 November: Chatroulette, a website created by a 17-year-old that pairs users randomly for an online chat, is launched.

19 November: Google’s Sundar Pichai demos an early, open-source version of Chrome OS, a new web-based operating system.

20 November: Particle beams are once again circulating in the Large Hadron Collider after it spent more than a year out of action to undergo extensive repairs.

8 December: Support for extensions is added to Chrome, and programmers immediately set about building ad blockers for the Google browser.

9 December: MOL Global is confirmed as the Asian buyer of Friendster, though the $26.4m deal was far less than anticipated for the social network.

10 December: A record five women are awarded Nobel Prizes, including Elinor Ostrom, the first ever woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Economics.

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