During 1983's International Design Conference in Aspen, Steve Jobs foresaw a future in which each person had "an incredibly great computer in a book that you can carry around with you that you can learn how to use in 20 minutes."
Thanks to the development of apps for smart phones, Jobs's prediction is spot on: mobile devices have radically changed how we communicate, conduct business, consume entertainment, and manage our lives, all thanks to apps.
But who invented the first apps? How did they develop over the years?
What is an app?
For the purposes of this article, an app is any computer program your mobile phone runs to either perform a task, display media, facilitate communication, entertain you, or provide a service or any other function.
The Psion Organiser
In the mid-1980s, London-based computer company Psion released the Psion Organiser, largely considered to be the first successful personal digital assistant (PDA) and forefather to mobile computer.
The Organiser line couldn't do much, but it did have a handful of built-in software, such as a text editor, calculator, diary, agenda, contact database and a few other simple functions. Even though the Organisers weren't equipped to handle phone calls, they laid the groundwork for the mobile app developments to come.
Apple's Newtown and the Palm OS
Developed by Apple (AAPL), the Newton was a bulky PDA released in 1993 that could be considered the grandfather to the modern day iPhone/iPad. However, unlike the Organiser, it featured the ability to connect directly to Macs, PCs, and Unix machines, as well as Wi-Fi networks.
The Newton also had access to a variety of third party apps: in addition to personal data organization software that came pre-installed, users could download programs like Pocket Quicken, a web browser, an email client, and more. The Newton could even support and recognize hand-written notes.
However, the Newton's popularity paled in comparison to the PalmPilot, a series of PDAs released a few years later. Critics at the time felt the PalmPilot series was more intuitive and easier-to-use. (See also: 6 Reasons Why Products Fail.)
Palm, the company behind the PalmPilot, also released a software development kit for their devices, meaning anyone could develop new apps that would work directly with the PDA's interface and features. Today, modern smart phones owe much of their success to third-party developers making software for mobile devices. (For more, see: What Makes Apple (AAPL) the Most Valuable Company?)
The Nokia 6110
While not particularly groundbreaking or innovative, the 1997 Nokia 6110 did have one feature that soon became wildly popular on cell phones: games.
If you were born in or before the early '90s, chances are you remember the most popular one of the bunch: Snake. Originally developed by Gremlin Industries in the mid-'70s as part of an arcade game called "Blockade," Snake was ported to the Nokia 6110 by one of their in-house engineers.
Wireless Application Protocol (WAP)
As mobile phones became more powerful, users wanted more functionality from the apps on their phones. This led to the development of the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP), which allowed users to access to stripped-down versions of websites, using Wireless Markup Protocol (as opposed to the standard Hypertext Transfer Protocol, or HTTP).
However, WAP proved to be cumbersome and limited since many developers and webmasters hadn't quite figured out how to create site layouts that responded well over the diverse variety of mobile phone displays. The most popular application of WAP was for customized ringtone and wallpaper downloads.
The Emergence of the Smartphone Market
Mobile phones saw their computer power and displays increase in quality over the 2000s, so much so that complex, mobile operating systems began to emerge. The most notable of these were Symbian OS (Nokia (NOK) Sony Ericsson (SNE), Motorola (MSI), Samsung), iOS (iPhone/iPad), and Android (Sony, LG, HTC). Note that some manufacturers developed phones for both Symbian and Android operating systems.
Some of the first apps featured on the Apple's App Store included PhoneSaber, an app that utilized the iPhone's accelerometer to produce that characteristic "wooommmm" sound whenever the user shook the phone, and Evernote, a popular personal data/media organizer still used widely today. (See also: The Mobile Device Market is Undergoing a Seismic Shift.)
The Bottom Line
It's difficult to pinpoint one person or team responsible for making the "first ever" smartphone app since, in reality, apps are just computer programs that happen to be on a mobile device. However, we can trace the genesis of smartphone apps as we known them today back to the emergence of PDAs, mobile computers, and a silly little game called Snake.