Creativity tools: The next wave of iOS apps?

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When Snapguide debuted last week it received pretty good reviews in the press. But more importantly, it got a “very warm response,” as founder Daniel Raffel put it, from new users. He’s barely been sleeping, staying up to answer a constant stream of feedback emails about his very slick and good-looking iOS app that helps people easily make do-it-yourself guides to just about anything armed with just an iPhone and an idea.

During the same week the iPad got its own quickly embraced drawing and journaling app, Paper. Like Snapguide, the response was nearly immediate, and my Twitter stream filled up over the next few days with digital watercolors, drawing and paintings that were created by friends with just their fingertips on the iPad.

Snapguide and Paper have two things in common. Both appeal to the creative side of mobile users, and both are themselves beautifully made and deceptively simple to use.

I think it’s these qualities that are going to provide a roadmap for more iOS apps to come that will appeal to the artsy, creative side of people, rather than the traditional consumption-oriented theme of what have so far been the most popular types of apps on Apple’s platform.

At last count there are 585,000 apps available for download on Apple’s iOS App Store. And as has been true since the App Store debuted nearly four years ago, no category is more popular or important to the platform than games — they are half of the most popular free apps overall and half of the most popular paid apps. Angry Birds is the poster child for how to succeed as a gaming app on Apple’s mobile platform, but there are so many others: Fruit Ninja, Cut the Rope, Words with Friends, etc. In other words, people rightfully associate the iOS platform with games.

Other apps are on the rise too: News, weather and social networking apps are also big with iOS users. But like games, these are mostly consumption apps: reading news, following people on Twitter, checking the weather, or entertaining yourself.

The debuts of Snapguide and Paper are showing that not only are developers making apps that make the iPhone and iPad more of a creative tool, but that users are responding. We’ve written a lot about the iPad as a productivity tool, thanks to apps for annotation, creating presentations and reports, data visualization and more. These are mostly aimed at people using the iPad in a specialized business or education context. But I think we’re starting to see that developers and consumers see iOS devices as fun and casual ways to create things as well.

Even Snapguide’s Raffel wasn’t totally sure of the widespread appeal of his app until after it was released to the public and people started creating their own guides.

“What I didn’t realize is that we were building a platform for people to participate in a public talent show. They can share all these things they’re good at — it’s something that’s clearly been missing,” he said.

At least for DIY stuff. There are equivalents of these virtual talent shows all over the web and in plenty of fields, he points out.

“There’s Github to show off how you can code, Flickr to show off pictures you take, Dribbble for creativity and designers to show off,” Raffel says. “There hasn’t been a generic platform where people feel comfortable showing off … YouTube is the closest thing, but it’s a hard place to create and edit a video. The bar has been too high” to participate for most people.

He’s talking about his own Snapguide, but that willingness to embrace an app that helps users unlock or show off their creative expression can apply to other apps too.

June '09 edition of The New Yorker

Creative expression through apps is not new on iOS. Apple demonstrated the platform’s potential with a mobile version of GarageBand early on. And Brushes has been around for several years. It had its big break when the iPhone app was used to create the cover of the New Yorker in June 2009. But since then, though more specialized apps for artists, like Sketchbook Pro, have gotten great reviews, there haven’t been many big, instant hits in this category.

A similar idea can be found in a less traditionally “artsy” field, but one that still requires an enormous amount of creativity: building apps. Codea, which we’ve profiled in the past, takes the idea of creating apps or games for the iPad and flips it a bit: you use the iPad to create apps and games for the iPad, through a simple, touch-oriented programming language.

Codea’s creator, Simeon Nasilowski, also saw the potential of the iPad as a creation tool early on:

“I didn’t understand why people were saying it’s just for consumption. You can run any tools you like on it, you just have to think about it from a different interaction viewpoint — not mouse and keyboard, you just need tools optimized for touch. Then it becomes quite a good creation tool.”

As more developers look for “green pastures,” as Raffel put it — unexplored categories of mobile apps — I think we’ll see more people realizing how creative the iPhone and iPad — and even other mobile platforms some day — can be.

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