Think 100 years ahead to design the best mobile apps now

Shane Schick

Of all the new books coming out this fall, it's probably a little weird to be obsessed with the one I'll never get to read, but I just can't stop thinking about Margaret Atwood's next work.

I'm not even an Atwood fan (and I'm Canadian!), but it was recently announced she would be the first author selected for the Future Library, a project that has captured my imagination and could be inspirational for app developers as well. Here are the basics as recently reported by Fast Company:

Future Library is the brainchild of Scottish artist Katie Paterson. Every year for the next 100 years, the trust she has created will invite a notable author to contribute an original manuscript to Paterson's time capsule-cum-library, a custom-built room within Norway's new Oslo Public Library. In parallel, the Paterson is planting 1,000 trees in Nordmarka, outside Oslo. The content of the manuscripts will remain secret until 2114, when the trust, managed by Paterson's successors, will publish each text on paper made from the new forest.

As with any time capsule, Future Library will preserve something contemporary, with the twist that it was not something contemporary audiences were able to experience at the time. Now imagine if someone were to do something similar with apps. Like novels and even poetry, the best apps and mobile games often tell a story, but also engage the audience in helping act it out. They do something useful to make connections between people and in many cases (like social apps) provide a means of self-expression. 

It might be a lot harder to create a Future Apps project, of course. We don't know if today's smartphones will be at all usable in 100 years, or whether there's a storage mechanism that would preserve the functionality of the software that runs on them. Still, put those engineering challenges aside for a moment. Think of the app or mobile game you're making today. If it were not to see the light of day until long after you're gone, how would it speak to those growing up in 2114? To what extent would it capture the spirit of 2014, and to what extent could it present ideas, themes or use cases that are "classic" or timeless? 

Maybe there aren't that many app developers who are think as long-term as that, but as mobile games get more sophisticated, they will surely have a shelf life longer than a few years. Some gaming fans still look back fondly on Pac Man or Super Mario Brothers as though it were a sort of literary canon. Will Angry Birds and FarmVille have staying power, and if so, how long? They may never compare to a work with the depth of Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, but so many apps fail to gain a following that extends beyond the initial install. Perhaps pretending that those products were destined for a Future Apps project could change that.--Shane