Of hay and humanity

New technologies are disruptive. It is impossible to know what change and innovation they will bring in their wake.

The theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson, for example, once claimed hay was the most important invention in history.

Apparently, the Romans and Greeks did not have hay. Dyson argued it was only when some peasant from the dark ages had the idea of drying cut grass that effective storage of food for cattle and horses was possible and that that - in turn -generated an explosion in urban development.

He concludes, perhaps rather grandly, that hay gave birth to Vienna and Paris, to London and Berlin, and to Moscow and New York.

On that basis what incredible developments would flow from the invention of something as profound as mobile computing technology?

We've got Angry Birds for a start, because one of the most dramatic new phenomena our high powered phones have led to is the booming market for apps.

So are apps going to be as important for humanity as hay? That's the question Justin Rowlatt puts to the BBC's technology expert, Rory Cellan-Jones.

There really are now apps for everything. Clinical psycologists are working on a whole new generation of applications designed to help tackle mental health issues.

There is certainly a vast potential market. Millions of people suffer from conditions like anxiety and depression. Yet only the relatively wealthy can afford a professional therapist.

It's a problem for society as well as individuals - mental illness is reckoned to cost the US economy alone three hundred billion dollars a year in medical bills and lost output.

So, wonders the BBC technology correspondent, Mark Gregory, how can apps help out?

When the apps market first started most were created by individuals or small companies. But the success of apps like Angry Birds showed there is serious money to be made. No surprise then, that the big guys want in on the apps act.

And entertainment companies don't get bigger than Disney, which recently set up a dedicated apps division which got some unexpected publicity when Chunli Fu from China download the company's Where's My Water? iPhone app.

It was - apparently - the 25 billionth download on Apple's iTunes App Store. So what on earth is Where's My Water and how important are apps to Mickey Mouse's enormous empire? Justin Rowlatt speaks to Bart Decrem, a senior vice president at Disney and the general manager of its Mobile division.

Clearly Apps can be powerful things. But "with great power comes great responsibility" - according to the famous Spiderman quote. And, just as in the Marvel universe the world of Apps can divided into forces for good and forces for evil. Well, at least that's according to our regular technology commentator Jeremy Wagstaff of Reuters.

(Image: A man holds a Samsung S II (R) and Samsung Ace (L) smartphones next to an Apple iPhone 4. Credit: Reuters)

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Thu 22 Mar 2012 08:32 GMT

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