Alex's Blog

Love, Lightsabers, and 10 Years of the App Store

This week marks the 10th birthday of the App Store, which Apple launched on the 10th of July 2008. The internet will surely be full of posts about how the App Store has changed technology, our world, and all of our lives. This post is not one of those. This is a personal story; a story about one of the first 500 iPhone apps (which at one point had more than 3% of total App Store downloads), a story about love, a story about a career spanning the life of the App Store, and not forgetting: a story about lightsaber sounds.

Header image of app icons

The Apple Seed

At the end of 2006, I was half way through my second year of studying Software Engineering at Edinburgh University. At the time I was a Windows user, and a proud owner of a silver Nokia 6260.

It was in the last few days of the year (in that awkward period between Christmas and New Year) that I met Duncan, the man who would later become my husband. He was a Mac user, and a self-confessed Apple fanboy.

Me and Duncan, in 2015

We were less than 2 weeks into dating when Steve Jobs walked on stage at Macworld 2007 and announced the iPhone. I remember messaging Duncan that evening saying “Hey, did you see that Apple announced a phone?”. I got a reaction that I did not expect: he was pissed. He had been deliberately avoiding all news of the event; he wanted to wait and watch the keynote video that Apple would post the next day without spoilers. Although we’re married now, I’m pretty sure he still hasn’t forgiven me for spoiling what many Apple lovers would consider Apple’s best keynote to this day.

Later that year I bought my first Mac; the white plastic MacBook (which I absolutely adored, even though it went a bit yellow over time). But even more importantly, we both got our first taste of iOS — I got the very first iPod touch (which came out in the UK before the iPhone), and Duncan queued on launch day to buy the iPhone.

The Joy of Web Apps?

Apple’s interim approach to third party apps on the iPhone was web apps that you could add to your homescreen. Steve Jobs’ “sweet solution” for iPhone development may have been a “shit sandwich” for some, but I was just excited to be able to make things for this awesome little device I could carry everywhere.

The best part of our web apps was clearly the exceptional icon design.

The best part of our web apps was clearly the exceptional icon design.

Duncan and I, between us, made a total of 11(!) web apps, everything from silly little games that miraculously still work, to a UK train journey planner that was featured in an actual print magazine — something I remember being very excited about at the time.

It was an exciting period of experimentation. It didn’t earn us very much money, but definitely gave us great satisfaction. While web apps weren’t nearly as capable as those we eventually got with the native SDK, they still showed the potential of this incredible little device.

iPhone OS 2.0 and this little thing called the “App Store”

Apple's marketing image for the iPhone SDK

In March of 2008, Apple held an event where they announced a native SDK for the iPhone, and the App Store.

I instantly knew I wanted to have an app in that store on launch day. I bought an Objective-C / Cocoa book (obviously one that was aimed at Mac development at the time) and I jumped in as fast as I could. I learnt everything there was to know about UIKit, manual memory management, the accelerometer, location services, sound APIs, and more.

A few months later, I was one of the first UK developers to be accepted into the “iPhone Developer Program” (at the time, this involved faxing documents to Apple. Fax. To Apple. Yes. Fax. 📠) and my desire to have something awesome in the store for launch day only intensified.

Phone… saber?

Fortunately an idea presented itself at a family lunch that took place a couple of months before the App Store launch. There, my brother-in-law was showing off an app that made lightsaber noises on his little Nokia phone. The sounds weren’t matched to the movement of the device, and they sounded pretty crappy. Then he said to me “can your iPhone do this??”. That was all I needed. Within days I had a prototype that was already better than that other app! I knew that this was the app I’d be releasing for the launch of the App Store.

I polished the app as best I could for a developer that had three months of Objective-C experience, and made some important decisions: it should be free, it shouldn’t use the word “lightsaber” in the name or any of the marketing, and it should use fan-made sound effects and graphics. I didn’t have the advice of a lawyer, but those steps seemed “good enough” at the time. (They really weren’t. I was not smart.)

It was with great excitement that I received this email, and PhoneSaber became one of the first 500 apps that would be available on the App Store, on launch day:

An email from Apple telling me PhoneSaber was Ready for Sale


The App Store launch day came, and I was stunned by the response. Turns out it’s easy to get noticed in a store with 500 apps.

TechCrunch called it “the sleeper hit”, The Telegraph called it “utterly pointless” but put it on their top 20 apps list anyway, Techrepublic called it “the new nerd whistle” (whatever the hell that means), and Walt Mossberg called it “a silly parlor trick” (whatever, I’ll take being noticed by Walt Mossberg)

"A silly parlor trick" - Walt Mossberg

But my favourite responses and reviews, were those from real users who were just having fun. People duelling in Caffé Macs, convincing others to buy iPhones, passing on original iPhones to 8 year olds, and just uncontrollably smiling. PhoneSaber was clearly far and away the most popular thing I’d ever made, and I had fallen completely in love with iPhone development. Apple had given me the tools to develop software I couldn’t have imagined making on my own, for a device I absolutely loved; a computer that was always in my pocket.

It wasn’t until many years later that I correlated my own download numbers with Apple’s press figures about the App Store and realised quite how popular PhoneSaber was. A few days after the App Store launch Apple announced that the App Store had topped 10 million downloads. Looking back at my download figures in iTunes Connect, in the same period PhoneSaber had 316,000 downloads. That’s over 3% of all App Store downloads for that period. It’s hard to imagine a one-man indie developer getting 3% of all App Store downloads today!

Struck Down, Returned More Powerful

A month after the launch, I was contacted by now-defunct games company THQ. At that time their mobile division owned the rights to Star Wars games on mobile devices. They wanted me to take PhoneSaber off the App Store but — fortunately for me — they had seen the potential of the app and wanted to work with me to make an official version. For this, I am eternally grateful. This story could have been a very different one if THQ had taken a harsher stance on my app! 😟

We agreed that it should remain free, because we didn’t think people would want to pay for it (gosh, we had the App Store figured out early!), and THQ decided it would be a great marketing tool for the new Star Wars game “The Force Unleashed” which was to be released in a few months.

Which icon was better though? 🤔

I worked with THQ to update the app with characters from the game, official sound effects, graphics & music, and a new icon that put my original one to shame. It was a fascinating process for someone still studying Software Engineering, and one from which I learnt a great deal.

When Lightsaber Unleashed returned to the App Store it was greeted with a flurry of great press, including the only time I’ve ever been linked to on Daring Fireball (which was far more exciting to me than being featured in that print magazine I mentioned earlier).

It remained a popular app over the years, tallying up an impressive number of downloads, but eventually was removed from the App Store following THQ’s bankruptcy. It was a sad end for one of the early App Store’s most popular apps, but such is the passage of time. How many apps from the first weeks of the App Store are you still using today? I think for me it might just be PCalc and Facebook.

The Following Years

In the years that followed I went on to work on many more apps, a unit converter called Units, a YouTube app called YouPlayer (that filled the void for many people for a good few months while YouTube had no app for the iPad), and various others.

There may be some very subtle hyperbole in this little leaflet that came with the tvOS dev kit.

Then the Apple TV came along, and I was lucky enough to get a pre-launch model for development. I didn’t know what I wanted to make for it, so I decided to make a Plex client because it was the only app I wanted. Shortly after launch Plex contacted me to ask if I wanted to work on their official app and I jumped at the opportunity.

I’ve now been working full time at Plex for over 2 years, and I still love it. I’m certain I’ve learnt more as a developer in those two years than the whole eight years that preceded them! Working with other people will do that for you.

I have tremendous respect & admiration for the small indie developers (and especially one-person-teams) that still make a living on the App Store, and I’m very happy to still be using lots of great indie apps today.

I can only hope the next 10 years of the App Store are as awesome as the first 10 were. I’m glad that I still have the same excitement for app development as I did when I worked on that very first app!

If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading this post that started out as a history of PhoneSaber, and quickly turned into my life story! If you enjoyed it, consider following me on Mastodon, or subscribing to this blog.

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