Updated: February 5, 2023
In the last decade, apps (and by association, phones) have become an almost essential part of our lives. Since the iOS App Store and Google Play launched in 2008 with what seemed like mostly novelty titles, they’ve grown to include millions of apps that help us communicate, meet new people, listen to music and kill pigs with birds. Sure, we still use our phones to make calls sometimes, but apps are so popular there are now apps that tell you how much time you spend using apps on your phone. Also, technically, you use an app for actually make the phone calls. As part of CNET’s Decade in Review
here are our picks for the impactful apps of the 2010s. I crowdsourced this list — some of the apps on it didn’t even exist as the decade began, a few did though — from every CNET editor and then curated it further from there. The result is the list below in no particular order.
Note that in the case of very similar apps, I combined the most popular ones in that category, instead of having individual entries. And, sure, there are hundreds of impactful and important apps not on this list. If you feel we didn’t include one of your favorite apps, put it in the comments and I’ll be sure to chime in as well.
What is it? Instagram allows you to share photos and videos.
Initial release: 2010
Why it’s on the list: Instagram has changed the way we think about photos and, for many of us, altered our eating habits (for a time I couldn’t start eating my dinner until I captured its image perfectly). It’s also become an incredibly effective marketing tool over the years and continues to grow, as it has now reached 1 billion users per month. I think the reason it’s still popular is because it continues to evolve in meaningful ways. Adding things like Stories and Boomerang over the last few years has kept it feeling fresh and adopting these features is a great way to continue to expand its user base. While celebrity influencers continue to make us believe they’re actual living impossibly extravagant lives in order to sell us products. and many people still behave completely irresponsibly in order to capture that “perfect pic,” Instagram is still one of the most simple and entertaining social platforms out there.
What is it? A social media platform for posting text, pictures and videos.
Initial release: 2010
Why it’s on the list: Thirteen years after its debut, no one would argue that Twitter has completely changed the way the world communicates. From the Arab Spring where protesters used Twitter to not only coordinate, but also voice their message to the world, to world leaders like President Donald Trump, who can now immediately send a message to every connected person on the planet, it’s clear that communication will never be the same. Though Twitter hasn’t proven successful at clamping down on hate speech, it’s still one of the best and most informative social networks.
What is it? A social media and networking platform
Initial release: 2010
Why it’s on the list: Like Twitter, Facebook’s debut predated the decade, but it’s become the premiere social media platform in the world, with nearly 2.5 billion active users. It let you reconnect with old friends and family members across the world, and you were inundated with memes, cat videos, requests for Farmville and news, both real and not so much. After the short boom of MySpace, Facebook popularized social media with the mainstream. However, amid its user privacy scandals and influx of fake news, the platform has fallen under harsh scrutiny since the 2016 election.
What are they? Dating apps, popularized by their simple filtering mechanic.
Initial release: 2012 (Tinder), 2014 (Bumble), Grindr (2009)
Why they’re on the list: Never before has the act of finding someone, no matter your needs and wants, been as easy (in the case of Tinder and Bumble, swipe right on a potential mate’s pic if you’re interested. If not, swipe left.) People use the apps for everything from quick hookups to casual dating to looking for long-term relationships. Grindr, a dating app geared towards the LGBTQ community, was the first to debut, but Tinder profoundly changed the dating scene. Suddenly you could filter your choices almost instantly to get exactly what you were looking for. LOL! If only human beings were such simple creatures! BWAHAHAHAA!!
Google Maps/Apple Maps
What are they? The two most popular map/directions apps in the world.
Initial release: 2007 (Google Maps), 2012 (Apple Maps)
Why they’re on the list: I honestly don’t travel without using one of these. I have a horrible sense of direction, I didn’t start driving until I was in my 30s, and I still don’t know most streets by name. Seriously, I’m terrible and need these. But I digress. These apps took Mapquest to its logical evolutionary conclusion. Now you can travel anywhere in the world without ever needing to know exactly where a place is. Just follow the directions like you’re playing GTA or something and even see what your destination looks like from the outside. Although I personally prefer Google Maps, Apple Maps has vastly improved since its disastrous launch a few years back.
What is it? A music streaming service
Initial release: 2011
Why it’s on the list: I remember when Spotify debuted in 2011. It seemed to come out of nowhere and further changed (you’ll see this word a lot on this list if you haven’t already) the ever-evolving music industry. It felt a lot like the original version of Napster, only legal, but still free. Too free for some, as some artists like Taylor Swift have in the past pulled all of their music from the service. Swift eventually returned to the streaming giant.
At its launch, Spotify enjoyed a huge 50 million-song library that dwarfed those of its competitors at the time. Spotify eventually led Apple to create its own music service called Apple Music in 2015, which now also has access to over 50 million songs.
What is it? An instant messaging platform
Initial release: 2013
Why it’s on the list: What makes Slack any different from a billion other IM clients in the last 25 years? It’s mostly its integration with other apps and the way it can start to feel like the nucleus for everything happening at your work. These days it’s a toss-up over which I open first in the morning: Slack or email. Slack is like email, part 2.
But, it’s not just useful for work. As family life gets busier, families are using Slack to communicate, which is weird but also weirdly appealing as my own family starts to grow. But like every tool, it comes down to how you use it — the debate over whether Slack improves or impairs productivity continues.
What are they? Order a rideshare on your phone to your exact location and pay automatically through your credit card.
Initial release: 2011 (Uber), 2012 (Lyft)
Why they’re on the list: I remember four years ago when my 16-year old nice visited me in San Francisco from Minneapolis. She’d never heard of Uber, and the whole thing kind of creeped her out. Now, I don’t think she can imagine traveling any other way. Of course, the convenience has not come without cost. Both Uber and Lyft great have faced lawsuits over alleged sexual assaults by drivers, cities around the world have attempted to regulate them, and drivers have battled for better pay. And while all those additional cars on the street can choke traffic in cities, there’s no denying the effect these apps have had on the way we travel.
What is it? Allows you to make digital payments to other individuals.
Initial release: 2012
Why it’s on the list: As a person that rarely carries cash, I could never easily pay my share when out to dinner with a group of friends. That why Venmo and other apps like it have been a godsend — with them I don’t constantly feel like a deadbeat. You can pay for stuff for friends like movie tickets, and now they have zero excuse not to pay you right back, even before the movie starts! We’re deadbeats no more!
What is it? A game where you launch birds at structures in an attempt to kill pigs
Initial release: 2009
Why it’s on the list: In its early days, Angry Birds was so popular, I convinced myself I had to like it. Ultimately, when I played it I didn’t, but its impact on the expectations of how popular mobile game could be is unprecedented. Two movies and plenty of versions of the game later, Angry Birds is still a very popular franchise and has continued to evolve with the times, most recently with Angry Birds AR. Again, not my cup of tea, but many still enjoy taking a sip.
Candy Crush Saga
What is it? A match-three puzzle game.
Initial release: 2012
Why it’s on the list: I knew this was something special when my wife, who isn’t a gamer, not only couldn’t put it down, but also spent money playing it. It took her six years to finally move on to Two Dots. I’ve never played Candy Crush Saga and probably won’t — the visuals are just a bit too saccharine for me — but it’s one of the most popular tile-matching games of all time. You can pick it up quickly, it has a satisfying gameplay mechanic, and it’s something you could do while listening to books (to paraphrase my wife). Despite her falling off, the game’s overall popularity has shown no signs of waning.
What is it? The first big AR game based in the Pokémon universe
Initial release: 2016
Why it’s on the list: It was a phenom when it was released in 2016. I tried playing from my house, but there was nothing to find in my little suburban neighborhood, so I quickly gave up as I was too self-conscious to play in the city. The game eventually lost most of its player base, but is still incredibly popular, having crossed 1 billion downloads earlier this year. Its formula for success was simple: Combine an already successful franchise with a new technology with heavy social ties. It’s worked quite well.
What is it? Video platform that let you make videos up to six seconds long and share them.
Initial release: 2013
Why it’s on the list: After an exciting start in 2012, Vine was discontinued by its owner, Twitter, in 2016 amid growing competition, especially from Instagram. But during its life, Vine quickly popularized the short-form video app. It gave you the ability to make six-second videos and immediately post them, which (at the time) was one of the coolest things I’d ever seen in an app. I dove right in, experimenting with some weird techniques, picking up others and attempting to develop storytelling skills. Like with most things, I was done and ready to move on after a couple of months, but Vine continued to be a hit, leading to the birth of its evolutionary cousin, TikTok.
What is it? A super-difficult mobile game that no longer exists in its original form.
Initial release: 2013
Why it’s on the list: Remember when this game was the most-downloaded app on the app store? It held that place for about a month in 2014 before its developer suddenly took it down. He said it was so addictive that he was losing sleep over getting so many people hooked. It was crazy-hard and something I could stomach for no more than a couple minutes. And its notoriety continued, even after its removal — people were attempting (unsuccessfully) to sell phones that still had the game on Ebay for up to $100,000.
What are they? Two hugely popular chat platforms
Initial release: 2011 (Facebook Messenger), WhatsApp (2009)
Why they’re on the list: They’re both Facebook products and essentially do the same thing, however differently. Facebook stripped Messenger from the Facebook app in 2011 and made it its own thing. It’s incredibly popular and the preferred way to communicate for a lot of people, especially if you’re on Facebook but don’t have someone’s number or you want to forgo texting.
WhatsApp is the lighter version that uses less data and encrypts its messages end-to-end (user to user), which is more secure than Messenger’s solution of sending messages to a server before it gets sent to the recipient. It’s also incredibly popular, especially in Asian countries.
What is it: A video-streaming app, focused on original content.
Initial release: 2010
Why it’s on the list: Netflix is the premier video-streaming app. With it, you get access to Netflix’s ever-growing number of original movies and series, like Stranger Things and Narcos.The iOS and Android apps allow you to download most shows or movies to your phone. Despite heavy and growing competition, Netflix is still the streaming app every other one is measured by. At least for now.
What is it? A social media and messaging app where videos and messages disappear after a time.
Initial release: 2011
Why it’s on this list: Snapchat launched in 2011, but its popularity hit the stratosphere between 2013 and 2015, after adding video sharing, Snapchat Stories, ephemeral text messaging and (most importantly) the rainbow vomit feature. It allowed people to post short videos that would expire and be “gone forever” after a set time. I have to admit, as a chronically old fuddy-duddy I never saw the appeal of making videos or writing texts that disappear after awhile, but that’s just me. I guess I’m a hoarder at heart and I want everything I make to be available for access forever.
What is it? A video app that allows anyone to post videos and watch them.
Initial release: 2007
Why it’s on this list: YouTube has changed the way we consume media, from posting viral videos to slickly produced original clips by ‘YouTubers.” There’s no longer an excuse to not be a filmmaker if you’ve ever dreamed of being one (talking to you, self!).
I use it all the time, and with YouTube’s monthly subscription service that removes ads and allows me to play videos in the background, I can listen to YouTube audio in the background. For that reason alone it deserves to be included here, and I’m surprised more video apps have not added this feature. In the last few years, however, as the number of videos with disinformation and racism have increased, the platform has come under criticism. Still, the number of its users has grown to well over 1 billion and is showing no signs of slowing down.
Google Pay/Apple Pay
What are they? Mobile payment apps that let you pay at retail or online using only your phone, tablet or smartwatch.
Initial release: 2015 (Google Pay), 2014 (Apple Pay)
Why they’re on this list: Being able to pay for things with your phone seemed like such a novel concept a few years back, but now it’s my preferred way to pay and usually works seamlessly. It seems like such a small thing, but I’m always looking for that Apple Pay logo. It’s just an extra level of convenience that I really appreciate.
What are they? The top voice assistants on the market.
Initial release: 2010 (Siri), 2016 (Google Assistant), 2014 (Alexa)
Why they’re on this list: Siri was the first big voice assistant when it debuted in 2011, but other options that followed have outpaced it. (Google Assistant, in particular, is smarter and more intuitive.) I use an Apple HomePod with Siri and am constantly disappointed by the fact that Siri isn’t smarter. I’m hoping that changes soon. Having to say “Hey, Siri” for every command just gets old fast.
It’s important to remember that, as exciting as this technology continues to be, the simple fact is that your voice assistants are recording you and as a result, Google, Apple and Amazon (with Alexa) have now either put a halt to having humans listen to you in the “privacy” of your own home or allow you to opt out of this recording. It’s still disconcerting though.
What is it? The app for the world’s largest online retailer.
Why it’s on this list: If you raised a young child without the help of the Amazon app, you’re a god in my book. I’ve used Amazon since I bought my first DVD some time in 2000. The Matrix or maybe X-Men? Possibly Ninja Scroll? I’m not sure, but I’ve not stopped shopping since, and I likely won’t anytime soon. Now, with an app it’s even easier and faster — so fast that I don’t even need to add a task to my to-do list. When I’m juggling an uncooperative toddler with a 1-year old who’s doing his best to jump head-first off a couch, the ability to take 15 seconds from catching diving kids to order them new vitamins is huge — it makes my life that much easier.
What are they? Real-time video-based phones calls
Initial release: 2009 (Skype), 2010 (Facetime)
Why they’re on this list: This is that sci-fi video-phone future that’s even better than what any sci-fi film could have predicted, obviously because none of them predicted the rise of the smartphone. I don’t use it a lot, but the times when I do are special, like if I’m away from my kids and want to see their faces. It’s not like you see on The Jetsons, but the fact that I can see my sons when I’m away on business, or even a co-worker a thousand miles away, is amazing.
What is it? The game that took over your kid’s/nephew’s/cousin’s life
Initial release: 2017
Why it’s on this list: Fortnite has had the type of cultural impact few games, if any, ever achieve. From the whole Fortnite dance debacle to the fact that the winner of the 2019 Fortnite World Cup was awarded $3 million, Fortnite is a huge, unstoppable pop culture juggernaut that shows no sign of slowing down.
As long as the developers keep the game fresh by doing things like ending it, its popularity should continue for some time.
What are they? Order food for delivery, even if the restaurant in question does not itself deliver.
Initial release: 2015 (Uber Eats), 2011 (Postmates), 2009 (Grubhub), 2013 (DoorDash)
Why they’re on the list: I remember the frustration of wanting food from one of my favorite restaurants and seeing its “No deliveries” sign. That now feels like a thing of the distant past. Sure, eating out all the time isn’t cheap or always healthy, but I like to have the option. If I want a barbecue lunch, but I don’t have 20 minutes to go get it, it’s comforting to know there are people out there who don’t mind doing it for me… for a price.
What is it? A photo storage app for both Android and iOS.
Initial release: 2015
Why it’s on the list: I imagine your big question is, why did Google Photos make the list and not the Photos app and iCloud on iOS? Well, as good as the Photos app is on iOS — and it has definitely improved lately — the app isn’t compatible with Android. Google Photos, though, works on Android and iOS. It also has more cloud storage than iCloud, and its search feature is more robust and useful. You can search for a word that appears in a picture or even by pronouns — just in case you want to find your friend’s baby’s pictures, but can’t remember when you took them.