In a market full of free apps, games and social media “experiences”, productivity apps accounted for approximately 60% of smartphone app revenue last year. Similarly, desktop-based productivity applications are seeing a resurgence in popularity as well, even changing how developers approach their customer base when mocking up code for new products.

“‘I think we’ve moved back into an app world where both users and developers are more expecting of apps to do tasks instead of browser tabs for everything,’ Greylock partner Josh Elman wrote in an email.”

So what exactly is accounting for this change? Why are productivity apps seeing such a boost of popularity?

Internet 2.0

Before we relied on the internet for, well, everything, productivity applications tended to be some of the most expensive applications on the market. Expensive office suites, project management applications that ran into the hundreds of dollars—the list goes on and on.

With the rise of web-based applications (and the downfall of locally-installed apps), however, a paradigm shift occurred. Suddenly, competitive applications in these various markets were available completely free of charge; the only requirement was a connection to the internet. This opened up the market to a whole new generation of users who otherwise may not have been interested. It also opened up new opportunities for companies to engage in widespread deployment of these applications without the cost traditionally associated with them.

The Mobile Equation

Perhaps the single biggest impact on productivity apps, and their newfound time in the spotlight, is the rise of mobile computing. In the past, back when AOL was still sending out sample CDs of their software to homes across the country, productivity software could only be used in conjunction with a computer that had a functioning CD drive. In contrast, “mobile devices, including smartphones, tablets and laptops, can be a terrific way for employees to access their company’s resources wherever they are,” writes Ben Shapiro, for Segue Technologies. “More than just working from home, mobile employees today can essentially take their office with them on client visits, sales calls, at home when the kids are home sick from school, and anywhere else where they can get a signal.”

That freedom of movement helped create an entirely new market for productivity apps, as companies looked for ways to enable their employees to be as productive as possible—regardless of their location. As this has become the new norm, individuals and companies alike have begun to expect best-of-breed productivity apps to be available for their favorite mobile platform, fueling continued and diversified growth in the market.

A More Unified Experience

As customers began to use productivity apps more and more on mobile devices, an unexpected side-effect occurred: those customers began to look for (and even expect) their favorite mobile app to be available for their desktop or laptop computer as well.

“For many users, the desktop productivity app probably never fully went away,” writes Ryan Lawler for TechCrunch. “What has changed, however, is how users first find and connect with their favorite applications. Increasingly, we’re seeing users adopt apps on their mobile devices before later installing the desktop version. Interestingly, the rise of these new desktop applications was helped in part by the movement toward cloud-based services as the underlying infrastructure for personal and enterprise productivity tools.”

As Lawler goes on to point out, success in the mobile space often gives developers the confidence to tackle desktop-level applications. Additionally, app stores that were first popularized by mobile devices now have desktop software counterparts, making it much easier for customers to find relevant software.

All of this adds up to a more unified experience across all devices. An individual can use the same software across phone, tablet, computer as well as on the web. As users become accustomed to an application or service’s features and abilities, and the more integrated it becomes with their lives, the more locked-in that customer is.

As can be seen, inherent changes in the workforce, and the technology driving it, have helped account for the rise in productivity apps. Advances in technology, widespread and low-cost access, as well as the need for unified experiences have converged to create the productivity heyday we’re currently experiencing.