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It's not just Instagram. The 'app economy' is taking off.

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Apps are a diverse group of low-cost, lightweight software programs, often designed for portable devices, that users can download with the touch of a button, often for 99 cents or even free of charge. (Many firms rely on ads for revenue.) While the names of leading app companies might not be familiar, the games, online tools, and productivity software they've created are known by anyone who owns a smart phone or a tablet computer, or uses social media. From FarmVille (Zynga) to Angry Birds (Rovio) to Mint.com (Quicken) to the camera application Instagram, there seems to be an app to meet just about any need or desire. There are nearly 1 million of them for iPhone, iPad, and Android devices alone.

In a recent indication of the growing status – and market value – of applications, Facebook said this week it is shelling out $1 billion to acquire the hip photo-sharing smartphone app, Instagram. With its 30 million iPhone users, and even more projected to sign up because of its recent expansion to the Android platform, Facebook's newest investment could mean 100 million more global users in the next year.

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