Despite all the economic misery, the past nine months have been a little like the heady days of the early 1980s when the personal computer was just getting rolling and new software programs were popping up like weeds.
That’s because we have a new computing platform, the modern hand-held computer, which is also attracting new software and new functions in droves.
The leader in this phenomenon has been Apple’s iPhone, though I expect that this year a few competitors will also begin to attract loads of apps, or widgets. These are small software programs, easily downloaded and purchased, that often connect to the Internet to perform a specific function.
We’ve seen this before, on a smaller scale, with third-party software for the original Palm (PALM) platform, for Windows Mobile, and, to a limited extent, for the BlackBerry. But these new apps can be far more sophisticated, and they are appearing at a much faster rate.
To give you an idea of the scale of this phenomenon, in just the nine months since Apple (AAPL) opened the iPhone App Store, around 25,000 apps have been published for the iPhone and its close cousin, the iPod Touch. And there have been 800 million downloads of these apps, according to Apple. That’s impressive.
So, this week, I thought I’d present minireviews of some of the apps I find myself using most often, in no particular order. You may have an entirely different list of favorites. I am not saying these are the best apps on the iPhone, only that they do their jobs and make the device much more useful for me. All can be found in the app store, by searching on their names.
Tweetie ($2.99): There are many apps for using Twitter, but I use this one. It not only does a great job of showing me the social network’s short, but numerous, postings, but also makes it easy to track topic trends, to post my own entries, and to conduct and save searches.
Facebook (free): This official iPhone app from Facebook covers the core functions of the full Web site. It allows you to view and upload status messages and photos, to check in on your friends, to manage friend requests, and to handle the service’s internal email and chats.
Kindle (free): This is Amazon’s iPhone software version of its $359 Kindle e-book reader. It lacks some of the fancier features of its hardware counterpart, like the ability to create notes or to look up words. But it gives you rapid access to any Kindle e-books you’ve bought, helps you buy new ones and makes the e-books easy to read on the iPhone. It can be used without a hardware Kindle, but if you have both, Amazon (AMZN) will synchronize the two devices so each knows the exact spot where you left off reading on the other.
ICE (99 cents): This app, whose name stands for In Case of Emergency, puts a big Red Cross-style icon on your iPhone’s screen. When the icon is tapped, the app displays your name and contact information; the names and info for your doctors or other emergency contacts; and lists of your medical conditions, allergies and the medications you take. I keep it on my iPhone’s home screen.
Easy Wi-Fi ($2.99): If you hate typing in all the log-in information for the commercial Wi-Fi hot spots to which you subscribe, this app is for you. It automates the process so you have to press only one button. For each of the networks you use, you have to type in your log-in info only once. After that, Easy Wi-Fi will do it for you.
ReaddleDocs ($9.99): A number of iPhone apps allow you to synchronize files with a PC or Mac, but ReaddleDocs stands out. It has too many features to list here, but my favorite is that you can simply send an email with an attached file to a special email address Readdle provides and, very shortly, that file will appear on your iPhone. There, it can be stored and read (though not edited). You can organize your files in folders, and even send them to others. The app works with Microsoft Office files, PDF files and more.
Quordy ($2.99): There are thousands of games for the iPhone and Touch, but Quordy is the one I turn to most often. Much as in Boggle, it requires you to form as many words as possible from a random screen of letters in a set time period. You can challenge others, either nearby or over the Internet, to play the same game board you did and compare results. Or you can just play solo.
Google Mobile (free): Sure, the iPhone has a fine Web browser with a built-in Google search box, but this app makes searching in Google (GOOG) even easier, with instant search suggestions, searches based on your location, and even the ability to enter search terms by speaking them rather than typing them, though I find the voice feature unreliable.
If you own an iPhone or iPod Touch, the App Store is what makes your device worth its price. It’s the software, not the hardware, that makes these gadgets compelling.