When the iPhone was launched, plenty of people praised how revolutionary the device was (and still is), but most lamented the lack of an official SDK, or provision to install apps. Users and developers were instead told that the best apps for this new, revolutionary device were going to be found on the internet. Most people took this news surprisingly well, but a small group of users decided to work on something better.
What they did was work out a way to install native applications onto the iPhone (and later, iPod touch). This did have a few drawbacks, however. Firstly, it was not, in any way, condoned by Apple, so it voided your warranty if they ever found out. Secondly, it wasn’t exactly easy. Since it was a backdoor way into the iPhone’s OS, there were plenty of hoops one had to jump through to create and successfully run an app on the device. And finally, the apps that did end up being created were often buggy and unstable. Happily, Apple recognized this, and had their own plans.
On October 17, 2007, Steve Jobs published an open letter on Apple’s website, announcing that an official SDK would be made available to developers in February of 2008. In actual fact the SDK was released at the beginning of March, but we’ll gloss over that. This SDK would allow developers to create official apps that would run natively on the iPhone OS. This was fantastic news for users and developers alike. The months passed, several updates to the SDK were released, and then it was July 11. Yesterday.
Yesterday, the iPhone 3G was released, and a whole bunch of people were really happy and lined up at ungodly hours of the morning to be the first to get their hands on its shiny surface. I, however, was more interested in what would be made available for my iPod touch. See, no matter how awesome the iPhone is, the amount of time I spend talking on the phone in a month can barely be measured. So I woke up at 7 AM (it’s summer – that’s early) to try to be the first to get my hands on 5A347 – iPod touch 2.0. It promised official apps, push notifications, Exchange support (not that I need that), and much more. I patiently waited for the link on Apple’s website to become active. But because of millions of iPhone 3Gs all needing to be activated at the same time, the server that powers the download of the software update was getting hammered, and nobody could download it. Hours upon hours passed without the download becoming active, but then, shortly before midnight, it did for me. I paid my $9.95, I waited the 12 minutes it took to download the (massive) update, and I waited the 15 additional minutes it took to install it. I synced my apps and then, I got to testing.
I have to say that one of my favourite features, no matter how mundane it actually is, is the ability to save images from emails and from Safari (shown at left). Just tap and hold on an image and a panel will slide up from the bottom. The image will then be saved to the (appropriately named) Saved Images album in the Photo app. The screenshot feature is also really helpful, seeing as I couldn’t write this post without it.
Another fantastic, and subtle, addition is the bulk editing now available in Mail. I’m an “inbox zero” sort of person, so it comes in handy for deleting all of the “You received a message from [name] on Facebook” emails as quickly as I can.
You can’t talk about the 2.0 update, however, without delving into that great expanse that are the native applications. This is the App Store, as seen on my iPod. I won’t go into detail, because I’m sure you’ve heard enough about it already. It’s pretty simple to get apps – even I can do it. Just tap on the app you want, tap the “Buy Now” button (or whatever it says), type in your password, and it will download and install the app. Simple. I’m going to give you a brief review of a few of the apps I downloaded. They’re all free, because I’m cheap. The title of each app in the reviews is a link to the app on the iTunes store.
My friends aren't actually pixellated in real life.
The first app review is, of course, Facebook
. To be honest, this isn’t a brilliant start. When you first launch the app, you’re greeted by your news feed, to tell you what your friends are doing. The irritating thing is that it only really displays status updates and photo posts. As you can see in the screenshot, over the span of 2 hours, all my friends apparently did was update their status. You can tap your own profile button, but really, what’s the point? You’re really just going to be seeing your 5 most recent status updates, which is rather boring. The Friends button is actually rather handy, because it mimics the regular Contacts application, but it’s all of your Facebook friends. It even has the search-as-you-type feature at the top, and the quick scrolling alphabet on the right side. The best part of the Facebook app, however, is the Chat portion. It is extremely well implemented, and feels native. The message inbox is also fairly decent. But there is just so much missing from this application.
Take a look at the screenshot to the left. It’s basically the entirety of the information you’ll see on any given friend’s profile. Yes, it has contact information, and their mini-feed. Oh, and their relationship status, and you can poke them. Handy, when you’re on the go. But it doesn’t have anything else, really. You can’t see photos of your friends (something you can do in the Facebook for iPhone web app), and you can’t see their wall (another thing that’s on the web app), much less write on it. It’s surprising that these rather rudimentary features were omitted from the native application, because it could be fantastic. As it is, it’s merely mediocre.
The next app is also from a big name organization: it’s the New York Times application. It’s one of the most highly regarded newspapers in the world, for free, anywhere. It sounds great, but it has to be one of my least favourite applications I’ve used, not just on my iPod, or on a mobile device, but anywhere, ever. For starters, it takes ages to load the main screen, even on the fast internet I have at home. Once you give up on waiting for it and just tap on a story (to end the misery), you’ll be even more shocked. One of the world’s biggest newspapers has ads in its application!
I happen to have an account with the New York Times website, so you’d think that there would be somewhere for me to login to eliminate the ads. But you thought wrong – there is nowhere at all to log in. So apparently, they expect you to grin and bear it. Actually, I won’t, and will just use the website itself. In addition, the app itself is buggy, slow to do anything, and has a poor user experience overall. Apparently, the developers of the application weren’t too happy with it either, and an hour after I installed the app, an update was already available. But it still isn’t any better.
Given my experiences so far, I was certain that this update was a flop. The update wasn’t available to download when it was promised, and when it finally was available and I started using it, the apps were pretty awful. I thought all hope was lost. Leave it to Newsgator to pick up the slack though, with their slick app NetNewsWire for iPhone. I use NNW for OS X as my RSS reader on my desktop, and I love it. The brilliant thing about Newsgator’s line of RSS readers is that they keep your feeds and read/unread status synced with the server. It means that I can start reading my feeds on my computer, then go to a coffee shop and pull out my iPod and start reading where I left off. NNW isn’t a revolutionary app. It doesn’t have any shiny buttons, use the accelerometer for cool effects, or use the multi-touch display to control the weather (for example). It’s a simple application, but it does what it sets out to do very well. I highly recommend installing this application, especially if you already use NNW for OS X, or whatever Newsgator’s RSS application for Windows is.
Not one to be outdone, Apple has also stepped into the application ring with their remote control application, uhm, Remote. I must say, this is a very, very cool application in a sort of nerdy way. Basically, if your iPhone or iPod touch is connected to the same WiFi network as your iTunes-running computer or Apple TV, you can control it remotely. There’s an immense nerd-like satisfaction of being able to control your iTunes library from across the house, without looking at the display. Sadly however, this app is so good that it leaves something to be desired when you’re in the normal music/iPod application. The Remote app has support for playlist folders, differentiating between smart playlists, regular playlists and store playlists, and a feature I requested a while back, searching your library. The regular music app has none of these features, and you have to wonder why. Apple should really implement these features in the 2.1 update, or whatever it will be called. There is no reason that they can’t.
What would applications for a device be without games? I found 2 excellent free games that I highly recommend. The first is called Cube Runner. It’s an accelerometer based game which has ridiculously simplified graphics. You’re the arrow, and you’re flying through a field of cubes. Simply tilt your device to steer around the cubes and stay alive for as long as possible. If you’re not ready to spend the $10 for Super Monkey Ball (et. al.), this is a good way to start. My only reservation about this game is that it has a giant bug in it. If you run this app after running other applications (like you would), it restarts your device. If the developer can get that bug fixed, this is a fantastically addictive game, and pretty decent, especially since it’s free.
I’ve saved the best for last. It’s a game from Tapulous called Tap Tap Revenge, and it’s mind-blowingly good. I want to make plain that I wasn’t playing, by the way – I just needed a screenshot. Anyway, it’s a rhythm game like Guitar Hero or Dance Dance Revolution, except you play with your fingers. There’s a single player mode (shown), or a two player mode. They’re going to add the ability to download more songs to play (there are 3 bundled songs, I think, at the moment). Anyway, it’s very, very good, and it’s also free. But, if you like it, do consider donating via Paypal (to firstname.lastname@example.org). I don’t mean to plug, but it is seriously good, and they should really charge for it. Maybe they’re preparing a premium version?
That’s a quick review of some of the applications that have been released. I did download a bunch more, but to be honest, they’re not as interesting as these ones are. Purchase the 2.0 update (if you’re on an iPod – if you have an iPhone, it’s free), and try some of these apps for yourself. You might be pleasantly surprised.
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