Ah, the Apple App Store. Since July 2008, the month when Apple opened its wildly popular library of applications for the iPhone and iPod Touch, the world has been treated to more than 20,000 apps, with some 500 million downloaded as of February 2009.
Programs run the gamut from necessary, useful and a ton of fun all the way through to “none of the above.”
And then there’s another class of software — iPhone apps that foretell the future.
These are the applications that offer clues as to how mobile users are likely to use their smartphones — whether it’s an iPhone or one of the iPhone’s rivals — in the months and years to come. (Just today, Amazon.com released a Kindle e-reader app for the iPhone.)
While I focus specifically on the iPhone here, it’s likely that other smartphone platforms will take a similar course as well.
With an eye on what’s out there now in the App Store — and what that inventory indicates about what could be coming next — I’ve sorted through thousands of programs to pick a few apps that indicate the direction we could see the iPhone and other future mobile devices take.
Ready for a little reading of the tea leaves? Here’s my personal list of iPhone apps that best exemplify the future of mobile applications.
iPhone + computer
Apps: Remote, NumberKey Connect, Mocha VNC Lite
In the future, we will definitely see a higher degree of interaction between the iPhone and the computer, and there a few popular products out right now that point the way.
Use Remote to access your tunes from afar, particularly if your computer or AirPort Express station is hooked up to a sound system.
Since the beginning, Apple has offered Remote, which has become a very popular app (and the price is right — it’s free). For the two of you who have never tried it, Remote allows the iPhone to access and control, via local Wi-Fi, iTunes content stored on a computer, which is incredibly useful if your computer or AirPort Express station is hooked up to a sound system.
The app offers an impressive amount of control, supporting nearly as many features remotely as you’d get if the content were stored on the iPhone itself.
In fact, the single thing that I found missing is the inability to view lyrics within music tracks.
Despite that one shortcoming, it’s simple to set up, simple to manage and extraordinarily useful. This free app is a perfect example of cross-device interactivity.
Another excellent example of computer-to-iPhone interaction is NumberKey Connect ($1.99) from Balmuda, which allows the iPhone to act as a Mac’s number pad.
The software works in tandem with a small program running on your Mac (this computer-specific software is Mac-only as of press time, supporting both Intel- and PPC-based Macs) and like Remote, it utilizes Apple’s Bonjour service-discovery networking protocol.
NumberKey Connect makes a perfect companion to Apple’s wireless Bluetooth and laptop keyboards, which lack number keys.
It even offers four different themes, and its behind-the-scenes use of Bonjour translates to an automatic and reliable connection for your Macs running 10.5.5 and above, with an iPhone 2.1 or later. Simple in form and execution, this solution is both infinitely useful and potentially prophetic concerning future device interaction.
Of course, there’s always full-on computer control, and for that you can use the free Mocha VNC Lite.
As long as there’s a wireless network connection — including 3G signal — and a properly configured Mac or PC, you can access your computer and control it as if you were in front of it, all from your iPhone.
The software provides support for all sorts of interaction using gestures and taps, including different input modes for controlling the screen or for manipulating icons on the computer.
For my part, I’ve used Mocha a few times to access mission-critical servers, allowing me to input commands via Mocha’s on-screen keyboard remotely and helping me avoid a very bad day.
At home, I use the software for accessing the Mac that controls my optical disk carousels. With Mocha and some not-so-fancy AppleScript, I can access the Mac to pick one of several hundred movie titles without having to interrupt the current program on screen.
My own examples are just scratching the surface as to what can be done with the ability to control a computer from anywhere you are.
Clearly, these are the first steps for the iPhone in device interactivity. Although the pairing of two wholly different devices to perform a specific task isn’t anything new to the computer scene, the iPhone’s software platform and wireless connectivity options portend an almost endless array of possibilities.
Note to Apple: For this to truly become the future, you need to open up hardware accessibility to third parties! (Although logic dictates you may already be working on this.)
iPhone + home automation
Apps: iPhone Home Controller 2.0, Smarthome
Imagine being able to read the contents of your fridge by glancing at a list stored on your iPhone; dimming the kitchen lights with a gesture on the touch screen; and finally being able to determine beyond all doubt that you did, in fact, turn the iron off.
As we march into the future, there is an emerging marketplace for mainstream hardware that bridges the gap between the iPhone and household appliances. While direct-connectivity options built into appliances are the next logical step, there are currently third-party options that enable home automation for existing homes.
Be warned, however; home automation is getting better, but it’s still all rather geeky and niche-y, complete with dedicated online forums run mostly by über nerds who are to regular nerds what nerds are to normal people.
If you’re still curious after that caveat, there are a few sites that offer complete solutions, including Smarthome.com and the iPhone Home Controller 2.0.
For examples of home automation via the iPhone, the Smarthome site even offers a Web video that demonstrates dimming lights, turning on and off sprinklers and adjusting temperature. It also shows the ability to monitor all of the actions remotely using an IP-based Web camera.
If you still want more, check out this list of . home automation software, compiled specifically for the iPhone, including many more options than I’m able to cover here
iPhone + video
Apps: Baby Monitor, SecuritySpy, Cam Viewer, Air Cam Live Video
Speaking of convenience around the home, the iPhone’s ability to play video streamed from the Web makes it extremely useful in terms of home surveillance, from security aspects to tasks as mundane as watching a baby.
For the latter, there’s an application called Baby Monitor from Code Goo that allows you to use the iPhone as a (pretty pricey) baby monitor.
This $4.99 application uses the iPhone’s built-in mic to monitor your baby for cries, and when the baby does cry, Baby Monitor calls a predetermined number. So as not to wake the baby up, the developers recommend forwarding your non-infant-related incoming calls to another number.
To stream surveillance video to the iPhone, tap into one of the many available Web cameras (like this one from Axis) that wirelessly stream h.264 video to the Web, and then use Mobile Safari to capture this stream on your iPhone.
For a more sophisticated approach, Macintosh users can try SecuritySpy, software that offers support for multicamera monitoring, motion detection and AppleScript support through a Mac client.
The iPhone-specific app that works in conjunction with SecuritySpy, Cam Viewer for SecuritySpy, is $2.99 from Furnishing Industry Software, which also offers a version, Cam Viewer Lite (also $2.99), that simply requires an IP-enabled camera.
For those wanting a less sophisticated approach, there is an application called Air Cam Live Video that allows the streaming of video from most webcams to iPhones and iPod Touches.
Since Apple ships iSight with its entire portable and iMac product lines, anyone can use the cameras built into these machines with Air Cam Live Video to stream video to iPhones locally or across the Web.
Similar to NumberKey Connect, Air Cam ($7.99) requires a companion application to be downloaded and run on the host computer, either a Mac running OS X or a PC running Windows XP or Vista.
Once the application on the host computer is configured with a password (which is necessary to log into a video stream), Air Cam automatically displays local connections as well as the ability to manually connect to IP addresses.
Air Cam Live Video offers a super simple way to keep tabs on your bundle of joy from afar.
Air Cam even comes with simple and straightforward instructions about how to configure access from beyond the local network, and the video stream works remarkably well both over Wi-Fi and 3G access.
This application is well worth the price for anyone interested in what goes on when they’re not around.
Even more exciting, it gives a glimpse of how easy it’s becoming to tap your phone’s screen and have it function in a way that replaces any number of peripheral devices — including, but certainly not limited to, a security camera.
iPhone + on-demand media
Apps: YouTube, Truveo Video Search, Joost, TV.com
The App Store is a perfect example of what happens when on-demand and over-the-air downloads are coupled with a simple interface; once again successfully proving the idea of using instant gratification for fun and profit.
Beside application content, the iPhone has been a huge milestone for media playback, and now the device is no longer limited to iTunes or YouTube content.
Your on-demand content will rise to new levels of consumption once you tote up all the ways you can access content: the iPhone shipped with YouTube, but many alternatives now exist, including Truveo Video Search, Joost, and CBS’ TV.com (all free).
For podcast lovers, Apple has included the ability to browse and even play back audio and video without having to download it, and if you like the show, to download podcasts directly from the phone.
The ability to view without downloading has opened up the entire world of podcasting for me, allowing me to spend time watching content I normally wouldn’t bother downloading.
This is the bright spot to having access to an array of on-demand video, but the vast library of studio titles still remain hidden away. Where is NBC-backed Hulu, for instance?
While video for the iPod has been available in the iTunes store for years, the iPhone’s 3G and Wi-Fi connectivity open a whole new door for on-demand content streamed to the device.
There’s still a lot of work to be done as most networks figure out a way of making lots of cash while providing an always-accessible venue for their content, but there will be a time soon when we decide our own programming.
iPhone + gaming
Apps: Real Soccer 2009, Hero of Sparta, Brothers in Arms
Gaming is another category where indications of the iPhone’s future abound. Apparently, Apple thinks so, too, because its latest iPod Touch ads feature games found at the App Store. Gaming will become better on the iPhone as the hardware progresses.
With processors and GPUs becoming increasingly smaller and faster, the iPhone of the future may pack the power of today’s laptops. Here and now, the iPhone has already tested traditional phone-based gaming and has even managed to give portable videogame units a run for their money. (It’s the software, stupid!)
The convenience of the App Store in concert with the iPhone’s hardware features allow for some pretty entertaining games — games whose sophistication levels are beginning to grow.
While there are now classic examples of mobile game fun in Super Monkey Ball and wide array of Tetris variants, the iPhone really shows off its graphical prowess in games like Real Soccer 2009 ($5.99), Hero of Sparta ($5.99) and for first-person shooter fans, Brothers in Arms ($5.99).
Brothers in Arms was good enough to capture the attention of The Escapist magazine, which ran a story with game play footage — for fans of such action titles, a video well worth watching.
Personally, I’m a big fan of the Call of Duty series, so having similarly functional and fun first-person shooter on my person and in my pocket at all times really tickles me. That Brothers in Arms is graphically impressive, with quality audio and game play to match, really shows what the iPhone and iPod Touch platforms are capable of.
Clearly, as the iPhone advances in hardware capability, the games will become much more involved. Better graphics, faster CPUs, more data storage and the ability to download games on the fly sound more like features found on next-generation consoles — only this console is also your phone.
App future looks bright
The iPhone started out as the best way to interact with common functions associated with mobile telephony, but has quickly evolved to become much more than that.
As the iPod has shown, focused evolution of a product can be the difference between a toy and a must-have lifestyle device, and the iPhone has the potential to grow way beyond its humble telephony beginnings.
This level of sophistication in a mobile device was undreamed of just a few short years ago in anything less than a laptop, but it’s all available now, in a size small enough for our pockets. You don’t need a crystal ball app to see that the future of the iPhone is looking bright.
So who’ll be the first with Sunglasses.app?
Michael deAgonia is a Neal Award-winning writer, computer consultant and technologist who has been working on Macs professionally since 1993 and has held tech-support roles at colleges, media companies, the biopharmaceutical industry, the graphics industry and Apple.