The promise of a smartphone is that you have the world’s knowledge at your fingertips anywhere you go. Since Google is committed to organizing the world’s knowledge, it seems only natural that its Android operating system, now available in dozens of smartphones and other devices worldwide, would excel at bringing you that information.
But you may not always find Android’s built-in tools to be the best means of discovering what you need to know. Here, then, are several free applications, all available in the Android Market, that slice and dice the world of information in more personal or sophisticated ways, so that you’re never at a loss when you absolutely have to know something right now.
Learn how to do just about anything with Howcast’s short, fun video instructions. Topics range from how to name a business to how to poach a salmon, each with an approximately two-minute streaming video explaining what to do. If you’re in a situation where watching a video would be awkward, tap the menu to get a text transcription.
You can search for particular topics or view all the available lessons by category. Or, if you’re just in a learning mood, shake your phone and Howcast will serve up a random video on how to separate an egg, how to tie a noose knot, how to jump-start your car, how to bleach your hair, how to photograph landscapes, how to use a drill, how to throw a princess party, how to clean a furnace filter, how to take dogs camping, how to hit a baseball to the opposite field…
Every year, the world’s brightest and most creative minds assemble at the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Conference, where they are asked to speak for no more than 18 minutes about whatever interests them the most.
Since the event’s inception in 1984, business leaders, academics, scientists, philanthropists and other brilliant thinkers — including the likes of Bill Gates, Malcolm Gladwell, Peter Gabriel, Jane Goodall and Al Gore (and that’s just a sampling of the G’s!) — have answered TED’s call, sharing their insights about the world we live in. TED has been so successful that it has spurred spin-off conferences under the name TEDx all over the world.
MotherApp’s TED Mobile application puts these great thinkers in the palm of your hand, allowing you to browse more than 700 TED Talks arranged by theme or by tag, or to search by keywords. Their short length means you can get a little deep thinking in bite-size pieces whenever you have a few moments to spare.
Travelers, people doing business overseas and the just plain curious will find a wealth of information about every country in the world in FactBook, a version of the CIA’s World Factbook Web site adapted for the Android by Urbian Inc. Updated regularly, the CIA World Factbook profiles each country, giving an overview of its political system, economy, demographics, customs, geography and climate — all invaluable information for building affinity with new clients in foreign counties you know very little about.
All this information is stored in the FactBook app so you don’t have to be online to access it; the data is refreshed twice a year from the World Factbook site, according to the developer. Each entry in the app includes a button that opens the relevant page in Wikipedia for even more information, but for most questions, FactBook offers more than enough information.
Sunlight Labs’ open-source Congress app can help you keep on top of all the things national legislators do, big and small, that affect your life and business. Congress defaults to your current location, giving you a directory of the state’s U.S. senators and representatives; you can also search for legislators by state, ZIP code or last name.
Click on a legislator’s name to see a profile with a photo, positions held, bills sponsored, committees served on and links to call her office or visit her Web site. You’ll also find Twitter updates, YouTube videos and recent news about the congressperson from papers around the country. Click on a committee name to see all the other members of that committee.
The app also shows the latest bills introduced in Congress (some important and some just weird), laws passed and, when the information is available, how various members of Congress voted. Click on any bill to find out its sponsors, history and any votes.
While just about every big newspaper has a smartphone application these days, Dale Jefferson’s Newspapers app gives you access to a broad swath of them in a single app. With news from dozens of papers from across the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and France, there’s no reason to ever feel uninformed about current events.
Of course major papers such as The New York Times, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Guardian and Le Monde are represented (as well as online news sources like CNN and the BBC), but even regional papers, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Arkansas Democrat Gazette and Fresno Bee, are listed. Some papers have additional features; The Wall Street Journal, for example, includes a stock symbol search.
The Newspapers app taps into the publications’ mobile sites — each one carries its paper’s unique branding, layout, types of news and so on. There is no search — the stories simply go back as far as each paper’s mobile page goes. For just under $2 (specifically, $1.70), you can upgrade Newspapers to allow you to save favorites, if that seems important
Where can you get the best Italian, Chinese or Indian food nearby? How can you find a top-notch tailor, plumber or dentist? What hotel is worth staying at when you’re traveling for a meeting? Fire up Geodelic and have a look.
Geodelic is a location-sensitive search tool that finds the closest restaurants, hotels, movies, banks, gas stations and more based on your phone’s GPS coordinates. You can view your results on a map or in a list, or in a fun “carousel” of points of interest (shown here), then call or get directions to each recommended spot right from its listing.
What sets Geodelic apart from other local search apps is its ability to “learn” based on your previous searches and give you customized updates. For instance, if you search for music-related terms a lot, Geodelic will prioritize record stores in your carousel. It will also give you updates on upcoming concerts and events based on your history. Geodelic’s ability to guess what kinds of places will most interest you makes it especially useful when you set foot in a new city or an unfamiliar section of your hometown.
Use Quirk Consulting’s Quote Pro to stay on top of the stock market’s ups and downs throughout the day. Check out any stock’s current status using the symbol search, or assemble multiple portfolios of stocks to keep track of.
Quote Pro offers an at-a-glance summary of your chosen stocks, as well as a more detailed collection of streaming stock quotes, news feeds, trend charts and daily market information one tap deeper.
Mint.com is a free online personal finance and budgeting service that aggregates all of your banking, credit card, loan, investment and property information, helps you create a budget, and automatically assigns each expenditure to a particular budget line.
The Mint Android app gives you an easy-to-use and surprisingly thorough view into your Mint.com account, with a summary of your current total account balance, where you stand on your budget, and a rough monthly cash-flow analysis on the home screen.
Alerts also appear on the home screen, letting you know things such as when an account balance is low, when you’re over budget in a particular area, or when you’ve received a large deposit or bank fee. Drilling down lets you view every transaction on each bank account or credit card, and assign it to a budget line if Mint.com hasn’t already done so automatically (which it’s surprisingly good at).
Make sure you set a four-digit passcode in the settings — although you can’t make withdrawals or transfers through Mint.com, you probably don’t want your entire financial history to be available to anyone who happens to pick up your phone
Whether you’re looking for a new home, selling your existing one or just curious about the state of the real estate market, the Zillow application puts a wealth of information at your fingertips. Using the phone’s GPS, Zillow maps all the nearby properties that are on the market or have recently been sold; you can also search by address.
Click on any property for more information, including a surprisingly detailed description of the property, recent comparable sales in the area and a trend line showing the value of the property over the past 10 years. It might feel like spying, but Zillow uses only openly available information drawn from real estate listings and public property records.
Zillow can also be useful for scouting high-end or inexpensive areas for your company’s new HQ. Version 2.0 of the app provides driving directions from Google Maps and lets you save favorite searches or homes.
Stay up to date with the latest political, business and cultural news with NPR News, a complete portal to all things National Public Radio. You can stream your local NPR station live or search for any other NPR station based on its call letters or ZIP code, but listening live is actually the least interesting feature.
NPR News offers on-demand access to shows such as “All Things Considered,” “Fresh Air” and “Talk of the Nation,” from which you listen to individual segments one at a time or create playlists for uninterrupted listening. You can also browse stories by topic, listen to the top stories of the day or search the extensive catalog of NPR offerings by date and keyword.
Logan Kugler is a frequent Computerworld contributor.