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The iPhone is a good phone, but that is only the start of its amazing range of capabilities.

Additional programs - applications or 'apps' for short - give the phone a huge variety of additional uses.

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How to Choose Extra Applications for your iPhone

Massively enhance the value and use of your phone

This shows the first of six screens of apps (programs) on my iPhone 3GS.

In addition to four default programs at the bottom, you can have up to 176 additional apps on your phone, spread over up to 11 screens.

Part of a series on the Apple iPhone - please also visit the other articles listed on the right.




If you're only using your iPhone as a phone, then you're massively limiting its potential.  And if you're only considering the purchase of an iPhone based on its ability to make and receive phone calls, you're again overlooking a huge range of additional functions it can offer and a similar huge number of reasons to choose an iPhone preferentially over other 'Smart phones'.

There are currently (Dec 09) over 105,000 programs that can be run on the iPhone to vastly extend its abilities into all sorts of amazing extra types of functionality.

Note that many/most of these applications work with the iPod Touch as well, although the iPod Touch has neither a built in microphone nor a built in GPS.

What Makes the iPhone So Useful

The iPhone has several features that provide a foundation on which to build a huge range of extra capabilities.

Obviously, it has a reasonably large, clear, high resolution color touch screen.  This is an essential part of the interface for accepting user inputs and displaying data outputs for just about every program.

It also has, and again obviously, a microphone and small speaker.  These can be used not only for phone conversations, but for many other applications as well, ranging from a sound pressure meter (using the microphone) to an audio test tone generator (using the speakers) and a guitar tuning aid (using both microphone and speakers).

It has a virtual keyboard which makes it easier to type into the phone, whether for short text messages, for entering notes and web addresses and completing forms, or for sending lengthier emails.

It has a GPS unit inside.  The newest 3GS units also have a digital compass.  This means the phone knows where it is, and also where it is pointing.  This can be used to create some amazing 'augmented reality' type capabilities - point the iPhone in a particular direction, and it can tell you what you are seeing in the distance.  This is great for restaurant reviews - just point the phone at a restaurant and it pulls up a review - and also for tourism guides - point the phone at an interesting sight and get an immediate explanation about what you're seeing on the phone.

It has a camera for both still pictures and video.  In addition to the obvious uses of this, it can also be used for innovative things such as scanning barcodes on products and then using that information to check the internet for comparative pricing information, and connecting that to location information from the GPS to advise of other nearby local stores that might have the product at lower prices.

It has an accelerometer.  This can be used in conjunction with the GPS and compass to better understand the orientation of the iPhone.  It can also be used to report on acceleration and deceleration rates, and it can be used to sense the orientation of the phone, so it knows whether to display something on the screen in portrait or landscape mode.

It also has substantial data storage capacity - up to 32GB on the latest iPhone 3GS units.  This allows it to store lots of programs, lots of data, lots of music and even lots of video.  Its storage capacity means you can store an entire country or continent worth of GPS map data, so you can use your phone as a GPS unit, and without needing to be in range of cell phone service and without having to use data downloading (this is very beneficial when traveling internationally where data roaming can be exorbitantly expensive).

It has Bluetooth connectivity which can enable it to send audio streams to other devices - not just a voice connection for a phone call, but also a high quality stereo audio stream for music purposes.  All manner of other Bluetooth connectivity capabilities are also available allowing for data as well as audio transfer, at least in theory, but may require extra software to be loaded first.

It has high speed internet connectivity, both by way of the cell phone wireless service and also through Wi-Fi, making it practical to stream broad data streams to or from the phone.  Whether this is used to watch Youtube videos on the phone, or to browse the web, or for any other purpose, the phone can be almost as functional as a laptop or other internet connected computer device.

Add up all these capabilities, and you end up with a location aware internet connected device that can be used for an extraordinary range of different things.  To call this merely a smartphone is a bit like calling Bill Gates merely well off.  Indeed, I use the phone function on the device less than most of its other functions.

Lots of Programs but Few 'Must Haves'

Unsurprisingly, the 105,000 or more apps available for the iPhone comprise a lot of programs that no-one is likely to ever want or use, and a huge number of duplicate programs from multiple sources.

If you're looking for a popular type of program such as a Twitter application, you'll find you have dozens to choose from.

This is illustrated in statistics about the popularity of the apps available.  While the most popular app or two can be found on many people's iPhones, by the time you reach the fifth most popular app, only half of users have downloaded it.

By the time you reach the 1000th most popular app, a mere 1.76% of users have ever downloaded the program, and by the time you've reached the 2000th program, almost no-one has downloaded it at all.

This can be interpreted in different ways.  One thing is for sure - it is difficult to find the compelling 'must have' apps which tend to be submerged in with the 100,000+ apps that will be of no interest to you whatsoever.

If you spent just two minutes looking at the details of each app, and if you did this 40 hours a week, it would take 87.5 weeks to work through them all - and by the time you had finished, there would be another 100,000 new apps waiting for your review.  This truly could be a never-ending task.

How apps are counted and defined

To an extent, Apple has been guilty of encouraging and playing a 'numbers game' with its apps - app developers will slice and dice a single program into a dozen separate apps, so as to get greater exposure in more categories, and more opportunities to sell more products.

For example, what could conceivably be a single dictionary/translator program with five or seven or however many different languages can instead be sold as many different separate translators.  An English/French dictionary.  An English/German dictionary.  A French/German dictionary.  And so on.  This gets the developer more exposure and more product listings, and also enables the developer to sell more products.

Instead of buying one combined translation/dictionary program for, perhaps $10, you might now find yourself having to buy multiple programs, each for $5 - it seems better when you start off buying only the one language you need for $5, but when you've bought several more, you've ended up paying more than you'd first anticipated.

Even more ridiculously, individual books seem to be counted as applications too.  Someone publishes their book in electronic format and sells it through Apple's app store and it is counted as an app.

So while Apple boasts a huge number of applications, the actual number of bona fide real programs that you might want to install on your phone reduces massively.

100 great, 1000 good, and 100,000 useless programs?

Most of us can probably end up with somewhere between 50 and 100 useful applications that appeal to us that we choose to add to our iPhone.  These are apps that will help us in some way or another better organize and control our lives.

And it is probably fair to say that in addition to these 50 - 100 applications that we might wish to install, there are a range of alternative programs similar to the ones we choose, and other apps of lesser interest that we choose not to use.  Let's say there might be 1000 programs of some possible interest worthy of consideration in total.

Which leaves over 100,000 programs of no interest to most of us at all.  Even Apple is now starting to realize that it is no longer a good thing to boast of all the apps available, because in truth the useless apps are obscuring the good apps, while not adding any value at all.

Hopefully the balance of the information in this article series will help you to more efficiently track down the apps you're likely to be interested in.

Where to Buy Applications

Almost without exception, the only place to buy applications (and/or to download the free applications at no cost) is either via the App Store program on your iPhone or via the iTunes program that was probably installed on your computer when you bought your iPhone (both take you to the same place).

Unofficial sources of unofficial applications

Apple is very protective of what it allows to be sold as an official and by implication Apple-endorsed iPhone application.  This is both good and bad - the need to go through Apple's official review and approval process slows down the pace of program development, and slows down the rate at which developers can release updates and upgrades and bug fixes, too.

On the other hand, Apple does exercise a very small modicum of quality control, and you can be slightly reassured by this - there is less of a chance that a 'rogue' application will turn out to be a 'trojan' program that takes over your phone, sends all your personal data to someone else, and generally does bad things.

Apple is very conservative as to what applications it approves, and some developers with edgier sorts of products that Apple will not approve, and/or some developers impatient with the constraints and controls of Apple's approval process have chosen to release unapproved applications for the iPhone.

These naturally can't be found in the official Apple iTunes store.  Instead, there are some other sources of unofficial programs that can only be used if your iPhone has been 'jail broken' (the first part of the unlocking process).  We provide iPhone unlocking services ourselves, as do many other places on the internet.

You can find out more about these unofficial applications here.  Approach them with caution.

This article is continued in the next article in this series, Adding Applications to your iPhone.

Part of a series on the Apple iPhone - please also visit the other articles listed at the top on the right

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Originally published 4 Dec 2009, last update 21 Jul 2020

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

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