Anyone can use a smartphone for phone calling, texting, and browsing the Web from wherever they happen to be. Yet, what sets smartphones like the iPhone and the Droid apart from less pricey featurephones is their ability to run software applications — known as “apps” for short — that add practically limitless extra capabilities.
If you’ve seen TV commercials for Apple’s iPhone, you’ve heard the catch phrase, “There’s an app for that.” Apple is not alone in offering software apps though. There are hundreds of thousands of titles for Google’s Android OS, and smaller collections for BlackBerry, Windows Phone, and webOS.
These apps can turn a phone into a game machine, eReader, music player, satellite radio, or even a GPS device that displays location-aware maps and directions while you drive along. By downloading the right app from an online “app store,” you can also use your smartphone to keep tabs on favorite sports teams, look up words in a dictionary or thesaurus, learn new recipes, practice a foreign language, interact with your calendar, buy stuff on eBay, and engage in countless other activities.
Apps Here, There, and Everywhere
Apple iPhone users should be well familiar with the iTunes App Store, but this has counterparts in RIM’s App World, Microsoft’s Windows Market, HP’s App Catalog for the webOS, Google’s Android Market and the new Amazon Appstore for Android. The generic term “app store” is a bit misleading, and although a Mom, Dad or grad might spend anywhere from 99 cents to $19.99 for an app, many apps can be downloaded absolutely free of charge.
Smartphone apps are also available in other nooks and crannies throughout the Web. From the website of eBook seller Kobo, for example, you can download eReader apps for mobile environments that include iPhones, iPads, Android OS phones, RIM BlackBerry, and Palm Pre.
An app store, though, provides the convenience of letting users download literally thousands of apps for a specific type of phone, all in the same place, and in a way which is consistent throughout the store.
Still, there are a few potential app store “gotchas” you should be aware of before purchasing a smartphone. For one thing, although smartphone applications can provide much of the same kinds of functionality as PC apps, the apps for smartphones aren’t necessarily as easy to use.
That’s partly due to the smartphone’s much smaller screen size, and partly because, even if present, a smartphone’s hard keyboard is tiny and more difficult to navigate.
Installing and using smartphone apps is something lots of people can do well, and the process gets easier over time. However, among all the possible gifts you could give, a smartphone might not be the best choice for an elderly grandfather or grandmother with arthritis, or for an 11-year-old just exiting elementary school.
Secondly, no one smartphone app is going to appeal to everyone, and some apps truly won’t carry that much usefulness for much of anybody. Some apps — such as Shazam Entertainment’s Shazam and Rovio Mobile’s Angry Birds — have turned into runaway hits, spreading virally from the iPhone to Android OS and other phone environments, and even to social networking sites or gaming consoles.
If you ever want to know the name of a song that’s playing, Shazam is an app that will tell you instantly. For its part, Angry Birds is an intriguing, comically styled game that lets you control a flock of multi-colored birds in an ongoing battle against a band of nasty green pigs. Yet, for every Shazam or Angry Birds app, thousands of other apps languish with little interest from the buying public.
Part 2 of this article gives an overview of the various smartphone software stores, from Apple’s to RIM’s.
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