July 15, 2008 -- Apple has done a lot to show that the 3G iPhone represents a major upgrade over its predecessor. The company has made it faster, added GPS capability and tossed in a brawnier battery. But the phone's biggest improvement may be what developors outside the company does with it.
Since the launch of Apple's App store, consumers have jumped at the first opportunity to legally add third-party software to the tune of more than 10 million downloads. The applications allow users to tailor their mobile devices to suit a variety of lifestyles, whether the person is a hurried business traveler or a hardcore gamer.
"Because of Apple opening it up, you are going to start to see a lot of niche applications pop up," says Ryan Block, editor in chief of Engadget. "There are those people who are going to want a very specific thing, and there's going to be a little something for everybody now."
He believes the selection for video gamers in particular is quite impressive. "People are really excited about playing games on their iPhone, and Apple came out of the gate with a really great line of games, including stuff from major developers like Vivendi and Sega," says Block.
Still, much of the popular add-ons are free applications from Web sites that happen to be, well, popular. Top downloads so far include a Facebook client and ESPN Mobile Web, which features real-time score updates. "The launch lineup is all applications that are handpicked by Apple in terms of things they think people will like," says Block. "So it's going to be a little while before we see a small independent developer with a program that no one's ever heard of that can take the iPhone world by storm."
Wired magazine's Gadget Lab editor Danny Dumas believes that the likelihood of a relative unknown breaking the early stranglehold of the Web media's big players will happen earlier than some may think.
"Some company will come out of nowhere and create a really innovative app that will turn the industry on its ear, says Dumas. "This I anticipate happening fairly soon, I'd say in three or four months."
And in six months, Dumas expects the market to be flooded with more than 1,000 apps. The tricky part, he says, will be to wade through the "really crappy" applications and find ones that are actually going to be useful.
But for now, the experts have presented some of their early favorites.
Make Yoda Proud
Considered pretty much useless except for fulfilling the impulse to geek out Jedi-master style, PhoneSaber lets just about anyone use "the force." Activating the program turns your phone into a light saber complete with a range of classic colors and sound effects as you swing it.
The iPhone puts music, videos, games and the Web just a few touchscreen taps away. But that doesn't do you any good if you have to peel your rear end off the couch to change the channel. iPhone Remote lets owners use the phone's Wi-Fi to flip through channels on Apple TV and also turn up the volume on the iTunes player on your computer.
Ever heard some cool music playing in the background of a store only to be frustrated that you didn't know the name of the song? Now you can just ask Shazam. Hold up and catch a portion of the track with your iPhone and within a few seconds, it'll give you the song's title and artist with an option to buy the song from the iTunes store.
Preventing Foodie Fights
Dining out with friends quickly becomes less than a five-star experience when the check arrives, souring the good times with the complicated matter of figuring out who owes what. The Meal Splitter application solves the awkward situation by calculating exactly what each person owes, including tips and the cost of drinks.
In Times of Darkness
Sometimes the most useful applications are the ones that get you out of the worst binds, such as when your roommate forgets to pay the electric bill before leaving for vacation. Avoid stumbling around in the dark like a fool and get the Flashlight application, which maximizes the phone's LED screen giving off light when you need it most.