It seems a shame to run down the battery of an iPhone by making phone calls. There are so many more interesting things to do with it since July, when Apple Inc. opened up the popular smartphone to outside software developers.
The result is a torrent of helpful little programs, or “apps,” that turn the iPhone into a powerful handheld computer. At Apple's iTunes online App Store, there are thousands to choose from, with more turning up every day. Which are the best? Depends what you're looking for.
I favor the powerful, the practical, and the cool – programs that do useful stuff and look stylish as they do it.
I'm easily lost in the winding streets of Boston, so I like apps that take advantage of the Global Positioning System chip in the new iPhone 3G. One of the best is Where, from Boston-based uLocate Communications Inc. Long available for other GPS-enabled phones, Where can now be installed at no charge on any iPhone. It comes with a search feature that will quickly locate nearby businesses and other points of interest, and even offers driving directions.
Much as I like Where, another free iPhone program called Where To? is simpler and more powerful. It's preprogrammed with hundreds of possible points of interest. You don't have to type in, say, “florists,” because it's already listed under shopping opportunities. Just tap the screen a few times, and up pops a Google map of your area, littered with flower shops.
I'm always looking for handy ways to store digital data. I often plug an old iPod into a desktop computer and use it as a portable hard drive, but the iPhone doesn't allow it. That didn't sit well with developers at Avatron Software Inc., who have created an appealing app called Air Sharing. The program works with desktop computers connected to a Wi-Fi wireless network. Air Sharing links the iPhone to the Wi-Fi network, causing computers on the network to see the phone as a data storage folder. That allows users to drag and drop any file from the computer to the iPhone and vice versa.
The system has its limits: Many office computers aren't accessible through Wi-Fi, for instance. But if you've got Wi-Fi at home, you can use Air Sharing to load documents, photos, and music files onto an iPhone, then view or play the files anytime, anywhere. Air Sharing costs $6.99.
I also use my old iPod as a digital recorder, with the help of an add-on microphone that plugs in at the top. But the iPhone has a built-in mic, so all it needs for sound recording is a bit of software. An app called Recorder nicely fills the bill. This 99-cent download, created by Retronyms.com, is refreshingly simple: Fire it up and press the record button. Once you're done, you can use a Wi-Fi feature similar to Air Sharing to put the recording on a computer. Or if the file is small enough, e-mail it to yourself.
Thanks to its bright screen, the iPhone is a decent device for viewing electronic books. A couple of free apps, eReader and Stanza, take advantage of that. EReader runs an online store that sells electronic books. Use the iPhone's browser or any desktop browser to go online and order a title. The eReader app will install the book on the iPhone and display it in clear, legible type. Stanza is even more impressive. Start it up, and the app also can download up-to-date issues of major magazines like Wired and The Atlantic Monthly, and summaries of major newspapers like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.