It's one of the world's most successful retail launches in recent history: the Apple App Store. In only a year since its debut, the App Store now offers some 65,000 different apps. Apple claims more than 1.5 billion apps have been downloaded from its virtual shelves.
Granted, many are useless while others are silly and senseless; a couple of competing apps make fart noises. One could write a book that cuts through all the clutter-in fact, that's exactly what Josh Clark did in his Best iPhone Apps: The Guide for Discriminating Downloaders (O'Reilly, July 2009, US$19.99).
The notion of a printed guide book covering something as dynamic as apps in an online app store that run on a deliciously digital device like the iPhone seems a bit outdated. It's akin to buying a two-day-old newspaper for a buck when you can get all the breaking news for free online.
That was my initial thinking when I picked up the guide book and read it over the weekend. But I quickly understood its value and Clark's reasoning behind its creation. There is an irony with longevity in a medium that changes by the minute: Only a handful of apps are really any good-and the good ones have staying power.
Clarks' guide breaks out 200 popular apps in seven categories: At Work, On the Town, At Leisure, At Play, At Home, On the Road, and For Your Health. I've listed some of Clark's choices in each category below.
The big criticism I have of Best iPhone Apps is that, in many cases, Clark doesn't go far enough in detailing the shortcomings of some apps.
For instance, one of his favorite apps for editing office documents is Quickoffice Mobile Office Suite (which happens to be mine, too). He adequately describes the main functions of the app, offers lessons on how to use the app in fairly non-technical language, and provides the app's logo and iPhone screen shots.
But the app has a major flaw, which Clark addresses in a mere two sentences: "Alas, the app can send but can't receive files by email (Mail won't let it read attachments, an unfortunate limitation.)" This means you can't edit received documents in Quickoffice (although you can view attachments in the iPhone's native mail app) and send out a new version. Yet this app bills itself as enabling iPhone users to edit office documents.
Another irksome quality of the guide: Some of the app descriptions, especially with games, read more like advertisements. So you don't get a sense of why this particular app was ranked the best in the category.
The many app logos throughout the color-coded guide should bring a smile to iPhone users. Many logos are familiar, and so users will get some satisfaction knowing that they chose the right apps for their iPhone. The many categories and familiar apps also show just how far the App Store has come in a year-and how quickly the iPhone has impacted virtually every area of our lives.
In addition to the best apps, the guide includes honorable mentions, which helps date the book. That is, if a hot app doesn't appear as the best app or didn't receive an honorable mention, then it's likely the guide was published before the app hit the App Store or became popular.
Here's a sampling of some of the best apps in each category:
At Work: Things, Goal Tender, reQuall, Jobs, Google Mobile App, Quickoffice Mobile Office Suite, iThoughts, Bento, Print & Share, Skype, Vlingo, Air Mouse Pro, Jaadu VNC.
On the Town: Urbanspoon, OpenTable, Wine Steward, Yelp, Loopt, Park 'n Find, Now Playing, Artnear Pro, Local Concerts.
At Leisure: Facebook, Twitteriffic, BeejiveIM, Stanza, Dictionary.com, USA Today, Sportacular, Bloomberg, Instapaper, Shazam, Photogene, Postini, Brushes, TV.com, Koi Pond.
At Play: Rolando, Blue Defense1, Guitar Rock Tour, Monster Pinball, Topple 2, WordJong, Sudoku Unlimited, Texas Hold 'Em, SimCity, Deep Green Chess, Let's Golf, Assassin's Creed: Altair's Chronicles, X-Plane 9.
On the Road: FlighTrack Pro, JetSet Expenses, AAA Discounts, Lonely Planet City Guides, Talking Phrasebooks, Google Earth, Rest Area.
For Your Health: Lose It!, iFitness, Breath Pacer, RunKeeper, GolfCard, Cychosis, Trails, AccuWeather.com