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iPhone Apps That Go Beyond Entertainment

Not being someone with bits of extra time before meetings or while commuting or standing in line, I haven’t come wholeheartedly to the iPhone revolution, and in fact, I’ve had to make a conscious effort to find time to use my iPod touch. Until the release of the 2.0 software, that was nearly impossible, since there was nothing the iPod touch could do that one of my Macs couldn’t do better. But now that I can download software from the App Store, the iPod touch has become more useful.

However, I noticed something interesting recently, while browsing the lists of top paid and free applications: they’re nearly all games or in some way related to entertainment. Scanning through the list of the top 100 paid apps, I currently see about 36 that increase the functionality of the iPhone or in some way promise to make your life easier. But even that number may be deceptive, since that list includes at least four voice recorders, three conversion utilities, three programs that use the accelerometer to measure angles of incline, two password managers, a couple of calorie counters, and several location-aware apps that help you find nearby restaurants or other services. A few that would seem to provide unique capabilities

  • Teleport: This $24.99 app provides a VNC client for the iPhone or iPod touch that enables you to control any Mac or PC running a VNC server.
  • TouchTerm: Talk about backwards compatibility! This $2.99 app gives you an SSH-savvy terminal program for logging into Unix machines (or the Unix underpinnings of your Mac).
  • Files and FileMagnet: These two apps ($7.99 and $4.99, respectively) seem similar in that they let you copy files to your iPhone or iPod touch from your Mac (Files also works with Windows), and view (but not edit) common file types.
  • Picoli: Although it’s not exactly Photoshop, the $4.99 Picoli lets you retouch photos on the iPhone itself (it also works with photos synced from your Mac, if you have only an iPod touch).
  • MagicPad: This notebook app goes beyond the built-in one by adding rich-text editing with fonts, colors, and styles, and by adding perhaps the most-requested iPhone feature: copy and paste.
  • Distance Meter: Like a full-fledged GPS, the $2.99 Distance Meter can tell you how far you’ve travelled and at what speed, and it provides GPS coordinates and altitude information as well. Works only with the iPhone 3G.

On the free side, only 28 of the top 100 apps would seem to be useful in some form or fashion, and once again, they tend to clump, with a few apps providing ad-supported views onto Web-based news, a couple of flashlight apps that turn the screen a single bright color, and a few more location-based service finders. Still, some that stand out from the crowd include:

  • WritingPad: This notebook app offers an unusual text-entry approach where you trace word shapes on a keyboard, rather than tapping each key individually.
  • YouNote: Another note-taking application, YouNote lets you record audio notes, make notes from photos, draw notes with your fingers, capture a Web page as a note, and even compose text with the keyboard.
  • Flashlight: An app that just turns the screen a single bright color is silly, I know, but my teenage-girl-cell-phone from Virgin Mobile has a built-in LED flashlight, and I use it all the time.
  • Epocrates Rx: This drug reference is probably useful primarily to healthcare professionals, but given that it’s free, I could see it being of interest to anyone taking a number of medications. (It requires that you set up a free account online.)
  • WeatherBug: The default Weather app from Apple is pretty weak, but WeatherBug goes much further with more current weather conditions, full text forecasts, a zoomable radar map, and photos from nearby weather cameras.

Don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against playing games on the iPhone, or doing puzzles, or whatever, and I do all those things, on occasion. But for many of us, free time is sufficiently scarce (and the iPhone is sufficiently expensive) that iPhone apps need to help create leisure time rather consuming it.

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