Dreaming of the iPhone App Store

Andy Ihnatko

This week, Apple puts on its big summer iPhone dog-and-pony show. All of the iPhone community’s hand-wringing has been about the 2.0 firmware (which has already been leaked to rumor sites), 3G chipsets (a dead cert), and GPS (built in? I’ll believe it when I see it).

Boring. The best development will be the opening of the iPhone App Store. In an instant, the iPhone’s built-in software features will expand, from Apple’s 2006 best guess at what tens of millions of users will want to do with this thing to a collection of apps that reflects what you, personally need today.

I’ve been thinking about the sort of software that we’ll see when the App Store opens and figuring out how much money its first month of availability is going to cost me.

An outliner is at the very top of my list. The company that produces a simple yet powerful outliner can name their price unto half my kingdom (assuming that my kingdom is worth $120, which is probably not that far off). Apple can just close the store down after I’ve bought it, as far as I’m concerned

If you’re unsure about what a good outliner can contribute to an iPhone, just ask any Newton Messagepad veteran. It truly transforms any handheld… particularly one as advanced as the iPhone. An outliner can be a list manager; a note-taker; a database; a project organizer. An outliner is for information what duct tape is for adhesion: in any conceivable situation, it delivers a workable solution.

If OmniGroup—makers of OmniOutliner, one of the best outliners for any platform—doesn’t completely own this category on the iPhone, then honestly, they ought to have a batch of pizza ovens installed at the office because clearly, they don’t belong in the software business.

Predictably, the Store will quickly become so infested with To-Do apps that the only safe way to deal with the situation will be to nuke the store from the air. It’s an easy app to write and the collective suckage of these mobile apps on other devices is responsible for 2 degrees of global warming.

I offer $3 for a To-Do app. Because I’ll probably use my $60 Outliner for that sort of thing instead.

Calculators are another category that tends to flood any brand-new software library. Firmware 2.0 appears to be bringing a “horizontal” calculator with scientific functions, so there goes most of the thunder of a third-party iPhone calculator.

But I have a simple plea: to hell with a “four functions with memory” calculator. To hell with buttons. Get rid of the digital display, too. I’ve got $15 earmarked for the person who writes a great iPhone slide-rule simulator.

No, I’ve never used one, either. But if you’re on a first date and you calculate the 20% tip on a slide rule, you’re guaranteed some second-base action later on (provided that you chose your date from good, hearty geek stock).

And the iPhone, with its touch interface and Core Animation library, is utterly perfect for that application. An abacus would be a nice choice, too. But dude: I want a virtual slide rule. Okay, make it $20. Fine: $25.

Speaking of date situations, a smart developer will take advantage of two facts: the iPhone’s screen is about the width of a human mouth, and a certain percentage of iPhone users are socially-awkward.

So: $30 for an app that lets my iPhone do the talking for me is money well spent. Select a tricky social situation from the dozens listed in the menu, hold the iPhone in front of your mouth, and there at the funeral service, your friend’s Mom will hear and see you say “I’m so sorry for your loss; my thoughts and prayers are with you at this profoundly sad, time.”

Which is vastly more comforting than what you were about to say: “Should I give you this twenty bucks? Because I was the guy who bet Kevin that he couldn’t fit a dozen ping-pong balls in his mouth at once.”

And please Santa: give me a real photo app. One with a self-timer, so I can steady the iPhone for clear shots and take a picture of myself with a friend that doesn’t show us with the tense, rictus-like smiles of people waiting for my random, blind finger-taps to finally result in the “Shutter” button being engaged.

Let me adjust the exposure. Let me upload full-resolution photos to my blog and my photo-sharing site. What the hell: let me do spot adjustments to exposure and color by rubbing bits of the photo with my finger. I’m placing a $40 bounty on this.

iPhone Games? Nope, I couldn’t care less. I remember my grandfather’s technique for operating his TV’s remote control. He’d swing it one way and jink it another way and smoothly pitch and roll it to influence the operations of the set.

He was a kind, generous, and hardworking immigrant. I was immensely proud of him. But this was the only time I looked upon him with a mixture of bafflement and shame. This is our future as iPhone users, my friends. As we speak, game developers obsess they way through several pairs of underpants with overly-precious ideas for accelerometer-based games.

(Well, OK: I’ve got $10 for an emulator that’ll let me play old Infocom text games. $20 for Scrabble. $30 for a crossword app that automatically downloads new puzzles as they’re published, and offers whizzo animated “camera moves” just like the ones in the crossword documentary “Wordplay.”)

But of all of the App Store offerings, one stands out: if the glory and majesty of our grand republic is to be preserved, a book reader is absolutely vital.

Okay, fine. Proust probably didn’t intend for you to read all seven volumes of A la recherche du temps perdu on a screen half the size of a square of toilet paper. But stop thinking “eBook reader” and start thinking about an app that fills the same role on the iPhone that Preview does on the Mac. We desperately need an app that can view any arbitrary document or media file placed on the device.

(Oh, right: we also need the ability to place arbitrary documents and media files on the device.)

That’s the difference between an iPhone that’s refuses to make love with the lights on and one that’s game for just about anything. As-is, useful data on your desktop can’t be moved onto your iPhone without a lot of bamboozlement and skullduggery. I miss one thing and one thing only from my Windows Mobile phone: the ability to just Bluetooth anything halfway useful into my phone’s storage and head out the door without a scrap of paper in my pocket.

I love my iPhone. But before heading out for business travel I wind up having to print a small pile of documents and while I watch the pages spill out I can’t help but think of the scene in countless drippy made-for-TV movies where a foolish girl says “He has his rough edges, but I know I can change him, momma!”

iPhone Preview needn’t be an ambitious app, so I’ve only got $30 budgeted for it. But it’s possibly one of the most important things that’ll hit the App Store…both for the individual iPhone user and the credibility of the platform.

It won’t give us the true freedom that other phone users have. But the ability to load up our own data on the iPhone and read it sans Internet gives us a close enough illusion of freedom that by the time we’re distracted by our next shiny, noisy game of iPhone Scrabble, we’ll pay it no mind.

It’s an election year. Trust me: it’ll work.

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