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Wednesday, August 06, 2008, 06:00 am PT (09:00 am ET)

Inside iPhone 2.0: the new iPhone App Store


This just in: software updates

The unique aspect of software is that it gets updated frequently, and Apple's mechanism for updating apps is very slick, at least conceptually. Currently, every time you update an app it deletes the old version and then annoyingly installs a new icon in some other random place in your phone's pages of app icons, rather than replacing the old icon with the new one. Hopefully, this behavior will be fixed soon, as having to rearrange your icons every time there's an update really gets irritating. This behavior was not fixed in the 2.0.1 update that just came out, but it does make it slightly easier to fix your icons after they are messed up, as it now allows you to drag an app's icon across multiple pages in one step. We'd rather it just replace the old app with the new one though. 

When the iPhone finds that new updates are available for any of your installed apps, it throws a numbered badge on the Apps Store icon. The only way to remove the badge is to install the updates. This can also be irritating as notification badges really scream for attention; it would be great to have a way to ignore updates you'd prefer to install later. At the same time, the app notification and updating process is extremely useful and well designed, addressing the problem of version control in a simple and intelligent way. It's like having VersionTracker built into your computer. From the App Store's Updates tab, you can browse a list of apps that have updates available (below left), pull up their information page to see what has changed (below right), and install each individually or mass update them with a click on Update All.

iPhone3G


While the update process seems to work pretty well, there are interface bugs in iTunes that often result in an incorrect number of apps being listed as having updates available. Many times the apps remain highlighted as needing an update even after you've downloaded them all. Sometimes an app will appear in the update list twice, as it did with WordPress and then AIM  (below). The iPhone's App Store icon also seems prone to fall out of sync in the update count after performing all updates through an iTunes sync. Despite the interface glitches, the updates themselves seem to install properly. 

iPhone3G


Early adopter app kinks

Apart from those niggling update issues, the main issues with using third party apps relates to the fact that developers have only had their apps in the wild now for three weeks. Several apps seem buggy or erratic or prone to crash on startup, while others begin to install and then disappear, or conversely reappear after you try to get rid of them. iTunes sometimes also fails to copy over apps sometimes, but usually can get things moving on the second try. The 2.0.1 update has greatly improved the overall experience however. Many third party apps that seemed very flakey work fine under 2.0.1.

In the case of dysfunctional apps that won't open on the device, deleting the offending app and re-syncing it over from iTunes usually helps, but make sure you have done a backup of your iPhone after buying any apps from the unit directly, or else you'll have to write Apple to request the ability to download any purchased apps again. The iTunes Store does not recognize that you've already bought an app and allow you to download it again, it only asks if you're sure you want to purchase it again. On the device itself, purchased apps in the Apps Store are badged with an "installed" tag rather than any install option, but still can't be downloaded again. 

Similarly, if you have upgraded an original iPhone to the 2.0 software and purchased apps, you'll need to upload those purchases to iTunes before you can copy them to the new iPhone 3G, and of course the same applies to purchases made on an iPod touch. This process would be simpler if Apple allowed users to download any apps they have purchased on demand at any time.

We also noticed that after uploading lots of apps up to iTunes from one device, syncing them down to another iPhone resulted in a mixed up jumble of icons on the second device, rather than an orderly set of home pages that matched our first phone. One app even failed to copy over on the first try, presenting an error message instead (below). It copied over on the second attempt. While most users are unlikely to have multiple iPhones, being able to keep icon positioning in sync between devices would be a nice touch.

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What you can expect from third party apps

Of the 500 apps that appeared at launch, several were quite impressive and there was a good number of useful free programs. The number of available apps has since surpassed 1000, but the initial selection is certainly still a mixed bag however. 

Despite the fears that Apple would disallow everything apart from apps from major partners such as Sega, EA, AOL, and other large developers, the Apps Store is littered with junk apps, including a number of nearly worthless utilities (such several "apps" that offer to turn the iPhone into a flashlight), a variety of light duty programs that act mainly as advertisements, a series of "apps" that are just public domain ebooks or static transit maps, and several others that are nothing more than a glorified (or in some cases, simplified) web page.

Outside of the junk, there are a few standout apps that really shine and make the iPhone dramatically more valuable. There are an increasing number of impressive, console-style games; a great selection of social networking clients; lots of very useful utility apps; and a good selection of news and information apps. Most of these look great and behave like slick iPhone apps rather than the ugly junk applets available for most smartphones. 

Additionally, the update mechanism and general understanding that updates will be free means that good apps are continually refined into great apps. Developers seem to be paying close attention to user comments and feedback and are using these to regularly improve their iPhone offerings. This in turn enables smaller developers to start a project and incrementally advance it while receiving ongoing support, rather than having to underwrite a massive, speculative software project without any real input from users. This new model is a refreshing change from the annual tweaks to big software suites on the desktop.

How much does it cost? 

Even more impressive is the fact that most of the best apps are free, as they're often related to service and are more interested in lots of eyeballs than in collecting a few bucks. Loopt, Facebook, MySpace, and Yelp all offer free clients that are handier than browsing those sites on the web. Evernote also has a free client for uploading notes, audio recording and photos into its server based notebook archives. The free Shazam listens to songs playing in the surrounding environment and lets you identify and find them. AP, Bloomberg, Getty Images, and the New York Times all have free clients for browsing news and current events. AOL Radio and Pandora provide free clients for finding and listening to online radio streams.

Paid iPhone apps are rarely more than $10, and many are less than $5. EA, Sega, and independent Mac developers have churned out a number of highly addictive games for $10 or less with impressive graphics, sound, and intuitive accelerometer controls. Other high quality games are inexplicably free, such as the difficult to put down Aurora Feint, which takes a basic screen clearing puzzle and turns it into a resource collecting game where you level up and buy new abilities that change the game as you play. 

Apple set the tone for pricing by releasing its excellent iTunes Remote app for free and selling its high quality Texas Hold'em card game for $5. Remote turns the iPhone or iPod touch into a remote controller for Apple TV and Macs or PCs running iTunes, allowing you to start, pause, skip through audio or video playback, search and browse playlists, view cover art, and adjust the volume, all without any delay or hesitation. It even acts as a WiFi wireless keyboard when used with Apple TV.

Texas Hold'em is an enhanced version of Apple's popular iPod game. It still costs the same $5 as the iPod version, setting a low threshold for typical pricing in the Apps Store even for classy, professionally designed software. While the company wants apps to be priced low, it also encourages developers to charge something for their apps, in order to keep developers financially motivated to introduce new apps, and of course so Apple itself can earn something for publishing and marketing their apps.

On page 3 of 3: A smartphone software price comparison; iPhone as a handheld game console; and What about the web?