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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


A smartphone software price comparison

The first 40 iPhone apps we downloaded cost us a grand total of $32. In comparison, a quick look at Windows Mobile software offerings found $444 worth apps at the top of the charts that simply aren't necessary with the iPhone:
  • $110 of popular titles that are completely unnecessary on the iPhone, including a memory manager for optimizing the tiny bit of RAM installed on those phones, a system cleanup and maintenance tool, a file backup utility, and interface patches for correcting problems in Windows Mobile itself.

  • $334 of top selling Windows Mobile apps supply functions included on the iPhone for free, such as a world clock, a "real email client" for replacing Microsoft's Pocket Outlook, a photo browser, a contacts app, an MP3 player, a movie player, a TV player, a calculator, a full screen keyboard, a PDF reader, and a notes application.

Even worse, there was really very little exceptional software available for Windows Mobile, particularly among anything that was free. Other platforms have similar problems with overpriced, underwhelming software. Qualcomm and Verizon try to sell low quality BREW applet games to their mobile users for a monthly rental fee. Palm OS titles range from $15 for a basic Soduko game to $37 for the "Pocket Tunes" MP3 player. 

The problem with mobile software is that there has never been a functional market to pay developers enough to keep them interested in refining their apps or doing anything really valuable. When useful mobile apps have appeared, they end up being very expensive because developers have to recoup the most they can from those with no price sensitivity because everyone else simply steals their work. The DRM Apple uses in iTunes allows developers to set low prices that bring in a reasonable return when titles are sold in volume, and virtually eliminates casual piracy. That means users and developers both win, at the expense of thieves who would prefer to steal apps instead.  

As an example of what you get compared to what you pay for, here's Texas Hold'em for Palm ($20, below left), for Verizon BREW ($8.50, below middle) and for the original iPod ($5, below right).

iPhone3G


iPhone as a handheld game console

The iPhone version of Texas Hold'em costs the same $5, but plays in both portrait mode with video of animated characters (below left), or in landscape in a table view (below right). You can swap between game styles by tilting the device. It also supports multiplayer gameplay. 

iPhone3G


The iPhone's apps (and in particular games) are really well beyond the league of most smartphones, and can readily be compared to handheld console games. That idea the the iPhone would be a competent alternative to the Nintendo DS, Sony Playstation Portable was received as highly controversial just a few months ago, but gaming legend of John Carmack of id Software recently described the iPhone as "more powerful than a Nintendo DS and PSP combined," and has noted that his company has multiple titles in development.

That being the case, the typical $5 to $10 price point for iPhone games is particularly amazing when compared to existing handheld console games, which usually sell for closer to $20 to $40 or more, and can rarely be downloaded over the wire for immediate gameplay. 

Sega's Super Monkey Ball, a popular $10 game for the iPhone, was at least $20 for the sidetalkin' NGage (Nokia's failed attempt at delivering a hybrid game console and mobile phone), but NGage reviewers still complained, "The choppy animation and lack of analog controls really suck the fun out of the game." The game costs $40 on the Sony PSP and $20 on the Nintendo DS. The game's graphics on the iPhone (below middle) are similar to the PSP console version (below bottom) rather than being in the league of other smartphone games like the NGage (below top left) or the simplified "Super Monkey Ball Tip N Tilt," $10 mini-game version that plays on regular Symbian smartphones such as the Nokia N95 (below top right).
 
iPhone3G


What about the web?

The greatest disappointment in the Apps Store is that it only lists standalone Cocoa Touch apps. While it's certainly nice to be able to install new apps that can work offline, many or perhaps most of the iPhone apps require (or desire) a network connection. That makes them only slightly more advantageous than the wide selection of free web apps available for the iPhone, which remain unlisted in the Apps Store. 

Even more oddly, Apple only provides a listing of these 2,000 web apps on its strangely non-iPhone optimized web apps page (below), which can be somewhat clumsily browsed via Mobile Safari on the iPhone, but not with the slick polish of the Apps Store. 

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Apple should immediately add a listing of these highly functional apps to a special web section of the Apps Store, making it easier to setup links to these useful, iPhone-savvy web pages. Doing so would fill out some missing holes and might remove some of the interest in dumping junk apps into the App Stores' paid listings. 

Among the iPhone-optimized web apps available are nearly all of Google's online offerings, including a Docs reader, Talk IM, News reader, RSS feed Reader, Gmail, Calendar, and Photos (below). There's also plenty of unit and currency converter tools and specialized calculators; over 500 online games; a variety of mobile-optimized news and sports sites; lots of dictionary and reference sites; and plenty of search, shopping, travel, webcam, and weather related sites.

iPhone3G


With iPhone web app utilities, you can test your Internet access speed, track packages, and O2 (but not AT&T) even provides an MMS reader. Setting up a web app doesn't require any fees or approval from Apple, and properly developed web apps should work on any standards-compliant web browser (not just the iPhone). Why the pundit community has blackballed iPhone web apps is nearly as puzzling as why Apple has hidden them behind a really poorly conceived, iPhone-hostile web page that users have to seek out.

We'll be reviewing individual iPhone apps in greater detail in the future. Coming up next, we'll look at the last major feature unlocked in iPhone 2.0: push messaging.