Stuff I Liked 2009 – iPhone apps

I don’t think it’s a secret that the last decade was all about the internet, and it’s possibly even less of a secret that the next year/decade is going to be about the mobile internet. Sure we’ve got a long way to go before our mobile ‘service providers’ can actually provide a halfway decent service (they’re still working on providing a mobile signal to large parts of West Sussex), but the groundwork has been done. Not least by the arrival of the iPhone. The revolutionary change in charging, so that you get unlimited data connection, meant that you didn’t constantly worry about being ripped off for actually daring to look at the internet while on the move, while the geolocation element meant that you could have a whole host of apps that gave you specific info based on where you were.

And that wasn’t all. In addition to being a great iPod and a vaguely OK phone (woefully crap reception in central London on O2), the iPhone is a mobile computer platform, which creates space for all those apps, some great, some useless and some so utterly pointless it’s a wonder anyone actually downloads them, let alone makes them. I’ve been thoroughly caning my iPhone for the last year, stuffing it with tons of apps many of which have lasted less than 24 hours. Now it’s time to sort them and find the ones worth keeping.

Best App

Jamie Oliver in his app

Jamie Oliver in his app

Fundamentally, I use my iPhone apps to take, manipulate and upload photos, Twitter, Tumblr and occasionally add to my WordPress blog, play games,organise and keep track of tasks, notes and stuff, do gym and sports routines, check social media, play around with music, play more games, get local information and, very occasionally do online shopping. So I’m kind of stunned that my best app for 2009 is all about cooking.

However, Jamie’s app, Jamie Oliver 20 Minute Meals,  puts pretty much all other info/instructional apps to shame – and here I’m talking about apps like the National Gallery’s Love Art and the Louvre’s, both of which are pretty decent. It looks like something that has actually been specifically designed for the iPhone and has had a load of thought put into it. It’s got a fair amount of good recipies (sure it could have more but that’s just quibbling), each of which has a ton of well presented info and is beautifully laid out with loads of photos. It’s got a shopping list area, which links seamlessly into the recipies as well as letting you add on your own items. But it also comes with a pile of excellent instructional videos that are pitched at exactly the right level for inept-but-enthusiastic cooks and will change the way you do your cooking. Personal favourite at the moment is the How To Cut Onions, but there’s basic advice about a whole load of things from chilies and buying fish to what you need in your kitchen and how to keep that chopping board in the same place. I’ve cooked more stuff from this app than I have from pretty much any of the other cooking books I’ve got, which is saying something. And it even tasted good.

Best Photo app

Along with being only an adequate phone (poor reception and the lack of a real button to let you hang up calls), the original iPhone has what can only be described as a shit pinhole camera. And it’s saying something for portability and the way it can link to sites like Flickr that I’ve totally ditched my 5Mb Ixus for this, but it’s also down to the way I can manipulate my photos prior to uploading them that makes all the difference. Now, I’ve used (and dumped) a load of image apps, but basically it boils down to two or three that I use all the time. For manipulating images I use Photogene (way better than the rather shit PS Mobile – hang your heads in shame Adobe), ColorSplash (for making those neat black and white with a little bit of colour images), Polarize (to make them look like polaroids) and TiltShift (to make those ‘lil people images). I have tried all those filter packages, but basically only CameraBag makes the grade and has any regular use. And for uploading I use Mobile Fotos (total connection to my Flickr content) and Pixelpipe (uploads to any/all my numerous social media sites). So it’s a tough choice pinpointing just one of them, but if I have to (and I have to) then my photo app for 2009 is Photogene as it’s the one I use first and always to correct the levels and colour of the original image.

Best Game app

This is a really tough one. Mainly because although I have spunked cash on way too  many games, I really don’t play them all that seriously, so most of those clever ports from Gameloft really don’t get the attention they possibly deserve and I’m not convinced that we’ve really seen a proper game done for the iPhone in the way that Jamie’s app or indeed Super Monkey Ball has been. Also gamewise, I’m more of a puzzle game type person than a swift-fingered action adventurer, so the bit in Assassin’s Creed where you have to carefully jump in a specific direction while double-tapping or something drives me into an uncontrolable frenzy of anger when I can’t do it and I tend to blank the game for a while afterwards to punish it. So based on a ‘how much do you actually play them’ test, my choice is down to Real Racing (way the best racing/driving game), Moonlight Majong and Sol Free Solitaire, with special mention to Sentinel 2, which the Boon really enjoy on a compulsive level. And, while it’s tempting to say none of them are really inspiring, I’d have to say that my best game app is Sol Free Solitaire. Hmmmmmmm.

Best Connection app

This is really what makes the whole mobile connection work. It’s not so much the provision of information that relates to where I am (step forward Time Out, FixMyStreet, Rightmove etc), but my ability to link what I’m doing to the digital world. And while apps that connect me to my cloud data are cool (iDisk, OmniFocus and Evernote), what really rocks is my ability to communicate instantly with the world. And this basically boils down to Twitter clients and other updating apps. Now I’ve tried a load of Twitter apps (Tweetie, Tweetdeck etc), but I’ve settled on Twitterific Pro as my client of choice. It’s simple, lets me do most of what I like and can track a variety of sources. The other updating apps let me link into my various social media spaces, including Facebook, LinkedIn, Flickr, WordPress and Tumblr. And while I have used the WordPress app to actually add new stuff to my blog, the ones I’ve really used on a regular basis are Tumblr (my site is essentially all about stupid stuff I’ve taken photos of), Pixelpipe (which lets me post photos to multiple sources) and Mobile Fotos (which is effectively my Flickr client). They’re all impressive and certainly increase my posting and interaction online, but my favourite has to be Mobile Fotos as it has completed that link between taking a photo (and manipulating it on my iPhone) and posting it directly to my Filckr account, and given me a level of instantaneous satisfaction that has meant my Ixus/Aperture combo now lies a distant second.

Best Music app

I have spent altogether too much cash on music apps, and I’m still not entirely convinced that the iPhone is a genuine music creation platform. Sure it packs way more potential than my first ever four-track (ahh the nostalgia of it), but it’s fucking tiny and fiddly and it’s hard to get stuff on and off it. They also suffer from the lack of any widely established space to share tunes and the built-in capacity to share them a la Flickr or Facebook – in fact I’m thinking that making music with the bloody thing is a right bad idea. But on we go… There are essentially 3 types of music making apps which have their own particular styles, some provide the music clips and make the process about messing with them and sequencing them (deadmau5’s app, iDrum and Looptastic), others find a super-complicated way of letting users add samples and rearrange them (Beatmaker), while the really extreme give you the world’s smallest piano to actually make music on (MusicStudio) albeit with a very limited number of different sounds. Now, they all work and some are great fun and I love iDrum Underworld, but it’s not really about making music, and while MusicStudio is, it’s bloody complicated and you need fingers as thin as matchsticks to really use it. So, based purely on the fact that I have actually used it to make some music at 4am one morning when I couldn’t sleep, my best music app is Beatmaker. To see whether it was actually worth it, check this out.

01 First Stab

Apps in 2010

So where are apps going to go? It’s clear that the keys to moving many apps forward are an understanding of location and the ability to share and possibly even collaborate on material with other users. And most apps are going to want to have some way of sharing with more than just Facebook and Twitter – if only to publicise the app. Apple needs to seriously upgrade the iPhone camera and the telcos are going to have to make 3G (and subsequent networks) actually work properly to enable us to really take advantage. And I’m probably going to have to upgrade my original iPhone.

More Better Bigger Faster

Beatmaker on the iPhoneCould this be my absolute favourite app yet? Not entirely sure seeing as I’m very attached to Posterize, but it’s a damn close run thing. Only the other day I was thinking about having to have the fantastic Maschine, only to wake up at 4 in the morning and find this on the app store. Admittedly it costs (and at over a tenner it’s at the extreme end of the app cost range), and it’s like some kind of spastic half-arsed country cousin to Maschine, but it’s actually not bad at all. I was able to pull together some bits and pieces and cobble together a new track (all 53 seconds of it) and still have enough time to go back to sleep before morning. 01 First Stab is the result and I’ve got to say it’s pretty bloody good for something put together on a phone in bed at 5am. Definitely something I’ll be spending more time with. I’m not sure if there’s any kind of song sharing community – the BeatMaker community seems pretty new – but it would be great to hear what other people are doing with this.

A small section of the huge mud wall painting at Tate Britain

A small section of the huge mud wall painting at Tate Britain

Something else I’ll be spending more time with is Posterize. A great simple, free app that turns your iPhone pictures into pseudo-polaroids and lets you scribble any message you like on it, as long as it’s 14 characters or less. Simple and potentially stupid, it’s a bit like photo candy or popcorn or crack. Once you’ve done a bit you probably want to do some more. My latest were taken at the Richard Long exhibition at the Tate Britain, which is pretty bloody fantastic too. It’s one of the first exhibitions for ages where the catalogue is genuinely worth having. And you can see what the effect of Posterize is on this too. It just makes the colours look really enticing and I love the stupid writing. You can see more Posterize images in the Posterize group on Flickr and more of my ones on my Flickr pages.

Meanwhile, putting the iPhone and its apps aside for one moment, let me roundly condemn Van Cam for introducing me to Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher comic. I’d been trying to avoid it for ages, mainly because I’d taken a somewhat irrational dislike to Dillon’s artwork (no accounting for taste), but I got suckerpunched into it when we were inadvertantly browsing through the racks at the Trafalgar Square Waterstones. Now I’ve read the first issue I’m bloody well crack happy on the book and only too aware that I’m going to have to blow hard earned cash money on the remaining 8 or 9 volumes. Bastard.

Finally, I’m loving the new Little Boots album.

Dawn of the apps

It’s all starting to come together. A few weeks ago I discovered a peculiar thing. I’ve always carried a small camera with me ever since the days of the original Cannon Ixus, more for a sense of ‘it’ll be there when I need it’ than any really coherent plan. I’ve worked my way up from film to digital to really proper 5 megapixel + digital. And the more digital and costless it’s become the more I’ve been using it. However, recently I’ve been leaving it at home and there it sits getting ever more lonely.
So what has brought about this change? Have I just stopped taking pictures or what? Obviously if you look at this blog or my Flickr photostream you’ll see I haven’t, so what is going on?
The fact is I’ve downgraded, or not so much downgraded as sidestepped. I’m still carrying a camera only instead of boasting super focusing and loads of manual control like the Ixus, it boasts pretty crap resolution but a host of fantastic add-ons. It is of course my iPhone. And the single most compelling reason for using it as my main camera is the ability it gives me to adapt, publish and share my pictures.
Using relatively inexpensive apps, like ColorSplash, Photogene, and Mobile Fotos, I can take pictures, colour correct them, crop them and play with them, then upload them immediately to my Flickr page. It’s a revelation.
Of course it would be doubly great if the camera in the iPhone wasn’t such a dog, but what really surprised me was that I found the immediacy offered by the iPhone/app/Flickr combination far outweighed the superiority of the Ixus images. Sure I’ll still use the Ixus for my big Hockneyesque collages, but for everything else the apps have it.