seadragonTurned off, my iPhone epitomizes Zen design: sleek, nearly featureless and aerodynamic.* Turned on, it looks more like grandma’s attic.

After living with Gigi-the-iPhone for about 18 months, my app fervor has diminished. I’ve six pages (100 apps) sitting on Gigi, but mostly, I use the ones that came with the phone. Of the ones I’ve installed, only five see regular use. I’ve taken at least 20 more off just to relieve some of the clutter.

Apple’s basic apps lineup includes phone tools, email, addressbook and calendaring, GPS mapping, financial reporting, entertainment and photo tools. For most people, and considering that you’re talking about a screen the size of a playing card, that’s more than enough.

So what are my five?

  • Amazon’s Kindle, which lets me carry 10 or 12 books on a trip without adding a single ounce to my luggage. And if I run out of reading material on the road, I can browse Amazon’s vast selections and download one on the spot.
  • Facebook. It’s not the world’s greatest app, but I have friends who use Facebook mail more than their inbox, and it lets me reach them quickly and easily, or upload and share a fast photo, when I can’t reach a computer.
  • unitsUnits. This tool converts just about any measure to another, which is extremely useful when I’m trying to figure out how much silicone to mix up for a mold.
  • NYTimes news reports. I also have NPR News and BBC Reader, but NYT’s organization, comprehensiveness and performance make it the easiest way to get a fast newsfix.
  • PDXTransit. If you live in an area with great public transportation (as they have in glassland), there’s probably an iPhone app tracking it. I think this is the best of those that track Portland. It helps me find the fastest route to where I need to go, tells me when the next train’s coming, and where’s the nearest station/bus stop for my current location.

The stuff that doesn’t work
I’m using the iPhone and its apps more than ever, but probably uninstalling more than I add these days. Some apps don’t work very well or are hard to use, some are so slow I could grow old and die waiting for them to launch. Some are just plain silly. Here’s highlights of what I’ve taken off so far:

WordPress. Much as I love WordPress from a desk, its app is hard to use, incredibly slow and offers at best limited capabilities.

Google. This REALLY surprised me. But Google’s app pretty much replicates what I can get on the iPhone already, with the exception of voice search…and the voice search so far misses more commands than it understands. It’s more of a bookmark app anyway, since almost any action simply tosses you into the iPhone’s Safari web browser. That means you wait while the Google processes your command, launches the browser, performs the search and (finally) displays the results. It’s faster to just go to the browser in the first place.

Musee du Louvre. I thought touring one of the world’s greatest art museums by phone would be cool, and so it would be…if the app showed more than a handful of art, or had some way to let you search and download a particular piece.
It’s a gorgeous app, really beautifully organized, but aside from a few French language videos there’s not much here.

SnapTell. The idea behind this app is extremely cool: You see a book, DVD, CD or game you want to buy, take a picture of its cover with your iPhone and the app tells you where to find it, locally or online, for the best price. Despite some hilarious misses, it had a not-bad 70 percent recognition success rate.

But here’s the rub: If I can take a picture of the thing I want to buy, I must have access to a copy, right? Why would I want to buy another? It would be useful as a price comparison tool if it compared every vendor, but it doesn’t. I note, though, that Amazon’s A9 subsidiary just bought SnapTell, so maybe there’s a future for this one.

Say Who Lite. As far as I’m concerned, the biggest limitation of the iPhone is its stubborn refusal to do what dumbphones have successfully done for years: Respond to spoken commands. Say Who is supposed to be the best of the speech apps for iPhone, but it misses far more than it hits, at least with my voice. Ditto for Vlingo, Adela Voicedialer and iTalk Recorder. Can’t ANYbody make a good iPhone speech app?


Loopt. Geolocation has to be one of the best new features to hit mobile computing since…mobile computing. This app literally puts you (and your friends) on the map; you can see where they are, learn more about what they’re doing, and they can do the same for you.

But that’s the problem; I don’t necessarily want my entire social network to follow my every movement. I love skating the bleeding edge, but I’m also a big fan of privacy, and I don’t have time to reset Loopt whenever I want to be alone. Loopt offers other cool features, including the ability to find and rate restaurants and other things…but I can already get most of that with the iPhone’s native apps.

Conference Call. This app helps you set up large conference calls for business meetings. You know, the ones where everybody calls an 800-number, punches in a code and says their name, and gets hooked up to a private party line for an hour. I installed this app figuring that’d be a great business tool.

The catch? Turns out you need an account from IfByPhone to use it, which starts at $25/month, and you pay between a 3.5 and 7.9 cents per minute for anything over 100 minutes/month. I don’t conference all that often, and when I do there are plenty of cheaper alternatives.

Wikiamo. This direct-to-Wikipedia tool sounds great, but it’s another one of those wait-while-I-toss-you-into-the-web-browser canned search deals. The interface is clumsy, and on the whole it’d be easier just to hit up Wikipedia directly.

PTO (Put Things Off). Somebody else might find this useful; I don’t. PTO is a task organizer that lets you prioritize and push tasks to the next day/week/whatever. Great idea, but it’s slow, with a too-cute and counter-intuitive interface.

Ambiance. I loved this app when I first used it–it plays white noise and soothing sounds, helping to drown out the cacaphony in a cubicle farm or noisy hotel room. Then the developer got ambitious, took off most of the sounds (you can now download/buy them), added a whole bunch of fancy features and pretty much made it too hard to use. And unlike the built-in iPod player, Ambiance stops playing the minute you switch to another app, so you can only use it if you don’t need the phone for anything else.

iStethoscope. This app uses the iPhone mic as a stethoscope and pulse-taker. It would be incredibly cool…if it worked.

Cooliris. A phone is just too slow and small-screened to make using this web mining tool anything but an ordeal. Part of the problem lies with AT&T; their 3G network still drops calls at a prodigious rate and I’ve turned it off, which means I’m relying on the slower EDGE network for web browsing. Besides, when I web-browse on an iPhone, I’m looking for something specific, and this tool is really more about casual discovery.

Games. I’m easily bored with most games, especially those with endless, repetitive levels, and a lot of iPhone games fall into that category. Others are just simply silly. SkeeBall, for example, is a “flick” game–flick your finger on the bowling alley, and a ball sails into a cup. I love playing skeeball in real life; it’s laughable on an iPhone.

So far I’ve ditched MonkeyBall, Bejeweled, Trism, Dicee, BlocksClassic, BrainTuner, iChalky, The Moron Test, SkeeBall, Spore Origins (actually, this was very cool, I just achieved the top level too soon and had nowhere else to go), Tangram Puzzles, Carrie’s Dots and and bunches more.

The games that stay? So far, Scrabble and a couple of word games, one or two lightweight puzzles.

And there are more, lots more, that have gotta go. If anybody has a favorite app they absolutely can’t live without, let me know. I’m still looking for one.


*As anyone who’s ever had one slip from their hand and crash to the floor soon learns