The original 2007 iPhone had only one screenful of software icons, believe it or not. You couldn’t install any new ones of your own. It took a whole year before Apple opened the iPhone app store, making it possible for the masses to download and install new apps (programs) and, in the process, creating a whole new gadget category.
The app store changed everything. Why just make calls, when you could auto-tune your singing voice, play virtual Ping-Pong or summon bodily sounds on command?
There are 225,000 apps on the iPhone store and 60,000 on Google’s Android store, and that’s just the beginning. Those statistics will be out of date by the end of this week, or even the end of this sentence.
You may find it hard to comprehend a selection that vast, let alone to navigate it in search of the good stuff. But it could be worse: you could be the aspiring app programmer who has to come up with a fresh idea. (Maybe you’re inspired, for example, by the release of Google’s new, free App Inventor software.) There are already apps that reproduce mooing sounds (Hello Cow), apps that dial someone from your address book randomly (iDrunkTxt), games where you score points by licking the screen (iLickit). What could possibly be left?
This week, I challenged my Twitter followers (I’m @pogue) to invent iPhone or Android apps that don’t exist but should.
I’ll spare you the jokey wishful-thinking responses: “an app that puts my kids to bed at night,” “an app that gives my wife the ‘right answer,’ ” “an app that teleports me to a spot with a good cell signal.” O.K., everyone’s a comedian.
In general, I’ll also omit the great app ideas that do, in fact, exist. (One popular idea: a To Do-list program that, thanks to the phone’s GPS, would remind you of things to do when you’re in the right place to do them — to “pick up a saw when you’re near the hardware store,” as @Truman206 put it. But the Twitterites were quick to identify programs that already do that: Reqall, Omnifocus, Remember the Milk, Geostrings, Pocket Informant, Astrid, Task Aware and so on.)
One hugely popular category was “Shazam for other things.” Shazam, of course, is the amazing app that identifies a pop song on the radio just by listening to it. No wonder, then, that people loved @ale_guzman1’s concept of “Shazam for movies or TV.” How great would it be to let the phone’s camera identify whatever you’re watching?
But why stop there? The Twitterfolk also dreamed up Shazam for art (“who painted that?”), Shazam for plants (“is that a weed or a valuable plant?”), Shazam for bird calls, Shazam for classical music, Shazam for “the handwritten menus on the walls of Chinese restaurants,” and Shazam for people. (“I want an app that shows me someone’s name/info when camera is pointed at them,” said @maj8614. “Conferences and weddings: much easier!”)
Overcoming the iPhone’s problems was another hotbed of app dreams. For example, @invisible_daddy wishes for “an app that converts a Web site containing Flash video on the fly to HTML5, or whatever format Apple will allow.”
Apple recently admitted that the iPhone’s signal-strength indicator has been misleading for years. So @PoorDadTech described “An app that tells you that you have 4 bars. But only when you have 4 bars.” (Again with the jokes.)
But seriously, what about “an app that tracks dropped calls in background automatically, so AT&T can know where to fix towers” (@ale_guzman1 again)? Yes, AT&T already offers a free app called Mark the Spot that lets you report dead spots manually. But an automatic background app would be much better. (“Except AT&T won’t be able to get the data,” snarks @WhoisCalvin, “because you won’t have coverage!”)
Speaking of coverage, @NOSaturn proposed “an onscreen pop-up reminder that you’re holding iPhone 4 wrong. Measures signal, then Steve Jobs gently reminds you...” An equally sardonic @aribadler proposed an app that switches your iPhone to the Verizon network — “so you can make calls, you know, with your phone.”
Parking was a hot topic, too. “Alternate side parking app. You don’t have to open it; the icon just says YES or NO.” (That’s from @harryhassell, who obviously lives in Manhattan, where you’re required to move your parked car to the other side of the street on certain days.) Likewise, @2jase dreams of “an app that tells me the correct parking rules for the spot where I’m currently standing.”
But @danfrakes responded, “I think I’d rather see an app that teaches people how to park — and sends them a notification when they do it wrong.”
Social apps were popular, like the “reverse Foursquare” suggested by @churlala: “Register all your exes, so no awkward run-ins around town.” Or @sppatel’s “Six Degrees of Separation” app, which “uses public friends lists across multiple social sites to determine how you may be tied to someone you just met.”
Keep 'em coming
Another cool idea: an app that “syncs two or more iPods/iPhones, so you can run or work out with someone and everyone’s music stays in sync” (@ale_guzman1 — yes, that guy again).
Phone calls were on people’s minds, too. @jeffroix wants “automatic voice mail forwarding when my calendar reflects a meeting in progress.” (There are such apps, in fact, at least for Android phones — the one called Vibrate During Meetings, for example.)
@SEOtrafficSite, meanwhile, suggested an app that “adds background noise (airport, party...) during my calls, so people don’t think I’m a nerd sitting at my computer all day.”
Shopping was also a running theme. For example, @jragadioproposed “an app that maps out my grocery list in the supermarket to give me an optimized shopping path.” Many submissions matched @stinadavis’s idea: “An grocery-store app that tells you the aisle of the item you’re looking for... No more searching for capers!”
Along the same lines, @mikedemowrites: “Here is the killer app: Mall/Department store GPS. Say goodbye to mall directory maps.”
Follower @susaneoliverwants “a money program, à la Quicken, with an app that lets me take a photo of a receipt and have it entered into my account.”
Since every app phone contains a motion sensor, @rkudeshi dreamed up “a background app that monitors my physical activity for the day (via the accelerometer) & tells me if I need to hit the gym at night.”
And when you’ve done enough shopping, you might agree with @alimomen, who thinks the world needs an app to tell you “where the nearest and cleanest public bathroom is.”
@JoseSPiano, meanwhile, proposes “a GPS-triggered sightseeing tourist guide. Not only indicates nearby landmarks, but also has text and audio descriptions.”
Modern phones’ cameras and video features played a recurrent role, too. In @gelphman’s dream app, you’d be able to see “concessions/restrooms at each Major League Baseball park, with Webcams showing how long the line is at each.” And @cellodad proposed something called “Rejuvenator: Aim iPhone camera at your face, snap a pic — it digitally subtracts 5, 10, 15, 20 years from your image.”
The camera also plays a role in “iPhone Clothes Coordinator,” suggested by @BookMD: “Take pix of your clothing items and accessories. Mix and match on the screen, see what works ahead of time!”
What’s especially interesting about these ideas is that they riff off what’s actually available. For example, we already take for granted the concept of a phone that identifies objects by looking at them, or that combines your GPS location with information grabbed from the Internet.
Therefore, what’s especially exciting about these ideas is that almost all of them are technologically feasible.
The hard part, in other words, isn’t writing apps; it’s coming up with the ideas in the first place. Maybe what the world really needs, as @evoulie, notes, is “an app that tells you what there isn’t an app for.”
David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: firstname.lastname@example.org.