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It's Not Easy Being a Restaurant Guide, Jukebox, Game Console and Lightsaber

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By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, July 27, 2008

Among all the new applications I've downloaded to my iPhone this month, it seems that there's something else new tucked in that I wasn't counting on: bugs.

As in software bugs, the type that cause the occasional freeze, crash or system reboot of the still-awesome gadget I shelled out $600 for about a year ago. Every once in a while, when I try to fire up a program, it fails to launch. Others sometimes flicker out unexpectedly and return the iPhone to its home screen.

Sigh.

While the long lines of folks queued up to buy the new iPhone 3G in past weeks got most of the attention, for many iPhone and iPod fans, the more significant development was the opening of Apple's new App Store, which makes downloading and installing applications as easy as downloading a song off iTunes. Some of the more than 800 software programs available so far are free, and some aren't. Some are useful, and some are just for fun. Most programs don't seem to have problems, though I'm getting used to the occasional software blooper now that I've loaded my gadget up with a couple dozen or so of the things.

To be sure, I'm not complaining very loudly. Even though I miss the days when my iPhone seemed devoid of glitches, these software hiccups seem to me a worthwhile trade-off because the first entries available at the online store are, by and large, so fascinating.

Some applications take advantage of the new iPhone's GPS capabilities. One popular program, called Urbanspoon, operates like a slot machine: Shake the iPhone, and a list of restaurants and cuisine categories flicker by on the screen until Urbanspoon lands on a nearby restaurant. Last week, ahem, The Washington Post launched its own such GPS application for iPhone users, designed to help folks find local bars and restaurants. I'm sure I'll be using it, but I wish the program allowed me to zoom in on street maps by spreading out two fingers on the gadget's screen, a trick I can do with other map applications.

Other types of software take advantage of the iPhone's movement-sensing accelerometer. In new racing games such as Crash Bandicoot Nitro Kart 3D, for example, you basically turn the iPhone as if it were a steering wheel.

Some of the programs just do impressive or surprising tricks. One, called Shazam, can listen to any recorded song and identify its name and performer. So far, the software has successfully recognized artists in my music collection ranging from B.B. King to the White Stripes. Like many nifty applications for the iPhone, Shazam kinda blows my mind -- though I'm not sure yet that there's all that much of a practical use for this thing.

As I type this, a couple of iPhone owners in my office are waving their gadgets around at each other in a mock lightsaber duel, using a free application that makes the device hum and buzz like the weapon from the Star Wars flicks. PhoneSaber has been on the App Store's top-10 list since the store launched two weeks ago. And sure, I've downloaded it, too.

Apple said last week said there had been 25 million App Store downloads since the store launched. Tucked among such jokey applications as PhoneSaber are a few pieces of software that suggest that Apple's latest online shop could set off some seismic marketplace changes.

Pandora comes to mind as one iPhone application worth keeping an eye on. A free Web service whereby users create their own Internet music stations with a few mouse clicks, Pandora is old news for some Web users. But until now, you generally needed to be tethered to a computer to enjoy the service, as it streams music over an Internet connection. Now I listen to the service nearly everywhere as I'm walking or driving with a loaner iPhone 3G. (Pandora doesn't work as well for me on my original iPhone, with its slower Web connection.) It's the sort of development that should have terrestrial and satellite radio companies concerned.

Pandora founder Tim Westergren said the number of new users has doubled since the iPhone 3G launched, up to about 40,000 per day. He says he's been glad to hear of Pandora fans using his company's service on the go.

"One of the hallmarks of Apple is that they mainstream stuff that's been the sole domain of techies," he said. "In our case, that's moving Internet radio into the car."

The game company Sega says it is excited at the prospect of the iPhone as a platform for game development. For well over a week, Sega's Super Monkey Ball, in which players carefully tilt the phone to guide a monkey down a series of catwalks, was the most-purchased title at the App Store when it launched.

Simon Jeffery, president of Sega of America, said his company anticipates hitting a million downloads with the game. "That's a successful game on any platform," he said.

To make games for mobile game devices like the Nintendo DS or the Sony PlayStation Portable, the company has always had to charge a certain amount of money just to recoup the costs of getting the product onto a retail shelf -- meaning that it's never been economically feasible to put out a game below $20 or so. That's not the case with the App Store, where Sega can charge $10, and some games cost even less.

Some app makers are giving away their wares in the hopes that they'll be able to get users to upgrade for a fee down the road.

Though the iPhone comes with a weather forecast application built in, the Germantown-based WeatherBug says its weather application for the iPhone, also called WeatherBug, has been downloaded about 600,000 times from the new App Store. Chris Brozenick, vice president of product at the company, says a pay version of the software is on the way, one that would give users access to more weather-watching tools.

So far, for the App Store's regulars, it's still a bit of a feeding frenzy as they check out all the free stuff.

Michael Torres, one owner of a new iPhone 3G, said he uses a program called Box Office for movie listings and applications like Whrrl and Yelp to find nearby stores and restaurants. When he wanted to buy a copy of the movie "Batman Begins" on Blu-ray, he used a program called Save Benjis to find the best price online.

All of the programs are pretty good, though none of them is perfect, he says, and he hasn't bought anything from the App Store yet because there are so many free widgets to try out.

"None of them have changed the way I use the Internet or how I go about productivity in my life," he said. "But right now it's all just getting started. It's the potential that's exciting."

I agree. Until now, my commute to work seemed odiously long. These days, with so many iPhone apps to poke around at while sitting on the Red Line, the trip isn't long enough.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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