Thursday New Tools Feature: It's an App, App World

In almost all of Apple's recent ads for the iPhone, the actual hardware seems almost irrelevant - the ads focus almost exclusively on the iTunes App Store.

While some of the phone's physical features like intuitive touch-screen controls and integrated wi-fi are attractive features, they are no longer unique or particularly uncommon (although apparently they may be proprietary); iPhone copies like the new Motorola Evoke and other touch-screen phones with full-featured browsers are popping up everywhere, and the new Palm Pre looks like it might almost out-iPhone the iPhone in terms of stock capability and "oh, cool" specs (like a wireless charging "stone" that the Pre can simply be placed on to juice up).

However, with the App Store business model, Apple really has revolutionized the mobile device. My phone is not just a phone, or an email device, or a web browser, or a GPS device, or an iPod; there really is an app for just about everything, and that's not just Apple propaganda. I've become almost weirdly dependent on my iPhone - I'm so used to being able to do just about anything on the fly that it's hard to remember how I managed without it. With the introduction of the App Store, the iPhone quickly became a remarkably polished mobile computing and gaming platform that also happened to incidentally make and receive phone calls.  

In fact, even that feature has been partly replicated through the app store; last week, I downloaded the free Skype application, which allows me to make free calls to Skype users from anywhere in the world over a wi-fi connection, and extremely inexpensive calls to normal phone lines as well. iPod Touch users can do this as well, and bypass the iPhone's rather prohibitive AT&T contract pricing. 

Other companies have been quick to realize what a game-changer the App Store really is; Apple's innovation has spawned a whole host of competitor application stores, including, most recently, the Blackberry App World (click here for a full comparison of the current App Store competitors and their pros and cons). 

The potential of mobile applications for politics and policy has yet to be tapped; the Obama '08 application, while very cool at the time and ahead of the curve, barely scratched the surface. For some ideas of the power of mobile technology, check out our excellent New Policy Institute paper, "Harnessing the Mobile Revolution" by Tom Kalil. This paper demonstrates the incredible power of simple, cheap cell phones to do good in the developing world. Downloadable applications, which essentially turn mobile devices into ultra-portable computers, promise to amplify the already extraordinary power of mobile devices.