These innovative iPhone apps pack ‘wow’ factor

Oct 29, 2009

So what if there are more than 100,000 approved apps for your iPhone? How many of those are truly interesting or even innovative? Just take a look at all the innovation that pops up when you search for basketball fans or shopping. Anything interesting jump out at you? I didn’t think so. The majority of […]

So what if there are more than 100,000 approved apps for your iPhone? How many of those are truly interesting or even innovative? Just take a look at all the innovation that pops up when you search for basketball fans or shopping. Anything interesting jump out at you? I didn’t think so.

The majority of the apps you choose for your iPhone will be of use to you, but how many will impress your friends? That figure might reach 1,000.

If you’re looking for the apps that pack the “wow” factor on top of function, here are 10 to consider. You’ll note some familiar names here, but that’s because
these developers have gotten the app experience right — and they keep improving to take advantage of the iPhone’s unique platform.

Let’s start with the very familiar, the Google Mobile App. We take Google for granted on our PCs, turning to the search engine to find all sorts of information. And it arrives almost instantly, if magic. On the iPhone, the search is a little slower but equally amazing. Why? Because users speak what they seek into the iPhone, and moments later, the relevant results are returned. It can take a little practice for Google to learn your speech patterns, but when it does, the results, in my experience, have been flawless.

I had a sneak peek of the free Bump app before it was introduced in March 2009, and my reaction then was the same as it is now: Wow, this is really cool. The only drawback is that it requires two Bump users to make it work. If two iPhone owners (or iPod touch) have the app, all they need to do is to “bump” their hands together (think Obama fist bump) and contact information (or photos) from each user is shared with the other person. The data is swapped within seconds and goes right into your contact file.

Urbanspoon was an innovative restaurant finder when it launched as one of the first apps for the iPhone. It’s scroll wheel was, and remains, fun to use to find a restaurant. Now, Urbanspoon (free) is among the first apps to tap into the emerging “augmented reality” trend. With augmented reality, computer graphics are overlaid onto a real-time image to provide data as you look at the image.

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With Urbanspoon’s new “scope” tool, you can look down a street — through your iPhone — and get information on all the restaurants in that view (price, type of food) and how far the establishments are from your current location. Very cool, but it only works with the iPhone 3Gs. Older iPhone owners can still use “scope” but it appears only as a Google Map, albeit one that is very detailed and useful.

Another app that uses augmented reality is the free Layar Reality Browser. It identifies houses for sale, bars and tourist information by holding the phone in front of you. The user selects the layer they want to see — such as real estate listings — and then looks through the iPhone to see the data. As you turn your iPhone to see the other side of a street, fresh information will pop up on the screen.

Not everyone owns both an iPhone and a Kindle, but I do…and man, it’s an impressive pairing of technology. With the free Kindle for iPhone app, readers can enjoy the same e-book across two devices. (Three, if you own an iPod touch as well. No comment.) That means you can start a book on the Kindle before bed and pick up where you left off during your morning train ride to work. Since the devices talk to each other, it makes no difference where you stop on one and start on the other; just bookmark the page and you’re good to go.

The top innovator of live sports coverage got better during the playoffs. Using At Bat 2009, a worthy spend at $9.99, you can watch four camera views of the World Series on your iPhone. You don’t get sound, but it’s like sitting in the production booth. That makes it a hands-on companion to the TV coverage of the World Series, as you will get additional views that other folks will not. If you like pro hoops, NBA Game Time 2009-10 offers home and away radio coverage of each game this season. Let’s hope the league eventually adds live video coverage, like MLB.

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It’s unlikely I will produce artwork as stunning as Jorge Colombo, who used the $4.99 Brushes app to create the June 1, 2009 New Yorker cover, but it sure is fun to try. To create your own iPhone art, you can import a photo to manipulate or start with a blank canvass — um, iPhone screen. It’s an amazingly simple art tool to use but also a tool you will grow with as you experiment with your own style. Plus, it’s a captivating tool for children. Brushes is a great example of how new technology is influencing classical disciplines, such as art.

I like the NASA app for the iPhone not so much for its creativity and free price, but for the sense of wonder the space agency has captured with this app. When I was working at big-city newspaper, I always bugged my science reporting pal for new details on NASA’s Mars Rovers mission. He always shared some interesting tidbits, but there wasn’t enough space in the paper for readers to get that information. Now, NASA made it possible for anyone to check up on the Rover mission, as well as the agency’s other ongoing missions. There are pictures, Twitter feeds, mission summaries and host of data if you — or your child — is interested in space exploration.

Or, using’s iPhone interface, you can explore space through the eyes of Capt. James T. Kirk. Classic Star Trek episodes can be watched for free through this streaming  service, as can current CBS shows like CSI. The TV show selection is far more limited than what offers for the computer but you’ll find something to interest you. The best part is that the shows are free, where mobile carriers charge about $10 to $15 a month to subscribe to a mobile television service.

Indeed, one of the best aspects of the iPhone is the ability to stream content for free. The iPhone is changing music delivery, for example, with apps like Pandora Radio, Slacker Radio and Wunder Radio, making the iPod aspect of the iPhone somewhat obsolete.

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Eric Benderoff

Eric Benderoff is the principal of, an editorial services firm, and a founding member of the Appolicious content strategy team. His personal technology column for the Chicago Tribune has appeared in newspapers and websites nationwide. He is a regular guest on Chicago's WGN Radio and is a frequent commentator about consumer technology on national TV news programs.

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