The App Store cometh

Alex Kidman
12 July, 2008
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It’s the not-so-secret weapon that turns the 3G iPhone into a utility powerhouse. It’s the App Store, and Apple unveiled it early Friday morning — or late Thursday night, if you happened to have an iPhone by then, which means that those who queued up in Sydney’s chilly climes outside the Optus store could jump right in straight away. That also applied to those who had early access to the iPhone. I fit into that category, and spent some time perusing the App store at length on an iPhone 3G. Canny AMW forumites also spotted at around the same time that the iTunes 7.7 (which came through as an update) gave access to the Application store, albeit only for browsing purposes initially.

I’ve used a lot of smartphones over the years, and tried to install applications to many of them. Typically, this process can be described as insanely painful, involving downloading an application on a computer, then syncing the phone, then installing the application, then hoping like crazy that it’s not a virus or doesn’t just crash the phone and wipe the SIM.

By comparison, the App store is almost stupidly simple. Hit the App store button, and you’re taken to a “Featured” page, similar to that you could already get via iTunes on an iPod touch. The bottom menu allows you to flick between Categories, peruse the Top 25 applications, search for Apps and check that you’re running the most current version of each of these applications. It’s an effortless procedure, and everything is clearly laid out … almost.

There are, predictably, a few launch quirks. At first, I’d presumed that there were only 15 games on offer (and at the time of writing, Games make up about 75 percent of the Top 25 applications, so there’s definitely interest), because the Games category lists that many. In fact, there are many, many more games — including some free ones — but the vast majority are located in the “Entertainment” category. Clearer guidelines might be in order there.

It’s also tough not to be somewhat overwhelmed by the sheer number of applications on offer. Apple’s claiming over 500 applications available at launch, which is far more than I’d ever thought of running on any other smartphone I’ve ever come across — and especially interesting given this is just the launch provision. Checking via the iPhone, there’s a total of 725 applications listed via category, although that’s somewhat deceptive — as an example, all 15 of the “Games” turn up again in “Entertainment” as mentioned above.

Installing an application is remarkably simple, either from the Phone (and later, the iPod touch) itself, or via iTunes. As with the iTunes Store, you make your selection by clicking on the price, at which point it swishes away to become an “install” icon. You tap on that icon, and it’ll begin downloading the application immediately. This works on either WiFi or 3G (and presumably 2G), although WiFi is by far going to be your quickest bet in almost any situation, and you also won’t run foul of the 3G limitation of 10MB per application.

The application sets itself the next available icon spot on the Phone, and a small download bar across it lets you know how quickly it’s progressing. Once it’s installed, you’re by default dropped back out of the App Store, but you can click on your application of choice and start using it immediately.

From iTunes, it’s not much different, although you will need to sync with the iPhone to get the application running. Synchronising also backs up applications, although this can mean if you’ve downloaded an application from iTunes and subsequently deleted it from the iPhone, it’ll reappear by default the next time you synchronise. (As with songs and other media, this is something you can control if you wish to.)

In terms of pricing, Apple seems to have largely left that up to the application vendors. There’s a swag of free Apps (we’ll let you do the maths there) along with applications that start at $1.19 (including some games and a raft of public domain e-books). The typical top end price is $12.99, mostly for games, although at least one application, TravelTracker, will set you back a meaty $36.99.

One factor that I found interesting was that it’s a lot easier to just browse the App store from within iTunes than it is on a 3G iPhone. There’s a certain amount of inevitability about that, simply due to screen real estate issues, but there’s a couple of key areas that Apple really should address to make things simpler for iPhone/iPod touch users. There’s no quick way to browse for free applications (there is on iTunes), although you can view the top 25 free applications at any given time. Search functionality is rather rudimentary; while you could search for “Free” (and it will return free applications), it’ll also return any application with that in the title.

Apps in use. Speaking of Free applications, one of the really nice aspects of the App store is the breadth of free software on offer. This ranges from the very silly (Moo, PhoneSaber) to the more serious, such as VoiceNote, EasyNote, AIM and Facebook, as well as the very useful Remote, which lets you remotely control iTunes on a Mac, or control an Apple TV outright.

A quick Remote tip, by the way. When I first installed it, there was no way it would work for me — I kept getting told that “an unknown error occurred. Please check your library and try again.” My gut feel was that this was because my iTunes Library files were on the MacBook I was trying to control, but the music files resided on my NAS, and for whatever reason, Remote didn’t like that. I discovered the fix, however, if it strikes anyone else. First of all, try quitting out of remote. Start playback on your Mac, then connect remote up again. It should spot that something’s playing. Pause that, and from then on, you should have full remote control back again.

Getting back to the App store, there’s also a certain quantity of free software on offer that’s essentially adware — either front-ends for business applications such as Salesforce.com, or just advertising, such as the Carling-sponsored iPint. Although in the case of iPint, it does at least offer a virtual beer for free; there’s also iBeer, but that will cost you $3.99.

At the time of writing, Apple has announced that the 2.0 software will cost $12.99 for iPod touch owners. That’s still a kick in the teeth, but it’s at least a lighter bit of dentistry than the previous upgrade. Speaking to Apple representatives this morning, they indicated that the iPod touch 2.0 Upgrade wasn’t due out until it was the 11th in the US, meaning that it should most likely touch down here on Saturday morning. Predictably, there was no comment about whether or not jailbroken 2G iPhones already in the country would be capable of running the 2.0 firmware while still operating on Australian networks, although an educated guess can deduct what Apple actually thinks about that.

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