Bouncing cow and other iPhone add-ons

From a useless (but cute) bouncing cow, to a whole virtual orchestra, the iPhone's new downloadable add-ons are seriously big business. Rhodri Marsden selects the best
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The Independent Tech

Ten years ago, the sight of a chunky mobile phone inspired so much awe and wonder that the notion of it slipping neatly into a back pocket, playing music, holding a diary, taking photos, pinpointing our position on a map or browsing the internet would have had us gasping for air.

These days, such features barely raise an eyebrow, and even the iPhone, for all its exquisite design and cutting-edge reputation, doesn't do much more than this when you take it out of the box. But its capabilities have broadened considerably since Apple finally launched its software development kit, or SDK, back in March. Since then, the number of applications (or, as Apple calls them, apps) available for the gadget has tipped the 1,000 mark – the vast majority written by developers other than Apple. As of earlier this week 60 million apps have been downloaded, earning Apple £15m. And the iPhone's new-found ability to construct a family tree, poke people on Facebook or compose music on the move is making it even more sought-after than it was already.

Cynics might say that the iPhone's 13-month history has been characterised by all the battles against restrictions Apple has placed on what can and can't be done with it – the most significant being the attempts to get the thing working on mobile networks other than the officially approved ones (O2 in the UK). But a more intriguing sub-plot was "jailbreaking", or getting non-Apple apps to run on the device. This was first achieved in August last year, and many people rushed to get under the bonnet and follow the instructions that promised to expand their iPhone's functionality.

Apple's Greg Joswiak said shortly afterwards that while they didn't "hate" jailbreaking developers, and certainly wouldn't be disabling jailbroken iPhones with future software updates, they would rather the software community wrote "web applications" for the iPhone instead, which run from within its internet browser, Safari. The response was one of disappointment; this simply didn't give developers the kind of access to the inner workings of the iPhone that they were after.

Many within the industry, remembering how third-party software packages such as Quark XPress, Photoshop and Logic Audio contributed heavily to the success of Macintosh desktop computers, were concerned that the iPhone's full potential may never be realised. That all changed with the launch of the SDK. Developers can download the kit for free, write their software, and for a one-off fee of $99 can have Apple sell any of their finished apps in the official App Store, at whatever price they like, with a 70 per cent /30 per cent split in revenue in favour of the developer.

The fact that Apple are keeping a strict control of the sale and distribution of the apps means that it has far from become a free-for-all, but CEO Steve Jobs has stated that the aim is to "get as many apps out there as possible" – a marked change from the locked-down state of the original iPhone. And developers have been falling over themselves to create that dream app that no self-respecting iPhone user would be without.

Wonderful & Functional

Lets your iPhone talk directly to the leading photo-sharing site Flickr. It's the "Near Me" function that's the eye-opener, using your GPS location to show you photos that were taken near the spot where you're standing. The free version of the app displays some fairly unobtrusive ads; £5.99 will get you an ad-free version.

OK, you're stuck somewhere but you're not sure where. And you're desperate for a pint of real ale. Fire up Vicinity: it'll work out where you are and tell you all the nearest places of interest – including, crucially, all the pubs – along with relevant Wikipedia articles and web links. Teething problems with Edinburgh locations appear to have been sorted out just in time for the festival.

If you want up-to-the-second information about how the taekwondo or synchronised swimming is going over in Beijing, a recent SportsTap upgrade has added live results from the Olympic Games. The rest of its sports results selection is decidedly US-centric – leading to much moaning from Brits in the App Store – but hey, it's free.

Meal Splitter
This 59p app is designed to help you with splitting a restaurant bill without causing arguments across the table. Although if you have the kind of friends that would argue with you over a restaurant bill, you probably don't go to restaurants very often in any case – and who could blame you.

Gaming Glory

Tap Tap Revenge
Based on the disco arcade machines that have slightly drunken people gyrating provocatively to a tinny soundtrack at beach resorts across the UK, this is the equivalent for your fingers. Your sense of rhythm is put through its paces; if you tap the coloured balls on the beat, your score goes up. If you don't, it doesn't. The aim of the game: to accumulate points, and not to look too strange on public transport.

Super Monkey Ball
The big gaming companies are starting to move on to the iPhone platform, and this effort, from Sega, is currently in the top 10 paid-for apps in the App Store. To play, you tilt the iPhone back and forth, instead of pressing buttons. Some complain that the game is too sensitive to gentle tilting; we say they just need more practice.

Controversial choices

I Am Rich
It's caused a buzz over the past few days; it cost $1,000, and did nothing more than display a glowing red jewel in the centre of your screen. Created by artist Armin Heinrich, it was designed to "always remind you (and others when you show it to them) that you were rich enough to afford this. It's a work of art with no hidden function at all." It has now been withdrawn, presumably after complaints from the eight fools who bought it.

This app appeared fleetingly in the App Store last week, and it probably won't be the last. It simply enables your laptop to use your iPhone's 3G internet connection, allowing you to leech from your (supposedly) unlimited download limit with O2. Who needs mobile broadband? However, as it presumably breaches terms and conditions somewhere along the line, the app was quickly pulled.

Lost In Music

It's made by Apple themselves, but it deserves a slot in any iPhone app round-up; it lets you remote-control iTunes on your desktop, laptop – or indeed an Apple TV unit. While the target market appears to be people who listen to music on their computer but can't be bothered to reach over and touch it, this could be a sign of things to come from Apple in terms of multi-room, multi-control entertainment.

This one has been leaving people open-mouthed for some time now; in its non-iPhone incarnation (just dial 2580 from any mobile phone) you simply hold it up to a speaker playing a tune you wish to identify, and within a few seconds it sends you an SMS with the full details of artist and track. The iPhone version goes one better by displaying links for watching the video or buying the track.

And if you thought Shazam was amazing... Midomi will have you reaching for a stiff drink. Hum a vague snatch of a tune into your phone, and Midomi will, again, return details of the artist andtitle for you. "Hey Jude" and Michael Jackson's "Rock with You" worked perfectly in tests; Public Enemy's back catalogue not so well.

Incredibly, users are moaning about the £5.99 price tag on this piece of software, which would have had musicians from bygone days mumbling something about witchcraft. As one commenter said, "If this were made by Yamaha, you'd be paying at least 10 times as much!" A versatile musical notepad, it uses virtual instruments to let you build up complex arrangements.

Frivolous and fun

The leading turn-your-iPhone-into-a-light-sabre application, PhoneSaber, was dramatically pulled last week when the owners of the rights to the Star Wars franchise complained, and so we have to make do with this slightly inferior copy. Eddie Izzard is rumoured to have recently been using such an app as part of his stage show.

Koi Pond
It's currently the most-downloaded app in the App Store, and gives you an unmissable chance to pretend that your iPhone is a pond in exchange for 59p. Its main selling point seems to be its beneficial effect on stress levels. So if you feel like screaming at your colleague, maybe try downloading these imaginary fish instead.

Cow Toss
This self-proclaimed "stupid app" (see opposite page) allows you to propel the image of a cow into the air. The author, staggered that anyone bought the thing, has found himself in the unusual position of working on an update thanks to interest in the app.