An iPhone app is like a potato chip. “You always want to have just one more,” says Chris Hall, editor in chief of 148Apps.com. His review website, named for the maximum number of apps an early iPhone user could own, tries to keep up with the influx of new programs, but with some 40,000 apps on sale and another 500 to 1,000 released each week, his team can’t help falling behind.
An app is simply a little application, or program, that’s designed to perform a specialized function. Many of them are a boon for travelers. Flashlight, for instance, illuminates your screen so you can fumble through a dark hotel room. Currency calculates exchange rates. The world’s 22 million iPhone users—including those who’ve snared the new iPhone 3GS model, released June 19—can browse and download apps, some for free and some for a few bucks, at the built-in App Store. True, some of the most popular apps don’t do much more than simulate fishponds or Zippo lighters, but as the field matures, so do the offerings.
These apps aren’t perfect, and some have problems that are amplified when you’re traveling. So buyers have to be choosy. Developers tend to write apps, including almost all of the language-translation ones, which can be expensive to run because they require a phone to draw lots of information from the network. That’s fine at home, but download just five megabytes of info when you’re abroad and you could be slammed with a $40 tab. A few other travel apps, such as ones that help find a taxi, don’t have data for international locations.
But a good iPhone app is like a tool in a toolbox, and when one works well, it’s transformative, doing a job that you probably never thought could be done so easily. For fliers, iFareFinder searches the major booking sites (Kayak, Orbitz, etc.) for airfare and then hands you over to the seller for reservations. Chris Hall’s personal app toolbox includes Yelp, a portal to the popular user-written website that reviews food and party spots around the world, and UrbanSpoon, a restaurant finder. “I was in Vegas last week,” he says, “and I had found about 30 restaurants nearby a minute after walking out of my hotel.”
Travel apps are improving by the month. The TomTom app, released in June at the same time as the 3GS (which shoots video), turns the unit into a GPS device, great for navigating a new town. Hall’s travel wish list includes an app for bringing Southwest’s Ding! discount fares to the gadget, since the airline refuses to allow anyone else to report its prices.
As more functional, practical travel-related apps come to the phone, the device becomes increasingly indispensable to people who know the right ones to download. Just remember when to say when.