Smartphones: Is there anything they can't do?

My wife is standing at the door to the bathroom, watching me time my toothbrush routine using an application downloaded to my iPhone.

Friday 7.43 am

My wife stands at the door to the bathroom, watching me time my toothbrush routine using an application downloaded to my iPhone. Thirty seconds on upper-right molars: done. "What are you doing?" she asks. "Nothing," I mumble through a mouthful of toothpaste. She doesn't speak, but her eyes say "I think I love you a little less." If only she understood

Ever since I bought an Apple iPhone, I have been hooked on apps (see "What's app, Doc?"). Apple's App Store is a virtual shopping mall with all the shopaholic joy of a real mall but none of the annoying teenagers. It is packed to the virtual rafters with thousands of downloadable software tools. Admittedly, the store makes a bad first impression on many people, with novelty apps such as lightsabres dominating the top 25 chart. But dig a little deeper and you will find life-enhancing riches.

I confess that I now turn to the App Store in almost every situation. In unfamiliar places, I use apps to find the nearest gas station, cinema or even public toilet. I track the length and time of my commute. All my gym workouts are logged. Finding a nice place to eat while on the move is a cinch. Even this article is brought to you thanks to a voice recorder app (iDictaphone) that I used for recording interviews, and one that helped me "mind map" my thoughts when planning it out. Sometimes I daydream about becoming the most virtually enhanced human in the world.

Thankfully, I am not the only one in this appy daze. I discovered that loads of people, including my colleagues, turn to their phones for help with all sorts of things (see Case study 1 Search for happiness, Case study 2 Get fit and Case study 3 Find love). Up until a year ago, apps barely registered. Now these clever bits of software, when combined with the sensors and networking capabilities of today's smartphones, are sparking nothing short of a techno-cultural revolution. On the iPhone alone, Apple claims over 1.5 billion apps have been downloaded in just a year. The rest of the industry, including Nokia and Google, is now piling in with their own new or relaunched app stores (see Appsolutely everything).

Apps are more than just clever toys. While gaming still accounts for the lion's share of app activity, it is beyond doubt that apps, and the new wave of phones in which they reside, are already influencing the way their users communicate with each other, navigate their environment and do business. Arguably, these tailored bits of software - connected to the internet, location-aware and sensor-supported as they are - may supersede the web. Some say the devices on which they reside are becoming a vital part of our selves, turning us into de facto cyborgs. Could these humble bits of code really have the potential to completely transform the way we interact with the world?

Saturday 11.10 pm

Out with friends and last orders have been called in the pub. The alpha male of our group pulls out a stack of taxi numbers scrawled on old business cards. None of the firms is close enough. "Richard has a new iPhone - let's try that," my wife suggests. I pull up an app called AroundMe, which tells me where the nearest cab company is. Thirty seconds later and the taxi is on its way. My friends look on in envy and admiration. Alpha male looks despondent. "I am part man, part computer," I tell myself

Some might ask what all the fuss is about. After all, downloadable applications appeared on some cellphones such as the Palm Treo almost a decade ago, so what's different now? The short answer is that the old apps were not particularly good. They were either difficult to download or time-consuming to master, so few people used them, says Gerard Goggin at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, who has studied the sociological impact of the iPhone (Continuum, vol 23, p 231).

Even people who think that Apple is all about glossy hype cannot deny that the iPhone changed things for everybody. Variously described as the Jesus phone, a concierge, a Swiss army knife or, somewhat disturbingly, a fingertip secretary, the iPhone is currently at the centre of the new app world. But forget the touch screen and sleek design, the truly revolutionary thing that Apple CEO Steve Jobs managed to do with the iPhone was to persuade cellphone network operators to loosen their grip on what phones could do. One of the consequences of this coup was the birth of the App Store, which Apple alone controlled and had designed to be as easy to browse as the iTunes store.

What's more, Apple made it easy for anybody with some programming know-how to create an app: for $99 you can download the software development kit and gain intimate access to the phone's functions. Lured by the promise of riches, developers ranging from large software houses to bedroom enthusiasts have created a massive market of apps, virtually overnight (see Appsolutely everything).

Monday 7.25 pm

I have begun to track my cycle commute using an app called Trails, which records my path, altitude and speed as I travel. My aim is to find the fastest and shortest route to work. Today I achieved a new work-to-home record. "My god, what happened?" asked my wife as I shuffled through the front door this evening. "You look terrible." I give her a self-satisfied grin. It was me versus the clock, and I won

In the past year, many other companies have launched or rebranded their app stores for other handsets, including Nokia's Ovi store and Google's Android marketplace. None has the sheer volume of the iPhone's store yet, but few technology analysts think Apple will remain the dominant purveyor of apps for long: Android offers significantly more freedom for developers than Apple, so could lure many of them away from the iPhone; Palm has been in the apps game for years; Research in Motion has the business market cornered with its Blackberries; Nokia has legions of loyal European customers; and Microsoft is, well, Microsoft.

Even if these are not as successful as Apple's store, hundreds if not thousands of apps look likely to be available on most handsets. The explosion in investment coupled with the armies of developers means that there is already an app for almost any occasion. "The phone can take on many, many guises," says Goggin. "It can be a spirit level, a bowling ball, a budget balancer or a breathalyser." The device in your pocket is not a phone any more. It is anything you want it to be.

Saturday 4.30 pm

In a coffee shop casually flicking through the App Store. My finger hovers over an icon on the screen. Should I download MyVibe, a vibrator sex toy that was among the first X-rated apps Apple permitted? It feels so wrong, and yet...

The ability to use apps in almost any context raises the possibility that these devices could lead to profound changes in the way we navigate the world, communicate and absorb information. The app phenomenon is only a year old, but researchers are watching the surge closely. Many social scientists who study the influence of technology argue that app-enabled mobile devices are set to become a huge influence on our daily behaviours.

Sherry Turkle at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who studies people's relationship with technology, says the power of the latest cellphones lies in the fact that they are "always on, always on you". With this capability, she says, the devices effectively become an appendage to our body and mind that plays a role in everything from our social interactions to emotions.

David Chalmers, a philosopher at the Australian National University in Canberra, agrees. He thinks cellphones are allowing cognition to creep beyond our skulls in entirely new ways. "Increasingly sophisticated information processing is being offloaded to them," he says, so that smartphones are becoming a repository for our memory, desires and beliefs. And we can retrieve this information at will wherever we are. By aiding efficiency, navigation and local knowledge, apps achieve things that our biological brain alone could not.

Sunday 2.30 pm

I'm visiting my parents. In the post-lunch lull I reach for my phone and am dismayed to find it isn't in my pocket. I feel like I've lost a limb. Fortunately my laptop is to hand. My mother peers over my shoulder. "It's a program called MobileMe," I explain. "I can use it to track my iPhone's location on a map if it's lost or stolen. No matter where it ends up in the world, I can see it."

"That's incredible!" she exclaims. "Anywhere in the world? So where is it now?"

"It's in my house," I reply relieved. You are off the hook this time, mother, I think, but I'm watching you

The extra-appendage idea is backed up by a recent survey of the way people are using apps. Earlier this year, a Chicago-based technology and design consultancy called Gravity Tank quizzed more than 1000 app users and conducted detailed interviews with a selection of them.

Over one-third of respondents said that they couldn't live without their app-loaded smartphones. "Apps are finding a meaningful place in people's daily diets," says Gravity Tank's Michael Winnick. "If you can access information and computing power anywhere and any time, it'll impact on every part of human behaviour."

These people rely on apps to complete expense reports, monitor their pets remotely or manage their exercise regimes (see Appsolutely everything). Their smartphones have become a constantly evolving tool with the potential to instantly improve any moment, says Winnick. Some even reported that they perceived apps as an "extension of their brains".

In 10 to 15 years, app-enabled phones will be the number one channel through which we receive information, according to B. J. Fogg of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, who studies the "persuasive" power of technologies. "We're building our lives around apps," he says. The devices know where we are and perhaps even what we are doing because of the phone's various sensors. Therefore, Fogg argues, they can provide highly personalised information that trumps the internet, TV, radio or traditional media.

You can already see hints of this from the Gravity Tank survey: app users spend about 25 per cent less time reading newspapers, watching TV or using a computer since they started using apps.

Dean Eckles, also at Stanford, believes that app-enabled phones could become the sole "lens" through which we view the world. Our phones could soon influence our choices in day-to-day life without us even realising it, he says. He bases his argument on studies showing that we are more likely to trust familiar technology that is physically near us. We develop a "quasi-social" relationship with it, he says.

An experiment by Youngme Moon, now at Harvard Business School, illustrates the point. It showed that people were more likely to provide personal information to a computer they had been sitting at for a while than another elsewhere in the room, even though they knew both were programmed in exactly the same way (Journal of Consumer Research, vol 26, p 323).

The cellphone is about as trusted and familiar to us as a gadget can be. No other technology is as close, so much of the time. It would be all too easy to put too much trust in apps, Eckles warns.

Friday 7.10 pm

Wandering through the streets of central London. Earlier, I checked an app called Yelp for restaurant tips. My wife and I have been walking towards the recommended venue for half an hour. I insist on ignoring all other establishments along the way. We lose mobile signal and become lost in the backstreets of Soho, just as it starts to rain. The look she gave me in the bathroom last friday morning returns

Plenty of apps, such as Yelp or AroundMe, help people discover what's in their vicinity, often filtered according to popularity or the reviews of other users. However, the quality and reliability of this ranking varies widely, says Eckles. One neighbourhood's recommendations are not always as robust as the next. The problem is that we could forget to think too deeply about this because we trust our phones implicitly. So it could become the case that if an app doesn't tell you there is a restaurant around the corner, then as far as you are concerned, it is not there. The only path we would choose would be among the options shown to us, says Eckles. Thanks to our smartphones, many of our decisions "are going to happen automatically and mindlessly, outside of our awareness".

There is a more serious side to this than merely choosing our eateries. Take the iPhone: Apple decides what will and will not run on it, and vetoes anything it believes is offensive, unsuitable or competitive with its other services. It remains to be seen whether other smartphone manufacturers will follow suit.

What is clear is that apps are set to become an ever greater part of our lives. As the technology of handsets improves, the next wave of apps will join up the real and virtual worlds even more. Many will be based on "augmented reality", which involves overlaying computer graphics on a view of the real world captured through the phone's camera. In the Android marketplace, apps such as Wikitude and Layar already use the handset's video camera, directional sensors, location information and internet connection to allow users to look "through" their phones to see a virtually augmented building or landscape. Once developers tap into the full capabilities of the latest version of the iPhone, a flood of similar apps is likely to emerge in Apple's App Store, says Blair McIntyre of Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, an authority on augmented reality.

That's just the first step, though. Imagine what will be possible when somebody finally manages to commercialise an augmented-reality display built into a pair of high-tech glasses, says Eckles. Though these kinds of displays have been in the works for a while, it is apps that could give the prototypes a final push to the market. Such a display could be connected to "always on" apps, constantly feeding information that overlays our vision, from location specific tourist information to the nutritional content of our groceries. And when this happens, says Eckles, our smartphones will truly have become the sole lens through which we view the world.

Friday 11.45 pm

Lower incisors: sparkling. The toothbrush timer finishes. "You are awesome!" it announces. I smile, but a splinter of suspicion slides into my mind that I may be placing too much store on what my iPhone apps tell me. Maybe my wife is right that I should give it a rest for a while. While pondering the thought, I open up the App Store and check for shaving apps

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