Navigating the wide world of mobile apps

Apple's iPhone 4, released June 24.

From the White House to Kraft Foods Inc., institutions are moving quickly to offer mobile application software, known as apps, allowing users to call several taxi companies at once, monitor food recalls or count calories, all from their smart phones.

Beyond the ubiquitous foursquare usage, location-based mobile applications are quickly becoming indispensable for users looking for traffic updates, restaurants in a strange city, or even “specific info on the painting you’re standing in front of,” according to Scientific Media Inc. CEO and Georgetown University professor, Patrick McQuown.

Health care is a fast-growing market, with close to 60,000 apps available on the market related to health or healthcare, according to a report released by MobiHealthNews in March. First lady Michelle Obama announced in March the Innovative Apps for Healthy Kids competition as part of her “Let’s Move” campaign in an effort to steer families towards healthier eating habits and activities.

The health care market for mobile apps is growing so quickly that the Food and Drug Administration recently indicated it is studying how it would tackle regulation of devices and the applications they use.

Apple device applications have more than doubled in number since the end of 2009, increasing to more than 230,000 in July from around 113,000 in December, according to 148apps.biz. Apps for Google Inc.’s Android-based smart phones are quickly catching up, with around 92,000 apps available, according to Android marketplace website AndroLib.com.

Currently, the average price for Apple device apps is $2.79. Top categories for Apple device apps include books at 17.9 percent, games at 14.5 percent and entertainment at 11.4 percent of the total, according to 148apps.biz.

Apple products aren’t the only devices with a robust apps market, with the growing popularity of Android-based smart phones, but Apple products command the vast majority of mobile web applications. Research in Motion’s BlackBerry smart phone market was estimated at around 3,000 in December.

“The biggest issue going forward is that there are so many apps that consumers are having a hard time finding the app that they want or may need,” said Tim Bajarin, president of Campbell, Calif.-based Creative Strategies Inc. and a columnist for PC World magazine.

How to determine the good from the bad? A good place to start are the official, company-backed mobile app marketplaces: the iTunes Apps Store for Apple devices, the Android Market for mobile devices running the Google operating system and the BlackBerry App World for Research In Motion’s smart phones.

“If you’re getting an app from Apple site, it’s not going to have a virus, it’s not going to have pornography,” Bajarin said. “There’s assurance that the apps will do what they say. With the Android apps you don’t have that kind of assurance.”

Many technology pundits, however, appear to prefer community-driven websites including AndroLib.com for Android smart phones and 148apps.com for Apple devices.

Experts say there are drawbacks for user-generated reviews and ratings as well. “User-generated reviews tend to have grade inflation, [ratings are] either really high or really low,” McQuown said. “Really high is like a CARFAX report coming back negative: it doesn’t mean nothing is wrong, just nothing hugely negative.”

McQuown recommends marketplaces associated with wireless carriers, such as  T-Mobile and Verizon for Android smart phones and AT&T for Apple devices, that carry and recommend apps that have been thoroughly vetted.

“[Publications] that operate in the art or travel sector” or cover a niche or hobby are also good sources for mobile application recommendations, according to McQuown. An avid cyclist, McQuown likes mobile applications profiled by publications he reads about the sport, including Cycling News and VeloNews.

Several established technology blogs continually rate and review smart phone apps, including Mashable, MacWorld and Gizmodo, which has handy “essentials” guides for Android and Apple devices. CNET packages iPhone-related content under its iPhone Atlas banner.

PC World magazine and Ziff-Davis Inc. publish AppScout, where apps are organized by category. The Organization for Apps Testing Standards posts a list of accredited Apple-device app websites, and Consumer Reports published a list of recommended health-related apps on their health blog in October.

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