Happy New Year and welcome to the iPhone blog's 2009 TiPb Editor's Choice Awards for the very best (in our opinion!) iPhone and iPod touch apps and accessories released in the last year!
We're not really doing Smartphone of the Year since, unlike our sibling sites, Apple has so far seen fit to only release one new iPhone each year. However, that doesn't mean we don't think the iPhone 3GS isn't terrific. It is. Even if we consider the smartphone space as a whole, even if we put it up against the best Android, BlackBerry, Nokia, Palm, and Windows have to offer, while it might get bested -- even eclipsed -- in certain specs or feature sets, there's still nothing that brings it all together in so appealing a mainstream package as the iPhone 3GS.
From its butter-smooth interface now with "s as in speed" to its singular build quality to its incredible ecosystem to its 120,000 apps for anything and everything, even if we did do this category -- which we're not -- the iPhone 3GS would still be our pick for Smartphone of the Year. So there.
Make no mistake, the Droid, the BlackBerry Bolds and Tour and Storms, the Nokia N900, the Windows Phone HTC HD2 -- each brought it in their own way (hey, it's why we do the Smartphone Round Robin), but each mostly brought it with hardware specs like 480p displays, or services like free navigation. They made good things better.
Palm brought it with a whole new OS, one that combined amazing visualization for multitasking with brilliant notification handling, and sidestepped the developer divide by using web technology as their SDK. If the iPhone woke up a complacent smartphone industry, Palm made sure they stayed awake another year. Sure the hardware could have been harder core and there was that whole iTunes sync brouhaha, but that combined with the "years in the desert" to go from PalmOS to webOS, made Palm even more of a comeback story, and who doesn't root for Rocky? That's why the Palm Pre is our competitor of the year!
Last year Innovation of the Year was easy: the App Store. Now, two-billion downloads, well over 100,000 apps, and almost universal imitation not just from the Android Market, but now from BlackBerry App World, Microsoft Windows Marketplace for Mobile, Nokia Ovi Store, Palm webOS App Catalog, and who knows what else, it's still far and away the market leader, if the idea itself has long passed being led. Not that Apple didn't try in 2009, with the iPhone 3.0 Sneak Preview Event the undoubtedly innovative in-app purchases (including free apps no longer needing to stay free) and accessory access via the dock and Bluetooth. Push notification tops the candidates list as well. It isn't he full-on multitasking some still demand, but it covers 90% of the functionality at 20% of the battery drain (ahem) and hey, even some multitasking smartphones don't handle push notification yet.
But no, we're going with something more important even if less interesting. The $99 iPhone 3G. Sure, it's last year's model, but it's got the latest iPhone OS 3.x on it and most importantly it redefined -- and disrupted -- what was considered a budget smartphone and forced every other platform and player to lower prices and reconsider the -- frankly crappy -- handsets they offered for cheap. Up front cost shouldn't mean much to people on contract for $2000+ over two years but it does. Getting under $100 was huge for Apple. And for consumers, who's previous budget choices were the likes of Palm Centro, BlackBerry Pearl, or WinMo... whatever, it was huger still. That makes the $99 iPhone 3G our Apple Innovation of the Year.
Last year Google Mobile snuck in some private-API wizardry (later made all nice and legal by iPhone 3.0) to make voice search so good we thought we were in Star Trek. This year Apple announced accessory access and all sorts of new API's and developers certainly didn't disappoint. Some of the most amazing new iPhone Apps weren't new to mobile, however. RedLaser reads barcodes and finds competitive prices amazingly well, but Android had that first. Likewise Qik is finally streaming live, but geeks were doing that from the N95 a couple years ago. Still, with everything from the latest Apple Remote to Zipcar, it's harder then ever to single one app out.
So we're singling out a category -- Augmented Reality. Take a live camera view, add location services and -- one day, visual recognition -- and layer data on top of it. Hold your iPhone camera up to a restaurant and the menu pops up for you to read. Point it west and see the tweets of the physically closest people you follow. Point it at your friend and get a reminder you owe him $5. We're not sure if it's just trendy concept or will really, truly prove functional one day, but just like Google Mobile made us think of Star Trek, this combines several cutting edge technologies in such a way that it makes us think of a dozen sci-fi heads-up displays and gorramit if we don't want that future today.
Too small to be the overall innovation of the year, this category is for the tiny little tweaks that never the less make all the difference. Lots of developers continued to make drop-dead gorgeous iPhone apps in 2009, including Tapbots' latest Pastebot, Twitterrific 2's ability to hide so much functionality behind so sensible a layout, and Facebook 3.0 finally showed how to do massive social networking right on a local app, and Apple even rolled out new Voice Recorder and Compass app interfaces. It was something much simpler, however, much more insidious that got inside TiPb's user experience this year.
Yeah, it's totally Tweetie 2's terrific "pull down to refresh". Apple built the wonderful, tactile feeling elasticity of the "rubber band" effect into iPhone 1.x but never did much with it. Developer Atebits took it and made it a simple, intuitive way to request new data from an internet server -- in this case update your Twitter timeline. That many of us now try to use it to reload a page in Safari, or get new messages in Mail, or refresh anything and anything that feels like it should refresh when we pull down shows just how simple and intuitive it is. Sometimes it's not the big once-and-a-while's that make the difference, it's the little use-it-all-the-times.
iPhone 3GS brought a much improved camera and video recording, amazingly improved photo software, and even trim-able video recording. A lot of apps took advantage, both of the old gear and the new. Leanna covered five fantastic ones earlier, and since then a couple have even come around to offering video for the iPhone 3G.
But if video is the new still, ReelDirector ups the ante from Apple's trim to full-on (for a mobile) video editing. From titles to transitions, soundtracks to Ken Burns effects, it may not be Final Cut Pro but it's definitely a fun first cut.
Documents to Go, which updated their flagship app to Premium and added PowerPoint editing and Gmail attachment support at almost the last minute gets our vote. Even though Apple still hasn't provided a universal document repository, or file picker (the way the picture picker works for images), Documents to Go continues to push the boundaries of what an Office-style app can do on the iPhone.
If Facebook had gotten push notifications, if Skype had actually gotten 3G access, this category might be even harder to decide than it already is. Likewise all those notification enabled IM clients that now include features like group chat make apps like BeeJive social powerhouses.
But those iPhone twitter clients just. won't. stop. We already mentioned Tweetie 2 and Twitterrific 2, but there's also Birdfeed, and both Twitbit and SimplyTweet made it into our staff picks of the year. And yeah, TweetDeck is on the iPhone now as well. In addition to the general-purpose clients, we have apps like Birdhouse that excel at writing and Reportage that make reading manageable. Heck, even Twitter's own WebApp got a great makeover.
Twitter exploded in 2009, and the quality of iPhone Twitter apps exploded right along with it. They're all so good, again we can't pick just one, so we're naming them all the social networking apps of the year!
Another of app category made possible by iPhone 3.0 is turn-by-turn GPS navigation, and it didn't take long for top of the line, premium-priced market leaders like TomTom to come on board (and with car kits!), and subscription services like the TeleNav-powered AT&T Navigator have come on board, but low-cost, crowd-sourced alternatives have also flourished. And even with the 800lbs gorilla of the newly announced Google Maps Navigation staring them down all searchy and free, they've continued to update and innovate.
Navigon's MobileNavigator has been helping push the pace of those updates and that innovation. Whether it's text to speech or live-traffic, this maps-on-board solution took iPhone 3.0's APIs and didn't run -- it drove.
If there was a theme to iPhone and iPod touch gaming in 2009 it was the maturing of the platform that brought both big franchises and games very much akin to the big franchises. There are literally too many to list (though Jeremy started and Chad focused in on FPS' a while back).
But N.O.V.A brought "Halo" to the iPhone. Maybe we should have found something more original, more uniquely dependent on the iPhone's specific technologies. But N.O.V.A brought "Halo" to the iPhone.
Given the accelerometer, racing games are just such a natural fit for the iPhone and iPod touch that it's no wonder there are so many great racing games for the platform (Chad's picked out a top 5 already!) And with iPhone 3GS and iPod touch G3 level horsepower and OpenGL 2.0 no doubt there's even better ahead (hey, we've seen a glimpse of it already).
For now, however, Real Racing is where it's at. Our 2009 Grand Prix winner is also a racing game of the year.
A lot of great puzzle games have hit the iPhone, from Peggle to Stoneloops to Bejeweled 2 and Tetris, to well almost every great puzzle game that could come to the platform. In 2008, however, Trism showed you could do an iPhone-proper puzzler and do it incredibly well.
Ramp Champ took a flick at it in 2009, with gorgeous graphics, one of the best implementations of in-app purchases to date, and arguably too much challenge for its (or rather its players) own good. There maybe puzzle games with bigger brands, more levels, and perhaps even better physics, but when we think about what we love most about iPhone software -- indie developers, attention to detail, love of UI -- Ramp Champ lands squarely in the bullseye.
Even post-iPhone 3.0, Jailbreak continued to fill gaps in functionality like theming, BT keyboards, lockscreen widgets, notification management, and -- of course -- unlocking the iPhone 3GS. If Apple won't do it, it's been proven time and time again the Jailbreak community will.
ProSwitcher did the same, but looked especially great doing it. Take a Jailbroken iPhone, add Backgrounder to get your multitask on, and then manage the whole thing with Safari Pages-style -- and yes, webOS cards-style UI candy.
Apple raised the stakes in 2009 by adding iPhone 3.0 support for A2DP stereo Bluetooth -- sort of. Apple forgot to add all the proper control protocols, so you can't skip tracks, but boy can you still rock out. Now iPhone and iPod touch users can enjoy music (and adjusting volume), and excellent products like the Motorola S9-HD and the Jabra Cruiser speakerphone.
And if that wasn't enough, our pick for BT headset of the year, the Blueant Q1 got an update -- really, how often to BT headsets get firmware update?! -- to enable A2DP. It's a premium product, just like the iPhone, but with voice control, and support for two phones (for you dual wielders), it's also a fantastic one.
Apple can't win. They change the design of the iPhone 3G and people with iPhone 2G cases complain their old accessories don't fit. They keep the iPhone 3GS in the same duds, and people complain it's boring. But at least the case makers could concentrate on better rather than different, and better they have. From the soft-stylings of the iSkin solo to the gloss of the Case-mate Barely There Chrome and the utility of the Golla bag, there's definitely a "case for that".
And if we're talking case, and we're talking protection, the Hummer of cases, the battle-armor of protection, is the OtterBox Defender. It's not for those who just want a sticker or a skin, a splash of color or the smell of fine leather -- it's for those who want their iPhone survive. And it's our case of the year.
No doubt the App Store is such a smash hit that even Apple was unprepared for the tsunami of submissions they're now facing. The numbers are staggering, but not as staggering as the growth rate. But choosing to be a gatekeeper comes with it the responsibility of being a good gatekeeper. It's Apple's store and they can fill it's virtual shelves with what they want, but when the developers who make the apps those shelves are being filled with lose faith -- when they no longer trust Apple's rules, or realize there are no consistent rules being enforced, even if Apple and mainstream users don't lose out, the platform does. Sure, they've made some small improvements inside iTunes connect and with the RSS feed, but they're slow to the point of being arduous.
Some developers have been frustrated enough to leave the iPhone. A few returned only because the competitions' development environment, install base, and user experience wasn't competitive enough... yet. But that "yet" could change at any moment. And if the best and brightest developers are making the best and brightest apps for Android rather than the iPhone, that's not a loss to Apple's bottom line, it's a loss to their heart.
That's why rejected App Store apps, specifically the capricious, opaque way in which they're continuing to be rejected, is our epic FAIL of the year.
We've mentioned most of the other big stories already -- the still amazing Jailbreak journey, the still disappointing App Store rejections. And then there was the leave of absence, and triumphant return of Steve Jobs.
But iTablet/iStlate was the story that wouldn't quit, however, and the rumors, speculation, and rampant geek want built and built throughout 2009. We're not even sure actually announcing the device (which may just happen in 2010) could have been a bigger story -- anticipation is just that powerful. Whether (more likely when) it ultimate comes out, Apple's mysterious, mythical, magical, maybe iTablet is our story of the year.
Well, that's it -- TiPb's Editor Awards for 2009 gone and done! What will we see in 2010? Who knows, but we're excited to find out!
Did you agree with any of our picks? Disagree? What would YOU have given the nod to? Feel strongly about it? Tell us -- or tell us off -- in the comments! (And we'll have our next Readers' Choice Awards coming up later in 2010 so you can put your apps where your opinions are as well!)
Happy New Year
--The iPhone blog team