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“There’s an app for that...!”

We’ve all seen the TV ads for the iPhone, demonstrating just how easy it is to find a restaurant, check the menu, and get directions, all with a few effortless swipes of the touch-screen. We’ve also heard that there are now thousands of apps: over 230,000 in Apple’s App Store alone, with Google’s Android Market and the other phone manufacturers striving hard to catch up.

But what exactly is an app and how can we get in on the act?

Put simply, an app is a small software program. When we think of software, we think of Microsoft Word or PhotoShop – massive code-heavy programs that carry out extremely complex tasks.  However, with apps we are talking about small, bite-sized programs that let us perform a very specific task, like get a weather report, check the news, or play a game.

Some apps require constant updates, like those for viewing stock prices or the latest sports scores. To do this, the app will use your device’s Internet connection to pull in the information it needs. Other apps, like games, sound effects, or screen savers, will be self-contained, using just the downloaded software and the phone’s functionality to achieve the desired results.

Apps are often confused with widgets but there is a difference. A widget is an Internet-driven app that is constantly running in the background, like a Twitter feed or a weather display. However, most apps are program files that can be opened and closed as required.

Where can you get apps?

If you have an iPhone, an iPod touch or an iPad, you access apps from the App Store. (The App Store is part of iTunes but is featured as a separate icon on the iPhone for easy access.) For Android phones, apps are accessed through the ‘Market’ icon.

Apps are normally organized by category, and by whether they are ‘paid’ apps or ‘free’ apps. Categories include games, entertainment, news, finance, health, sports, shopping, travel – you name it and there will be hundreds of different apps to choose from.

Both the App Store and the Android Market also highlight the most popular apps, which can be a good indicator of their usefulness or entertainment value. Apple has also recently introduced a ‘Try Before You Buy’ section, which allows you to give an app a trial run before you decide on the full download.

Most paid apps cost a one-time fee of between $0.99 and $4.99, which, in the case of the iPhone, is billed to your credit card the same way as if you were downloading a song from iTunes.  Downloads from the Android Market are normally billed through your carrier and will appear on your monthly phone bill.

So, if you have a smartphone or an iPod touch, don’t be left behind. Join the millions of people who have turned their mobile devices into entertainment centers. You won’t be disappointed!

Comment by Laura T., posted 8/9/2010, 2:34 PM:

I couldn't agree more. I originally got my Android because I wanted to access personal and work email/calendars at any time. It's ended up being so much more than that. I check the Weather Channel App every morning so I know if it's going to rain. I play the Robo Defense Force app when I'm riding the train to work. I use the Urban Spoon app when I want to find a new restaurant nearby. You get the idea…I really love it!
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