Editor’s note: This guest post is written by Alex Ahlund, the former CEO and founder of AppVee and AndroidApps, which were acquired by mobile application directory Appolicious. You can read his previous iPhone app picks here and here
The iTunes App Store is huge. More than 300,000 apps huge. I’ve watched this monster start from nothing and turn into a billion-dollar industry in only a few short years. We’ve been approaching this point for some time now, but it’s more apparent than ever that app exposure is of critical importance. A healthy majority of iOS app users discover new applications directly from their device as opposed to using iTunes. If you look specifically at the iPhone, the amount of real estate for discovery is only available to a very small percentage of the total apps.
There are currently 20 overall categories, with Games offering an additional 20 subcategories. Each subcategory is broken into three lists and displays a max of 100 apps on the iPhone. Throw in a small number from the Top 25 and Featured lists and you wind up with roughly 12,000 apps being shown at one time. This works out to only about 4% of all apps that receive visibility. One can browse beyond this number on iTunes, but that quickly becomes an overwhelming, laborious task.
The expectation is that the market will dictate an app’s worth, but it doesn’t always work out that way. If you look at the top lists, they are littered with clones, cheap knockoffs and impulse grabs. Ninety-nine cent buys are just too tempting. Without proper exposure (and potentially more appropriate pricing schemes), many truly great apps never see the light of day.
With that said, I’ve compiled what I believe to be the best apps that have come out this year. Some got well-deserved exposure, while others were lost in the shuffle. The difficult part of assembling a “best of” list is striking a balance between apps with mainstream appeal and those with real innovation. There are a number of factors that took place in the selection (such as the merits of an app itself, not just the usefulness of an established service it utilizes) and not every good app could make the cut.
I present the top apps of 2010:
Top iPhone apps:
1. Instagram: Take a photo or select one from your library, apply a visual effect to it and then post it to Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Tumblr, or Foursquare. While there are plenty of photo filter applications out there, Instagram stands apart because of how easy it is to get a unique and professional result. Indie styling without the need for a vintage camera or Photoshop skills.
2. Chase Mobile: While I don’t use Chase for banking, this app deserves some serious recognition. For an industry that isn’t known for pushing the technology envelope, Chase did something pretty cool here. Instead of going to a banking center or ATM, you can simply take a picture of the front and back of a check and the amount is deposited into your account. Beats driving to a bank.
3. Price Check by Amazon: Sure, there are several barscanning apps out there. Some work better than others, but Price Check is just about flawless. Considering I buy nearly everything from Amazon (from vitamins to electronics), I may be a bit biased. But regardless, this app offers an easy, effective way to check the price of physical goods in a store to see if you can get it cheaper online.
4. Find My iPhone: This was a great move by Apple to release the Find My iPhone feature without requiring a paid MobileMe account. With this, you can see where your phone is on a map, display a message, lock the phone or completely wipe it.
5. Google Voice: Long awaited, Google Voice has been in approval limbo for ages. I thought it would never see the light of day (due possibly to objections from AT&T) but to most people’s surprise, it was approved. With Google Voice, you can replace your calling plan with a unique number that includes dialing, texting, voicemail, and message transcription.
6. Twitter: After acquiring Tweetie, Twitter relaunched this as the official Twitter app for the iPhone. It remains the standard bearer. How many times a day do you pull down to refresh?
7. Dropbox: I’m a big proponent of the digital nomad lifestyle, so I always stay backed up on the cloud. I want to be able to access, view, retrieve and share any of my files whether I have my computer with me or not, and the Dropbox app helps me do that. It does require a Dropbox account, but its free for up to 2gb of storage.
8. SpringPad: While the Evernote app is great (I use it to catalog most of my notes and ideas), SpringPad really steps up mobile notetaking. You can write a quick memo, take a snapshot, scan a barcode of an item to remember, or have the app search nearby shops and restaurants to add. There are a lot more options than Evernote and it seems a bit speedier to quickly unload a thought.
9. Foursquare: Okay, this one didn’t come out this year, but any Best iPhone Apps list would be incomplete without it. Checking in, which seemed so quirky a year ago, is now an obsession with millions of people, and they can thank Foursquare. Tell people where you are, get mayorships, badges, and maybe some other rewards. The latest update just added comments and photo checkin capabilities. (Gowalla is still looking good too).
10. Skyfire Web Browser: I haven’t met anyone yet who doesn’t hate the fact that the iPhone lacks Flash support. While Skyfire is by no means a perfect solution, it offers us a way to watch Flash videos from the web on our iPhone. Unfortunately, it does not support Flash games and not all sites with Flash video are supported.
11. Kindle: I’m one of those people who prefers reading off an e-ink Kindle to an LCD iPad. For the millions like me, the Kindle app makes a perfect companion. However, while I don’t take my Kindle everywhere, I always have my phone. Just boot up the app and you can continue reading from where you last left off.
12. Word Lens: Word Lens is one of the few apps that really shows the potential of the iPhone. Aim your phone at anything with standard printed writing on it in another language (a sign, newspaper, etc.) and Word Lens will replace it with translated copy. The amazing thing is that it will do it in realtime. Currently it only supports English to Spanish translations (and visa versa), but greater language support is on the way. It has a few quirks, but the speed and accuracy is very impressive.
13. Groupon: This is a solid companion app to the daily-deal service Groupon, which offers up a deeply discounted product or service for a limited time. The app makes the process easier to manage without the need of the website. There are a few ancillary features like Discussion, but the real reason to keep it around is to easily check out the daily deals.
14. Hashable: If you are a heavy networker or just like introducing people, Hashable is the app for you. It lets you introduce people via Twitter or email and annotate all your meetings with hashtags like #lunch or #justmet so that you can go back later and search through them. You also get “Hashcred” every time you use the app, which pushes you up the leaderboard. This is a business app, but it feels fun.
Top Entertainment Apps:
15. Netflix: I’m a huge fan of Netflix streaming and this app is a great way to watch streamed content right on your iPhone. I was expecting movie streaming to be slow over 3G but was surprised to see that after a short loading period, it was extremely smooth. Quality settings are reduced depending on the connection, but all in all, it works great.
16. Hulu: I was on the fence about the Hulu app since Netflix covers so many of my media needs. This app requires you to subscribe to the Hulu Plus service, which is the same price as a Netflix streaming account. However, Hulu contains a lot of great TV content that will fill in many of the holes left by Netflix. The app itself feels solid and the streaming quality seems to be on par with Netflix in terms of looks and speed.
17. TuneIn Radio: The problem with Internet radio has been that despite being awesome, it hasn’t allowed access to local radio. TuneIn Radio lets you listen in on thousands of real radio stations across the country. With a bunch of features like the ability to pause and rewind live radio, it makes a great addition next to Pandora and Slacker.
18. Rhapsody: Rhapsody is an all-you-can-eat music listening service. For the longest time, iPhone/iPod Rhapsody users have been left out in the cold if they wanted to take their songs with them. But now, with the Rhapsody app, you can listen to as much music from the service as you like without needing an active Internet connection.
19. TextPics: Emoji are fun to add to text messages to other iPhone users—the problem is that your iPhone-less friends can’t see them. TextPics tries to solve this issue by giving you a bunch of ASCII “drawings” that you can text or include in emails. The best part is they are made up of standard text characters, so anyone can receive them on any device.
Top iPhone games:
20. Angry Birds: It’s not easy to ignore Angry Birds—you’ll usually find it hanging out at that #1 top spot. It’s one of the first phenomenons to come out of the iPhone world, spawning seasonal versions, toys and even a movie deal. I doubt it even needs a description, so if for some reason you’re just now crawling out from under a rock, go and download Angry Birds.
21. Plants vs Zombies: I came from the casual games industry so I’ve been a fan of PopCap for a long time. PvZ is a streamlined, linear tower defense game. Your goal is to defend your home from a swarm of zombies using a variety of different plants from common pea shooters to exploding landmine plants. With a simple, fast paced method for earning money to upgrade your defenses, this game is an entertaining blend of action, strategy and zombies.
22. Trade Nations: This is one of my favorite freemium games on the iPhone. In some ways, it plays like a cooperative real-time strategy game. You place houses to create workers, develop timber yards to bring in lumber, harvest wheat for food, etc. It’s a rewarding experience best played in short, productive bursts. Every action takes time, so it’s always interesting to check in and do a little management during a break.
23. Gun Bros: Most duel-stick survival shooters on the iPhone are simple, shallow experiences. Gun Bros. takes the genre to the next level by offering a freemium upgrade system, a unique visual style and a robust leveling mechanic. If you’re a fan of fast paced top-down shooters, this is the one to grab.
24. Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars: I’m generally not a fan of ports but this time it was done right. GTA: CW is a faithful translation of its Nintendo DS counterpart. The game is presented in a 3D overhead perspective, combining elements from the original GTA and GTA 4. Despite having an appearance similar to the former, it actually plays more like the latter and those familiar with Liberty City will find themselves right at home here.
25. N.O.V.A 2: If you’ve ever wanted to play Halo on the iPhone, this is the closest you’ll get for now. Like the original, you battle your way through a lush Sci-Fi environment while utilizing a huge arsenal of futuristic weaponry and powers, like the ability to slow down time. With improved graphics, more expansive environments, unique game components like piloting vehicles, and an array of visual effects, N.O.V.A 2 is sure to provide fans of the original, as well as newcomers, with an engrossing experience.
26. Puzzle Agent: This is why I like doing these lists. Games like Puzzle Agent deserve recognition for stepping outside the box and delivering an engrossing experience. You play as an FBI agent from the Puzzle Investigation Division in a game that combines elements of classic adventure games with thought-provoking puzzles. Together with quirky artwork and good voice acting, this is one to try out.
27. Rhythm Spirit: Rhythm Spirit is the sleeper hit of the year. It was loved by critics, but flew under the radar for many iPhone gamers. The game is a rhythm-based fighting game featuring a rich storyline based on Japanese folklore. Imaginative characters, unique gameplay and a genuinely awesome techno-zen soundtrack make Rhythm Spirit a must have for both fighting and rhythm game fans.
28. Ragdoll Blaster 2: Trajectory games have been all the rage for the iPhone. And while the genre has seen plenty of below average apps, Ragdoll Blaster 2 stands out from the crowd. With whimsical, steampunk-inspired graphics and tons of variety in level design and background art, RB2 is a deep and rewarding puzzler.
29. Spiderman: Total Mayhem: The world of Spiderman makes for one of the best gaming environments, despite the mixed results of many past attempts. Total Mayhem for the iPhone succeeds in offering up a very attractive, highly playable web-slinging experience. This solid beat-em-up gives you all of Spidey’s skills as you swing through cityscapes, web-up bad guys, and engage in some good ol’ fashion fisticuffs. Total Mayhem is visually fantastic and features truly excellent fighting mechanics.
30. Mirror’s Edge: I’ve been fascinated with parkour ever since the movie Yamakazis came out. I even signed up to train in it with more or less unfortunate results. So for now, Mirror’s Edge is the closest I’ll get to spending my weekends leaping from rooftops. I was a big fan of the game on consoles, so I initially approached this iPhone adaptation warily. However, I quickly discovered that this version is surprisingly competent with intuitive controls and an effective, device-friendly side-scrolling perspective. Smooth, flowing animation and beautifully sharp 3D graphics evocative of the original console version contributes to the uniquely satisfying, running and jumping experience.
31. Cut the Rope: I didn’t want to like this game. It shot up to the #1 position on the App Store after only a day. I thought there surely had to be some foul play at work. But the truth is, regardless of whether or not “creative” marketing methods were used, the game is pretty damn fun. The objective is to get a piece of candy, dangling from a rope, into a cute monster’s mouth. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Plenty of obstacles get in your way and before long, you’ll find yourself absolutely addicted to helping the little guy get his sugary fix.
32. Fruit Ninja: Some games are just fun for their sheer mindless simplicity – Fruit Ninja is one of those games. As 3D fruits hop into view, you run your finger across the screen to cut them in half—simple as that. Slice up the endless onslaught of fruit while avoiding the game-ending bombs. Each session begins at a slow, steady pace with the action gradually becoming more intense and frantic as you progress.
33. Osmos: There is a certain zen-like satisfaction you get from playing Osmos. You control an amoeba-like blob that must consume smaller entities to grow, and then expel them to move. You’ve got to be alert to maintain this careful balancing act, but the meditative lull of Osmos’ ambiance creates a uniquely relaxing, trancey experience.
34. Smurfs’ Village: When it comes to freemium management games currently available on the App Store, the experience is too often shallow and predictable. This isn’t the case with Smurf’s Village. While the objective is still to build and develop your village, the game is jam packed with tasks, mini-games and even a loose narrative. Smurf’s Village features great music and excellent, hi-res graphics that are sure to instill a warm sense of nostalgia to anyone who spent the 80’s watching Saturday morning cartoons.
Top Technical Achievement games:
The iPhone has come a long way in terms of processing power and developers are starting to figure out how to get the most out of the hardware. The following games are truly impressive examples of what the iPhone is capable of:
35. Modern Combat 2: Black Pegasus: It’s no simple task to bring a console-quality first-person shooter to a device the size of your hand. It’s a careful balance of processing, assets, and usability. Fortunately, Modern Combat does a highly commendable job of pulling it off. High-res graphics, impressive visual effects, and detailed environments give Modern Combat 2 more than enough reason to be considered a technical achievement this year.
36. Star Wars Arcade: Falcon Gunner: You are going to want to play this gam ein a swivel chair. The 360-degree graphics take advantage of the iPhone’s gyroscope to let you swivel around and shoot TIE Fighters from the Millenium Falcon’s gun turret. The gameplay is pretty basic, but the 360-effect and 3D graphics put you in the action like no other game. You can also play in augmented reality mode which switches the background to your camera view, making it look like the TIE Fighters are in your room or flying through the air.
37. Samurai 2: Vengeance: I love games that really push style and character, and Samurai 2: Vengeance does just that. Visually, the game looks like it could be a younger sibling of Capcom’s console gem, Okami. The art is like a combination of Japanese brush painting and anime, giving Vengeance an amazingly rich and distinct style. Thick outlines, flat colors and exaggerated motion create a unique manga look that boldly stands out in the App Store.
38. Real Racing 2: The first Real Racing took the App Store by storm when it was released last year. It was one of the few apps that showed what the iPhone was really capable of. Real Racing 2 doesn’t disappoint in keeping that tradition alive. RR2 is the best looking racing game available for the iPhone. From the detailed tracks and environments, to the actual licensed cars themselves, this will be sure to impress even the most cynical of driving sim enthusiasts. While Real Racing 2 has packed in even more play modes, multiplayer options and cars, it still uses the near flawless control scheme options of its predecessor.
39. Rage HD: I generally dislike the “on-rails” mechanic for any game. If I absolutely had to play an on-rails shooter, I’d more likely head on down to the coin laundry and play some Operation Wolf. But that does not diminish the fact that Rage HD is currently one of the two best looking games in the App Store today. Sharp textures, dynamic lighting, and high poly rendering make this an impressive feat. Now if they would just pry us off these rails we could have a seriously awesome shooter on our hands.
40. Infinity Blade: Infinity Blade is by far the best looking game ever to appear on the iPhone. Developed by Epic using the same engine that powered the incredible tech demo, Epic Citadel, it is no surprise that Infinity Blade is visually on par with modern console games. The gameplay consists of tapping and swiping the screen in a variety swashbuckling maneuvers as you fight against a succession of guards attempting to prevent you from reaching the God King. In addition to the combat, the game also features some interesting RPG elements and a functional storyline to provide context for all the mayhem. And though it doesn’t offer the deepest or most fulfilling gameplay, Infinity Blade succeeds in ushering in the new visual benchmark for high-end iPhone gaming.
Tell us which apps you would put on this list.