Recently Microsoft had to limit developers' app submissions to its Windows Phone 7 Marketplace to twenty a day because "app spammers" were submitting hundreds of nearly identical apps making the store difficult or impossible to browse. This had me thinking how smartphones have really devalued the term "application." In my household we have WP7 phones, iPhones, and Android devices, so we're often perusing the offerings at the various Marketplaces, Markets and App Stores.
As you might expect, any of collection of tens of thousands to a half-million of anything will have a quite a few clunkers, and the smartphone app stores certainly do not disappoint! While there are certainly many very good apps and games available for smartphones of all types, the vast majority are tiny apps with a single feature that usually is already available in the core software of the phone- an app that finds the nearest coffee shop or hospital, or an app that launches a single TV or radio station stream in the phone's media player. And even those are geometrically more useful than the ubiquitous collection of "fart apps" and flashlights clogging the store of every platform.
It seems obvious that we have Apple to blame, since never before the iPhone and the iTunes App Store was such a collection of worthless dreck available for any mobile platform, right?
Today's tale is a spotlight on one of the unsung "heroes" of the smartphone era. Plant your tongue firmly in your cheek and learn of a man who boldly predicted the future, even if he himself had no idea his obscure concept would be the foundation for every modern successful smartphone app store.
Back in the days of the Microsoft Support Newsgroups, every reader of the Pocket PC groups would occasionally be hit by an auto-generated invitation from one Vincent Collura, a Canadian self-described "inventor/engineer" to visit his site http://www.cebeans.com and check out the thousands of free programs for Pocket PCs and touchscreen Windows Mobile phones available there. He and his site are still around, and as of today, it offers around 7800 apps. While offering that number of programs is a mildly impressive feat for any freeware site, what makes this site unique is that the nearly 8000 programs are all written by Vincent himself! He has averaged writing nearly two programs a day every day since the Pocket PC/Windows Mobile platform came into existence!
Understand that these aren't complicated multi-functional apps- even Vince himself doesn't suggest that. He calls them "beans," presumably a reference to their small size, sheer number, and relative insignificance. These are simplistic apps like you'd expect from the first few weeks of a Visual Basic 101 programming class; many are very similar, like database apps for your DVD and CD collections that seemingly differ only in that one says "DVD" and the other "CD" throughout the app, many simply launch a single function that could just as easily be handled by an existing included program, shortcut or favorite, like the "MobileNASA" app that simply opens Windows Media Player and plays the NASA TV video stream. Others are absolutely, mind-bogglingly ridiculous, like the "BirdTeacher" app that randomly replays any of five .wav files you pre-record to train your parrot to talk, or the very similar "BabyProgrammer" bean that "allows you to record a word or phrase then place the headphones on the child and the sound file will repeat and train the baby to learn the word..."
Figure 2: BabyProgrammer in all its glory.
Um, "place headphones" on a baby? Has this guy ever seen a baby?
I'd previously given Vince a little "constructive criticism" on the Pocket PC support newsgroup over the years that I'm not particularly proud of, about both his weekly auto-generated self-promotion posts and the uselessness of his beans, but in retrospect, I realize I had it all wrong! Vince wasn't just an amateur programmer/hobbyist pumping out a pile of crude, worthless programs, he was a true visionary! He alone predicted a day when people would sift through pages and pages of ridiculous, redundant, simple apps that no one actually needs, reading their incoherent descriptions replete with grammatical errors. He was, much like DaVinci, a man ahead of his time, creating his history-changing inventions before the technology to properly implement them was available. One can easily imagine "BirdTeacher," "BabyProgrammer," or "TVNASA" as iPhone, Android, or Windows Phone 7 apps- they probably could even make it into one of those Apple television commercials; ("Say your parrot hasn't learned to talk... There's An App For That...")
"LoveSlave" probably wouldn't make it into the TV ads, however. Per Vince's description, "this program can be used when making love. Place the headphones on your lover and use the joypad up/down to select a command and right/left to send it to your lover..." If Vince has ever personally tried using this app in a tender moment, it just might help explain his unfamiliarity with babies...
Figure 3: This gem is LoveElectrodes.
There are over 100 apps in the "Love" category alone. I'd love to see the Apple App Store Approval Committee consider Vince's "LoveElectrodes" app that invites you to cobble together homemade electrodes and "connect wires from the headphone jack to the sensitive part of your love" and "tap the button to stimulate the part electronically..." Vince offers free email support for all of his apps, so don't hesitate to ask for electrode schematics or see if he needs beta testers... Knowing Vince's propensity to "recycle" his code in redundant apps, I looked for a "PoliceInterrogator" or "HomeTorture" app to reuse my homemade electrodes but didn't find them.
So, let's tip our hat to Vince Collura, a pioneer of the smartphone revolution, who proved long before the existence of the iPhone that there was a mostly useless or awkwardly implemented "App for That!"
Or, as Vince himself says, "Did you get your beans today?"
Todd Allcock is a small business owner (small business, that is! At 6' 3" and 300 lbs., I hardly qualify as "small") who has been using Windows-based PDAs and mobile phones since the days they were powered by steam. These tiny, powerful devices have allowed me to get out from behind the desk, operate a business on the go, and spend more time with family.