APPS: When smartphones go wild

By John Bendel, editor-at-large

App is short for application. You knew that was already shrunk of course, but we're starting from the beginning here, so bear with me.

Applications are computer programs, but when they shrank the computer to fit in a cellphone, they shrunk what we call the programs too. Now they're apps. A cellphone without a computer is just a cellphone. A cellphone with a computer - and a couple of other things - is a smartphone.

IBM made something close to a smartphone in 1992. You could call it, fax it, email it, and use it to keep your calendar and contacts. It was called Simon, but IBM forgot to refer to it as "smart." AT&T did that for its combination cellphone and handheld computer in 1995. AT&T referred to its PhoneWriter Communicator - the official name - as a "smart phone."

In 2007, Apple knew better than to call its attractive, affordable new "smartphone" anything as clumsy as PhoneWriter Communicator. They called it simply the iPhone, and the iPhone transformed the planet.

iPhones and the smartphones that quickly followed changed daily life and many industries. Trucking is just one. It's now possible to manage virtually all the communications and documentation for most loads entirely on a smartphone. It can replace pay phones, truck stop scanning, paper maps, your dedicated navigation system, and even your laptop and the company's onboard computer. Not that all those things will actually go away, but thanks to the original iPhone, it's clear where we're headed.

That 2007 device comprised a cellphone, a computer, GPS, a camera, and motion sensors in a single handset. Like the PC before it, the iPhone needed only one more element to completely reshape, well, just about everything - software.

Enter the mobile app.

The good

There wouldn't be nearly as many apps as there are if they didn't appeal to a lot of people, and there are a lot of apps. The Apple App Store claims to offer 1.4 million different apps. Google Play, the Android app store, says they have 1.43 million. Many of those apps are free.

One of my faves is Google Maps. Call it up, press a screen button, and it instantly answers the question you always feel foolish asking: "Where the hell am I?" Google Maps also offers real-time traffic data. Get used to seeing the Cross Bronx Expressway portion of I-95 in bumper-to-bumper red.

Some free apps can save you real money. If you text a lot, for example, Facebook Messenger can save you cash over phone company texting fees. Officially known as SMS for Short Messaging Service, traditional texting limits you to 160 characters per message. For each message, you pay something like 10 cents or a regular surcharge on your wireless bill.

Facebook Messenger lets you send pictures and text messages without the character limits of phone company SMS. That's because your texts travel as binary data, not as SMS. Yes, you pay for data but - where messages are concerned - not nearly as much as for text. The Facebook Messenger app is separate from and does not require membership in Facebook. While SMS can be sent from and received by any smartphone (and many non-smart, flip phones), Messenger requires that both parties have the app.

Some good apps do cost something upfront. For example, WhatsApp, a messaging app that does pretty much what Facebook Messenger does will cost you 99 cents to download, but nothing after that.

If you know what you're looking for, trucking apps are easy to find. If you're just browsing through a big app emporium like Google Play, Apple's App Store, or Amazon Apps and Games, things get trickier.

The bad

Apple introduced its App Store, the first app retailer, in March of 2008. Later the same year, Google launched one for smartphones using the Google operating system, Android. But the first apps I ever met were on my first smartphone. I suspect that's the case for most of us. I didn't ask for them, and I don't want them, but there they were taking up precious memory, just waiting for me to plug in my credit card number.

The Audible.com app wants to sell me audio books. The Kindle app wants to sell me digital books, and that's just one of three Amazon apps. The second Amazon app wants me to buy music, and the third everything else you can think of.

Then there's NFL Mobile, an app that lets Verizon customers like me watch NFL games on their smartphones. Can't imagine why I'd want to watch that 50-yard pass on a 4-inch screen, but I guess if you're out of options and the big game is on ... Of course the broadcast play-by-play comes to the smartphone as data in radio waves from Verizon's cell towers.

Text and still pictures as data are one thing; the moving images of a television broadcast are something else altogether. We're talking about virtual tons of data for a football game, and you will pay your cell provider for all of it.

Not all apps aim to take cash from your pocket. But believe me, you will pay one way or another.

Take Slacker Radio, for example. Oh boy, a free, customizable streaming music app! How can you go wrong? Easy. The ads can drive you nuts.

And how about that free Google Maps app I like so much?

Google doesn't provide map and real-time traffic data from a generous inner spirit. It does it to know where we are and where we're going - personal information it weaves into the crafty advertising algorithms that have made Google one of the richest corporations on Earth.

Depending on your willingness to share such information, it's a small price to pay. At least that's how I feel, especially since I use Google's Chrome browser and Gmail. They know everything about me already. Besides, I'd rather not reveal to that bunch of teens on the corner that I have no idea where I am.

But why does the mighty Facebook empire offer Messenger for free?

A good question. Perhaps it's answered in classified corporate documents or maybe around a sacred campfire where Facebook executives chant their secret plans to take over the universe. I don't know. But I assure you this: Someone, somewhere, someday is going to make money on it.

Until then, though, it's free. So take advantage while you can.

The ugly

Of course some clever souls create apps just to rip you off. What easier way to get into your smartphone than by offering a fun-looking app that you willingly download and install?

The Hacker News reports that two Android game apps, one called Cowboy Adventure and the other called Jump Chess, were downloaded by more than 50,000 people over the last year or so.

"Once installed, Cowboy Adventure produced a fake Facebook login window that prompted users to enter their Facebook usernames along with their passwords," noted The Hacker News.

If a user fell for it and offered up a logon and password, that information was automatically passed to evildoers at another server. Access to your Facebook account could give them access to that, of course, but also to other sites that allow entry using Facebook verification.

Last year, researchers discovered code for the iPhone operating system that enters with benign-looking apps; then embeds itself and logs keystrokes, including possible logons and credit card numbers; and sends that data to a malicious server. Music apps were a common carrier of the code.

You're more likely to find malicious Android apps than iPhone apps because of the more open nature of the Android system. But everyone should be careful when downloading apps of either kind.

Smartphone security experts offer these basic tips to avoid malicious apps:

  • Only download from official sources, like Google Play Store, Apple's App Store, or Microsoft's Windows Phone Store. Of course, we already know that doesn't always work.
  • Read user reviews before downloading. Sometimes reviewers will report a malicious app before the official stores become aware of them.
  • Always use malware scanning software.

Unfortunately, the smartphone universe has become as wild as the PC world. But that doesn't keep you away from your PC, does it?

Just be careful out there. LL