iPhone apps a major trend at DemoFall

Each year at the new-products showcase, one trend emerges. This year, it may well be the use by a large number of companies of Apple's smartphone for rich applications.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
5 min read
At DemoFall, Mapflow demonstrated its iPhone application, designed to automate carpooling. The product was just one of many shown built around the iPhone at the event. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News

SAN DIEGO--At Demo and DemoFall, there are always easily identifiable trends among the dozens of companies chosen to present their products.

In previous iterations of the events that I've attended, those trends have been photo-sharing services, online video hosting, Web 2.0, and the like.

This week, the trend--at least as I've seen it--has been the number of companies here with iPhone applications. Not every one of them is talking prominently about the applications they have, but Demo lead organizer Chris Shipley told me informally that she thinks that there must be at least a couple dozen companies with iPhone applications here out of the 72 total presenters.

I'll be the first to admit that I was slow to understand the value of iPhone apps, and I suppose that's because it took me awhile to buy one of the devices, and even longer after I did before I started trolling the Apple App Store looking for the best and brightest of what was out there.

My major introduction to the applications was a day I spent last month in Seattle, basically letting a series of them control my life for a day. And more recently, I have found myself blown away by some of the most simple applications imaginable. For example, Showtimes determines where you are and then comes up with a list of movie theaters--sorted by proximity to you--and shows the films showing at each and the times for each film.

As I said, it's totally simple, and pure genius.

Ultimately, while other mobile phones have many of the features of the iPhone, I don't think that there will be any others in the near future that combine GPS, a great interface, the power of an operating system like OS X, and a network of developers eager to reach out to an audience of users as devoted to their devices as iPhone owners.

Back here at DemoFall, there is definitely no shortage ofcompanies that have developed applications for the device, and some of them seem very promising to me, even though most have yet to appear in the App Store.

I have my own ideas, as I stated above, why I think iPhone apps are the future of software, but I thought these developers would have opinions even more valuable than mine, since they're building businesses around the platform.

WebDiet built an iPhone application designed to help people find restaurants that serve the kind of healthy food they want to eat. WebDiet

Among the companies incorporating the iPhone into their Demo products are WebDiet, Telnic, SkyData, The Echo Nest, and Rudder.

"Right now, (the iPhone is) the platform with the most immediacy," said Richard Bryce, CEO of Mapflow, a company here with a product centered around an iPhone app. "Especially for the consumer market."

It's easy to see why Bryce would think so.

Mapflow is a very interesting product designed around the idea of helping drivers offset the high costs of gas by finding people who need rides to pay to fill empty seats in their cars.

"Most of our lives are ad hoc," Bryce said. "We're trying to apply the iPhone's smart technology to give that ad hoc, on-demand capability to carpooling."

The Mapflow system works by letting drivers define routes--either one-time, or repeat--they're following and the number of seats they have available to fill. The iPhone makes it simple to do this through lists that can be easily displayed and because the phone's GPS chip quickly determines where the driver is in proximity to anyone looking for a ride.

It might sound weird to pick up strangers in this manner, but Mapflow requires that all users register with their name, a photo, and a credit card, and that means that drivers can feel confident that whomever they pick up is probably going to be safe. And when they arrive to pick up the rider, the iPhone displays the rider's picture so the driver can be sure the person is who he or she is supposed to be.

In addition, drivers and riders alike can choose preferences for the type of person with whom they want to travel. This means, for example, that women can choose to ride only with other women.

Further, the service has a quick and easy rating system--again, enabled by the iPhone's elegant interface--that allows everyone to weigh in on the people with whom they've traveled.

Riders pay about 30 cents a mile to use the system, and Mapflow makes its money from a 15 percent commission on the transactions. Drivers pocket the rest.

Clearly, there are many questions the company must answer before the product becomes profitable--and of course, it must first release the application, which it plans to do in about four weeks. But this seems to me to be a very good use of the device, especially given the growing emphasis on getting people to stop driving one to a car.

Another company relying on the iPhone for a product unveiled at DemoFall is Dial Directions.

Say Where, an iPhone application from Dial Directions, aims to give iPhone users the ability to employ speech recognition to get information from services like Yelp and MapQuest. Dial Directions

This company's Say Where app is designed to give iPhone users a way to get geographic information from several services--Yelp, YellowPages.com, and Ask.com among them--by simply saying into the device's microphone where they want to go.

The Say Where software is based on voice recognition technology, and in this case, it relies on the quality of the iPhone microphone, suggested Dial Directions co-founder Amit Desai.

Even more important, given the geographical nature of the application, is the iPhone's ability to know where it is at any given time, either through the GPS chip in the 3G model or its triangulation ability on the earlier model.

Another company, Blue Lava Technologies, is incorporating the iPhone into the I Love Photos product, which it unveiled at DemoFall on Monday.

That product is a photo-sharing and -tagging service designed to help people automatically build more contextual meaning into the thousands of digital photos they take.

This works in part by having people tag photos of people, especially those in their address books, with their names. Then, the software is able to append those tags to other pictures of the same people, a la photos added to Facebook.

Cory Shaw, Blue Lava's director of user experience, said the iPhone was a natural device for which to develop, in part because, for now, I Love Photos is available only on the Mac.

The iPhone is "the perfect tool for what we've...built," Shaw said. "Just because the Mac and the iPhone (are) so well integrated with your address book. And just (because the iPhone has the) ability to snap photos. It's just a natural progression because of what we've already built."