Letting iPhone apps run my life for a day

When his original plans one day in Seattle fall through, CNET News reporter Daniel Terdiman decides to test out some iPhone apps and put them in charge.

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
7 min read

SEATTLE--If you've ever wanted to hand control of your life off for a day, let me recommend putting it in the safe care of iPhone applications.

That's what I did Thursday, a day for which the plan I had originally made fell through.

During a day in Seattle, CNET News reporter Daniel Terdiman used a series of iPhone applications to direct what he did. Click on the above image to see the photo gallery. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News

So, late on Wednesday night, as I was pondering what to with myself here Thursday--I'm in town for the Gnomedex conference, which begins Friday--I started thinking about my brand-new iPhone 3G and all the applications I've heard you can get.

And it occurred to me that it could be quite an experiment to turn my day over to the direction exclusively of some of those apps. I already had downloaded a couple, but as I looked around on Apple's App Store, I found that there were countless others that could help get me through my day.

I began the morning by booting up LocalEats, a free app from WhereTheLocalsEat.com that offers up lists of the top 100 places to chow down in 50 American cities. It makes its suggestions based on where you are and then sorts them, nearest first.

LocalEats had a few suggestions that sounded good, but before I set off in search of food, I thought I'd give another app, UrbanSpoon, a chance as well.

UrbanSpoon has a fun interface where you can shake the iPhone, causing three wheels to spin a la a slot machine, before settling on the criteria of a single neighborhood, a specific cuisine, a price level, and offering up a restaurant. The problem is there didn't seem to be any way to set those criteria myself. So I couldn't figure out how to pick where I wanted to go and what I wanted to eat. I suspect I was missing something fairly basic.

With the LocalEats app, Terdiman was able to find a decent place to get lunch near where he was staying in Seattle. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News

So, back to LocalEats I went. I decided on an inexpensive greasy spoon, Beth's Cafe, and then clicked on the helpful directions button.

Before I left, I decided that I should twitter what I was doing, so I ran Twitterific, an app that a couple of people told me they liked for sending tweets from the iPhone. But, for some reason, it told me that my sign-in information wasn't being accepted and that I should re-enter it. Oddly, though, it didn't give me any way to do that. Again, I felt like I was probably missing something rather elementary.

Instead, I went off and looked in the App Store for another Twitter app, and sure enough, I found a free one called Twitterator. It had a fairly high rating, so I downloaded it and promptly fired off a tweet informing my loyal followers of my experiment.

At last ready to set out for lunch, I grabbed the iPhone and hit the pavement. Soon, I walked by a funny intersection where on one side of the street there was a high-end health food market and on the other, a grungy-looking gun shop. Never one to pass up a Twitter moment, I ran Twitterator again and noted that the app had a feature for taking a picture with the iPhone's camera and embedding it into a tweet. I'd never done that before, so it was kind of exciting.

So, snap away I did and off went the tweet, complete with a (badly exposed) photo of the gun shop and the health food store.

As I was walking, I was running one of my favorite (so far) apps, Pandora radio. This app lets you stream Internet radio from Pandora channels you've previously set up, so there I was, walking through a fairly blue-collar part of Seattle, with bands like Delerium, Portishead, Massive Attack, and others piping into my ears.

While he was looking for an application to convert Celsius to Fahrenheit, Terdiman discovered an AOL Instant Messenger app that let him send instant messages to anyone on his AIM buddy list. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News

This is a really great app, but it has one drawback: Whenever you click out of Pandora to do anything else on the iPhone, the music stops. You can return to it, of course, but it seems to be a limitation of the applications that whatever you're doing in one gets shut down if you want to do anything else--like answer a phone call.

Soon, I made it to Beth's Cafe, and sat down to order a burger. And as I was waiting for my food to arrive, I thought I'd poke around the App Store and see what else was out there.

As I was finishing up my burger (pretty good, I must say; thank you, LocalEats) I saw that outside, the weather was looking iffy. I know that there's a decent weather application built into the iPhone software, but this experiment was strictly about using what was available through the App Store. So I went looking for something new.

I settled on one called AeroWeather. It's actually aimed at people who spend a lot of time in airports--pilots, frequent fliers, and the like--because all the locations it has information for are in fact air fields. But when I selected Boeing Field, which wasn't too far off, I was pleased to find that it gave a great deal more data on weather conditions than the default iPhone weather feature.

Among the information it gave was wind speed, cloud cover, temperature (duh!), short-term forecasts, sunrise and sunset times, and more. Pretty cool, I must say. I quickly added Seattle-Tacoma International and Oakland International airports to my list, since I'll be flying through those places on Sunday.

The only thing was that AeroWeather gives temperature in Celsius, and since I'm an American, I didn't know quite what 17 degrees meant. So off I went in search of a conversion app.

While he was initially distracted from his search for an application that can do unit conversions by the AIM app, Terdiman eventually bought iConvert, an easy, elegant application that did precisely what was needed. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News

But lo and behold, as I was searching for one, I stumbled across an AOL Instant Messenger app. I had been under the impression that you couldn't do instant messaging on iPhones, and here was a way to do it after all.

Totally distracted from the task at hand, I downloaded the AIM app and soon found myself sharing IMs with a couple of friends. This was definitely the find of the day. As I twittered a few minutes later, "I think the iPhone just won."

And that's because I really kind of live on IM. There's Twitter, sure. And SMS. And e-mail. And blogging. And I do all those things. But IM is my favorite. And my AIM buddy list is kind of my lifeline to many of my favorite people. And they're now at hand pretty much everywhere. Is that good? I'm not sure yet.

By now it was time to pay the bill. So, I moved on over to CheckPlease, an app that calculates the total damage based on what percent you want to tip and how many people are splitting the tab. In this case, it was just me, so it was pretty simple. Oddly, though, the actual interface looks very different than what was advertised on the App Store. Instead of an elegant spinner-based system, it's got rather ugly sliders. But, it works. And I suppose that's what really matters.

Of course, I still hadn't gotten my conversion program, so another quick run to the App Store and the plopping down of a buck got me iConvert, a very simple conversion program with exactly the kind of spinner-based system that CheckPlease promised but didn't deliver. So that 17 degrees Celsius temperature that AeroWeather told me about turns out to have been 62.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Who knew?

The last thing on my agenda was checking out some local real estate. I had found an app called Puluwai, which allows you to search around where you are, to set minimum and maximum prices and number of bedrooms, and get a list of available houses.

MortgageCalculator is an easy to use app that provides information on monthly mortgage payments using just three variables. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News

I ran it, and it worked. Sort of. It certainly didn't have every house for sale in the area--nor did it promise it would--but eventually, I did get it to turn up a listing for one that I was standing in front of by limiting the search parameters to exactly the price that was being asked.

Then, I ran the sale price through the last app of the day, MortgageCalc, to find out that, hey, maybe I could afford the really sweet-looking four-bedroom house with the big yard and remodeled kitchen I was staring at from the outside. MortgageCalc, for its part, is a simple app with a pretty nice interface that requires you to fill in, at the very least, the principal you want to borrow, the loan length, and an interest rate. Like CheckPlease, it worked well without having the most elegant interface.

The day was coming to an end now, and I was feeling like I had a pretty good sense of the way iPhone apps work. And while I'm loath to spend more than a dollar on an app right now, I think that over time, as I become more familiar with the iPhone and find more and more apps that have actual utility for me, I might be willing to throw down a few bucks for some of them.

Then, of course, there's the $10 I know I'm going to be spending on Super Monkey Ball. But that's a story for another day.