Apps can get pizza delivered at zoo, keep tiger from eating you

Built-in sensors allow phones to do things PCs never could

Among the more than 300,000 apps written for the iPhone and iPad, there are plenty designed specifically for practical, worklike functions (sometimes even functions that are actual work, rather than simply looking like it).

There are apps to help you manage money, get news, get social and get your game on.

All, or almost all, are portable versions of apps, organizational tools or advisory services you could get in other ways, though more awkwardly, more expensively and, often, with less timely information.

Apps that really let you do something you could never do before without spending ridiculous money and time, are rare. (OK, innovation is rare by definition, but don't try to claim Angry Birds or Salesforce for iPhone have broken new ground in the intellectual or productive life of the species.)

These two apps, on the other hand, show what quick processors, good data connections, slick programming and innovative thinking can really give you.

Word Lens -- flogged around the Web late Friday as various gadget sites discovered it and mono-linguistic geeks shouted "I need that!" -- is an iPhone app that uses the phone's camera to create an image of text written on a sign or other surface and automatically translate it into English.

The other -- less cool but far more useful on a day to day basis -- is an Android app Domino's Pizza released in Japan that lets the Domino's deliver the Japanese squid-and-whalemeat version of its cardboard pizzas directly to customers without having to get a street address by using the GPS location service in their phones.

Doing email or using server-based apps are no-brainer functions for smartphones, according to Citrix CTO Simon Crosby during an interview this week on the future of smartphones, tablets, game consoles-used-as-media-gateways and the range of other non-PC hardware that might eventually plug into Corporate America's IT infrastructure.

Retailers aren't sure how far to go with location-based services or mobile-computing outreach, according to a study from Boston Consulting Group that is right on the mark.

The poster child for location-based apps is the theoretical app that offers you discount coupons from retailers you pass as you walk down the sidewalk which, no matter how high your opinion of targeted marketing, is just creepy.

Creepy or not, location is just one component, and maybe not the most important one, according to Citrix CTO Simon Crosby.

Smartphones also have gyroscopes, accelerometers, GPS sensors, ice-cream scoopers and cupholders built right in, and developers can use that information in the same way they have apps check the security status, connection speed and authentication rights of the end user, he said.

With more than 300,000 iPhone apps already available and more on the market or on the way for Android, Windows Mobile 7 and other mobile OSes, the law of averages dictates some real innovation will tear through the apps market and change the way people think about what they can do with their phones, Crosby said.

One of those things, obviously, would be getting pizza delivered to them where they stand while touring the zoo in a foreign country.

Or possibly keeping them alive by helping them read the original text on warning signs rather the poor translations that leave them wondering how to "Keep table cleaned after dying," remember that "If you are stolen, call the police at once" or understand the danger from the warning "Only those who strongly believe in rebirth should risk going near." (Though the big picture of a tiger with crossed bones beneath his "You talkin' to me?" glare would probably help get the message across. I bet if you had a pizza with you, you'd be able to get a lot closer, though, right?)

If we're going to be augmenting reality, I want an app that can recognize faces and remind me of people's names without my having to fumble conversationally or hunt through scribbles in my notebook (which, if you can imagine, some people consider rude at weddings, funerals or other formal events).

Combine the whole thing with WikiLeaks and the copycats that will undoubtedly spin off it when it is crushed and you could have an app that not only identifies the secret identities of diplomats, spies and generals as you walk around D.C. or the U.N., but automatically calls up secret documents related to their covert activities so you'd always have some way to break the conversational ice.

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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