iPhone Gems: Ten Noteworthy Social Networking Apps
One of the biggest developments on the Internet in the last five years is the rise and proliferation of social networking; the idea of linking your real-world friends to your online affairs has become increasingly mainstream, with leading networks now boasting over 100 million user accounts. Larger, older networks today face challenges from a new generation of networking sites—services that leverage the power of location-aware, Internet-enabled portable devices to bring their services out of users’ homes and into the real world. Today, we look at 10 noteworthy social networking apps for the iPhone and iPod touch, some from massive traditional networks, and others from younger start-ups. Since each is tied to a specific service with different features, we’ve chosen not to compare the iPhone apps directly to one another; instead, we discuss their functionality and give you an idea of their utility relative to their desktop counterparts.
Demand for Facebook access from the iPhone was strong even in the early days of the device. The company launched an iPhone and iPod touch web app in August of 2007, and its iPhone and iPod touch application, Facebook (Free) from Facebook, Inc., was available on launch day from the App Store, offering fans a true native application. Despite having been available for only two and half months, the app was updated to version 2.0 at the end of September, bringing a substantial redesign and a slew of new features.
The application uses a bottom-tabbed interface to give a user access to his or her home page, profile, friends list, Facebook Chat, and message inbox, with the main home view offering tabs of its own to move between the news feed, notifications, and requests. Buttons at the top let users quickly post updates or pictures—either via the iPhone’s camera or from the photo library—while a side-scrolling bar in the news feed view lets users view top stories, status updates, recent photos, posted items, a live feed, groups, notes, and gifts. The bar is a little touch that works really well, offering users quick access to a multitude of options without cramping the interface. Tapping on a message or update from a friend takes the user to that friend’s profile page, allowing the user to view and post messages on that wall, and view that friend’s information and photos.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Facebook is its ability to give the user access to the most of the main features of the web site—events are a notable exception—presenting at times a daunting amount of information in a clean, concise way. As an official app, it is one of the very best we’ve seen, although the addition of video and event handling would be welcome improvements. iLounge Rating: A-.
As a client for the main rival to Facebook, MySpace Mobile from MySpace.com is perhaps most notable in the fact that it provides a much more usable, consistent way to access the service than the website itself, which is notorious for allowing users to customize their pages with annoying background graphics, non-uniform text, and various add-ons that harken back to the web of the late nineties.
Like Facebook, MySpace Mobile uses a bottom-tabbed interface to let users navigate the app, with tabs for the user’s home page, mail, requests, friends list, and photos. From the home page, a user can access his or her profile, update mood and friend status, read friend updates, see comments and bulletins, and search people. The Photos tab lets users view their photos and add new photos using the iPhone’s camera or from the photo library, while tapping on a friend from within the friend list lets the user view the friend’s profile, complete with comments, photos, a list of their friends, and information.
While MySpace Mobile’s interface isn’t quite as slick as Facebook’s, it still does a very good job of letting users access the bulk of the service directly from their iPhones or iPod touches—with the added bonus of an interface that is a huge improvement over a lot of MySpace pages. It could use a bit more polish, and access to videos, groups, and other site services would be a nice addition, but MySpace Mobile remains easily recommendable. iLounge Rating: B+.
Twitterrific (Free) from The Iconfactory is a Twitter client for the iPhone and iPod touch. For those unfamiliar, Twitter is a social networking and micro-blogging service based around text updates called tweets that are 140 characters or less in length. Unlike the other apps shown in this article, Twitterrific is not an official application, and is thus open to plenty of competition on the App Store—from the likes of applications such as Twitfire, Twittelator, TwitterFon, and others. It is also available in two versions—the free Twitterrific and the $10 Twitterrific Premium—which are functionally identical, save for the addition of unobtrusive ads in the free version, and the option for a light background in the paid, Premium version.
The design of Twitterrific on the iPhone and iPod touch mimics that of the application for Mac OS X, in that the main view shows recent updates both from the user and those being followed in white text on a dark background, with avatars to the left and the age of the post to the right. Updates are listed with the most recent at the top, with buttons at the bottom for refreshing the updates, posting a new update, switching to the details view, and settings. Tapping on an update does the same thing as tapping the info button, flipping the interface around to show the update in a larger format, with large buttons for replying to or favoriting the update, viewing the user’s info, posting a tweet, or refreshing.
Notably, Twitterriffic includes extra buttons in its pop-up posting menu for adding a map link to the post with the user’s current location, updating the user’s location on Twitter, or adding a picture, which is then posted to the companion service TwitPic. Also, links clicked on from within Twitterrific open in the app’s built-in browser, which offers basic navigation—forward, back, stop, and reload—along with a button to open in Safari or close the browser view. While it doesn’t allow users to search for and read updates from users that they aren’t already following, we think the tradeoff between added complexity and a clean, usable inteface is a wise one. Users wanting search functionality will need to explore other solutions, but for everyone else, Twitterrific is a very capable app, and worthy of our recommendation. By comparison, however, the Premium version is too expensive and offers way too little benefit over the ad-supported version to recommend to most users. Virtually all of the social networking applications out there are free, and The Iconfactory’s instinct to offer an ad-supported free version was the right one. We’d strongly urge the developer to put its efforts into improving the ad-supported version, as it’s guaranteed to have our eyeballs unless a better Twitter client comes along. Twitterrific: iLounge Rating: A-. Twitterrific Premium: iLounge Rating: C+.
Brightkite (Free) from Brightkite.com is the iPhone and iPod touch client for the social network of the same name. Brightkite is a location-based social network, allowing users to “check in” from wherever they are, as well as post short notes and photos, which can also be sent to Twitter via a sharing setting controlled from Brightkite’s website. While the site allows users to post updates using a variety of different methods, the service really feels tailored to location-aware, Internet-enabled devices, such as the iPhone, iPhone 3G, and, to a certain extent, the iPod touch. The company first launched a web app for the iPhone in May, and followed it up with the release of an official native app last week.
The app uses a bottom-tabbed interface for navigation between status updates, friends, and nearby views, messages, and a “more” tab containing menu items for searching places, people, and posts, viewing requests, changing settings, viewing placemarks—bookmarks for commonly visited places—and viewing the main Brightkite stream. In the main status update view, the user’s current location is listed at the top, with smallish buttons underneath to toggle the location feature and place snapping on and off, or manually pick a place. Larger buttons underneath let the user check in or post a note or photo, the latter using either the iPhone’s camera or an image from the photo library. Viewing an update from a friend brings the user to a view with expanded information and a map image, which when clicked will show that user’s location in the Maps application.
The app’s place snapping feature deserves explanation. Instead of just listing coordinates or arbitrary addresses, Brightkite offers users the ability to check in from specific businesses such as coffee shops, restaurants, bars, or stores. This feature, which it calls place snapping, does an uncanny job of figuring out the user’s actual location, at least in our testing; it found us both inside a coffee shop and on the patio of a wine and tapas bar, among various other places. It is the use of this feature in a native app that allows Brightkite to work so well—as users of the service in the past, this is a huge improvement from the old web app, which required the user to manually enter the current location.
Brightkite’s service is nary a year old—and still in private beta, although invites are normally provided quickly for those who ask—but its iPhone application is still quite impressive. We would like to see the service add features like groups, events, and videos, and a map view showing the location of friends, along with clickable URLs. The only unfortunate consequence of its youth is Brightkite’s lack of members relative to other social networks, but it offers most of the same key features, and does so in a logical, location-aware context that might actually enable real-world interaction, a healthy development, in our view. For anyone interested in social networking, it’s worth checking out, and for current Brightkite users with iPhones, it’s a must-download. iLounge Rating: B+.
First shown at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference in June, Loopt (Free) from Loopt, Inc. is a location-aware social networking application that allows users to see where friends are and what they are doing. The app uses a bottom-tabbed interface to move between map, friends list, status update, mix, and settings views. Map view shows the location of both the user and nearby friends, while the list view shows friends listed by location, nearest first, or by name. The status update view lets users change their locations, add photos from the camera or photo library, or type short messages to let other users know what they’re doing.
A recently launched feature of the service, Loopt Mix—found in the Mix view—lets users create a custom public profile to “connect with new people nearby who share common interests and affiliations,” without sharing phone number or exact location information. Some might be open to this sort of service; we’d be a little concerned. Finally, the settings menu can set location sharing preferences, enable the service’s Link feature for auto-posting of updates to Twitter and/or Facebook, turn location updating on and off, set SMS alert preferences, and change the account’s password.
While we appreciate the iPhone OS Loopt application’s map view, the rest of the app seems slightly undercooked compared to the functionality of the service’s website, which offers journal, messaging, and events features—all things that could be added to the app to improve upon the existing feature set. That said, its interface is highly usable if slightly plain, and worked solidly in our testing. As with many other location-aware social networks, Loopt is still in its infancy, and will certainly evolve as time goes on. For Loopt users, the app provides a nice supplement to the service’s website, but without more access to service features and improvement to the service itself, it will remain a so-so option for location-aware social networking on the iPhone and iPod touch. iLounge Rating: C+.
Whrrl (Free) from Pelago, Inc. is an iPhone and iPod touch application for the location-aware social network. Whrrl is based around sharing experiences, ratings, or plans for visiting various restaurants and establishments. Like Loopt, Whrrl offers only two bottom tabs, for switching between the map-based explore view and the friends list.
In the map view, places appear as grey boxes, and are subject to the service’s database of destinations—the company claims to have gathered detailed information about places and events in Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Chicago, Columbus, Denver, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis-St. Paul, New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Portland, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, DC. Tapping on a specific place lets users view its average rating, label it as a place they’d like to go, say they’re at that place, or say they’ve been there. A second button at the top allows users to view individual opinions on the business. The friends list simply serves as a place to view friends’ status.
Unfortunately, Whrrl is hampered by the same basic problem as Loopt—it simply doesn’t offer enough of the functionality found in the online version. Users can’t add new places on the go, making the app basically useless if their current places aren’t already on the map, nor can they post short, Twitter-like status updates without being checked in somewhere—the main service offers update forwarding to Twitter, similar to Brightkite and Loopt—or update their calendar. Whrrl is certainly a neat idea, and with more time to mature and develop, it could become a decent service, but for now, it feels more like a beta than a full-blown social network. iLounge Rating: C-.
While we feel that the six applications detailed above represent some of the strongest iPhone- and iPod touch-ready social networks, there are of course many others, a handful of which we focus on in this section.
Bluepulse (Free) from Bluepulse Inc. is a client application for iPhone and iPod touch that allows users to send and receive messages between Bluepulse friends, post location-tagged status updates and photos, and join or start groups. Unlike most other native applications we’ve seen, Bluepulse is more of a custom browser for the service’s web app than a true application, offering back, forward, and shortcut buttons at the bottom of the screen.
In comparison to the other social networks covered in this article, LinkedIn from LinkedIn Corporation is aimed squarely at the business community, functioning as a professional networking service. The app lets users retrieve updates from their network, search for information on contacts, view their connections and profiles, and update their status.
Another slightly different take on social networking comes in the form of Plum (Free) from Plum Ventures, Inc.. Best described as a mix between traditional social networking and an online organizer such as Evernote, Plum’s service allows users to share notes, files, videos, webpages, and pictures with their friends. Plum’s iPhone app offers only a subset of those features, however, giving users a list of recent updates from friends and their own accounts—which they can also comment on—with an invite button at the top and buttons for refreshing the updates, posting a photo using either the iPhone’s camera or an image from the photo library, and posting a note.
Pownce (Free) from Pownce Inc. is a client for the social networking and micro-blogging service Pownce, which is often compared to Twitter. The app allows users to share notes, links, photos, and events with friends, features which are accessed through a single button in the upper right-hand corner of the screen. The rest of the app’s single-screen view is dedicated to recent updates from the user and his or her friends, with a reply button listed alongside privacy and time information.
The single biggest challenge facing social networks today is critical mass, or developing enough of a user base that a functionally impressive service is actually being used by enough people to be worthy of visiting. Ultimately, many months—perhaps years—may pass before any of the smaller service, location-aware applications featured in this roundup can become a major player on the iPhone platform, and it may well be to Apple’s advantage to acquire one of the best services and integrate it directly into the iPhone and iPod touch software to help build a larger community of users. Until and unless that happens, our advice would be to pick the app or apps for social networks that most appeal to your family, friends, or business contacts, and enjoy using them on your device.
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