Over the past month, we’ve spent many hours testing iPhone and iPod touch applications—yes, enduring all the bad apps, data corruption, crashes, and forced restores of our devices along the way. But today, we wanted to highlight the good guys, companies that have developed especially impressive iPhone OS software and will likely do even better in the future. So we’ve created this list of the Top Ten iPhone App Developers Worth Caring About, along with a brief list of honorable and not-so-honorable mentions at the end.
Because both the App Store and the top app lists are dominated by games, so too is our list of noteworthy developers; however, our list isn’t in ranked order. There are, of course, others who we think are worthy of future mention; we will look at them in a later article.
1. Gameloft. Of all the iPhone OS developers currently out there, we’re probably most impressed overall by Gameloft. In addition to creating what is certainly the iPhone’s most complete and reasonably priced Sudoku title, Platinum Sudoku, the only iPhone game so far to win our flat A high recommendation, Gameloft has released a number of other solid updates to its past Click Wheel iPod games, and is known to be working on many more titles. The company seems to do everything pretty well, though it typically focuses on updates of classics (Uno, Battleship, Breakout) and other companies’ ideas (Bejeweled, Brain Age, Puzzle Bobble). It’s the rare cloner that actually adds value, and tends to make Apple’s devices far better for its presence.
2. Ambrosia Software. What makes Ambrosia Software both interesting and important to the iPhone and iPod touch is the fact that it’s a truly multi-disciplinary software company, as capable of releasing games—and very good ones—for Apple’s portable devices as it is at creating highly regarded screengrab and recording applications for computers. Better yet, Ambrosia has a way of surprising people with its creativity, so it’s entirely possible that something cool and unexpected could emerge at any time for the iPhone. So far, the company has released three legitimately interesting iPhone apps: Aki Mahjong, Mondo Solitaire, and Mr. Sudoku. Despite whatever shortcomings they may have, each has had a more thoughtful interface and engine than the vast majority of other similar games. We’re looking forward to seeing whatever comes next from Ambrosia.
3. MobileAge. The reason we’re excited about MobileAge is simple: this company “gets it.” Any fourth-rate developer can churn out an iPhone Blackjack game, but when you see a company imbue its software with great art, a staggering number of options, and an impressive degree of user customizability, you can tell that there’s a professor in the App Store alongside a bunch of computer science students. MobileAge’s Shanghai Mahjong demonstrated the power of free downloadable content to improve the graphics and playability of a classic tile game, and its Blackjack 21 used visuals, multiple rules, and a pretty cool betting system to enhance what could otherwise be an incredibly boring computerized card game. In our experience, “getting it” means delivering a finished piece of software that feels complete from day one, yet can continue to be played—these days, hopefully expanded—over time. MobileAge is doing that right now on the iPhone.
4. Electronic Arts. We have very mixed feelings about Electronic Arts, but it’s on this list anyway—notably, Sega is not—because it has already developed one great iPhone OS game, Tetris, and has a huge catalog of games that could be superb on the platform. While EA is surely planning updates to more of its Click Wheel iPod titles, which ranged from good (Monopoly, The Sims Pool) to depressing (The Sims DJ, Mini Golf, Yahtzee), it’s the prospect of more advanced games, such as Spore and possibly iPhone-ready 3-D titles such as John Madden Football, Tiger Woods Golf, Skate, Mirror’s Edge, and the like that excites us. Unfortunately, EA’s iPhone re-releases of Scrabble and Sudoku were both disappointments on the platform because of their pricing, and we’re concerned that the company is going to try and milk every last dime out of iPhone gamers rather than setting reasonable prices; thankfully, there are plenty of other options out there.
5. AOL. It’s cool, of course, to bash AOL. But we’re not going to do that for two reasons: AIM and AOL Radio. Thus far, Apple has completely dropped the ball on iPhone instant messaging functionality, initially forcing users to buy into overpriced SMS text messaging plans if they wanted to instantly keep in touch with friends and family. Thankfully, AOL has stepped in with an iPhone version of the AOL Instant Messenger application, also known as AIM, which provides the text-based messaging component of iChat, on the same network Apple uses for its own messages. While we want more—voice, video, photos, web links, and so on—AIM is a great start, and lets us avoid SMS messaging hell. We’re also very impressed by AOL Radio, which gives your iPhone or iPod touch immediate access to 350 streaming radio stations that are organized by genre, allowing some iPhone users to stream even if they’re not on Wi-Fi networks. The interface is slick, requires no log-in, lets you store favorite stations, and has a regional station finder that lacks only for participating stations in… well, most cities. Small shortcomings aside, these are great free apps for the iPhone OS.
6. PopCap Games. We’re not going to say that everything PopCap does is impressive in our book—like Gameloft, it has a history of derivative development, and its iPod/iPhone titles Bejeweled and Bejeweled 2 are at best shallow time-wasters, the latter superior but also way too expensive at $10. But putting that aside, PopCap made literally the best Click Wheel iPod game ever – Peggle, derived from the similar computer game – and as much as we think Bejeweled is overpriced, we’re still impressed by the audiovisual presentation. PopCap clearly knows how to make games that look and feel polished, and even when we’re iffy on a game such as Chuzzle or Zuma, we have to admit that they’re memorable. Beyond Peggle 2, we hold out hope that PopCap keeps releasing interesting, quirky games for the iPhone, and if they’re reasonably priced, we’ll be first in line to download them.
7. Demiforce. As one of only two developers to make our list with only a single release for an Apple pocket device, Demiforce is the small but obviously very smart developer of Trism—a puzzle game that we think has the potential to become the iPhone’s Tetris with a bit of added work. Making smart use of the device’s touch and accelerometer controls, as well as competent use of its graphics and sound capabilities, plus smart touches such as unlockable achievements and multiple play modes, Trism is so impressive already that we could easily picture it being the basis of an Alexey Pajitnov-style company… minus, we hope, Hatris, Welltris, and the other forgettable, not-so-good Pajintov-backed sequels that followed Tetris. Under the right conditions, we think Demiforce could be huge.
8. Pandora Media. The other single-app developer on our list is Pandora Media, which has earned our respect with the super-impressive program Pandora Radio. Like AOL Radio, Pandora streams music over the Internet directly to an iPhone or iPod touch, but the manner in which it organizes the music is seriously cool. You can search by an artist’s, song’s, or composer’s name, which Pandora then uses to locate currently playing music found on Internet radio stations, and creates a station based on similar music. Because the system uses the Music Genome Project and is pretty smart, it does a good job of finding not only what you actually want, but its similarity engine comes up with good related content as well, explaining why it makes the choices it does. Like a song? Click on it and you’ll be given the option to buy it in iTunes via the iPhone OS’s iTunes Store, or bookmark the song/artist for later retrieval. Our only dislike? You’ll have to go through mandatory registration to use the service, which means that your listening data is being recorded alongside your name, and related targeted advertising is sure to become more intrusive over time. But Pandora’s free. And very well done.
9. Freeverse. As one of the winners of our Quest for the Best iPhone App contest, Freeverse has demonstrated that it understands three key things about iPhone development: use of the device’s 3-D graphics and audio hardware in Wingnuts Motoracer, the ability to appeal to the masses with a puzzler like Big Bang Sudoku, and whimsy—that little spark of fun that has shown up in useless but amusing free apps such as SimStapler and Jared. While Freeverse’s iPhone titles haven’t as yet been our favorites in their respective genres, the company’s catalog of computer games includes a few titles that could easily become iPhone hits at the right prices, and like Ambrosia, this developer also makes non-game computer applications such as an audio recorder and vector-based drawing program that suggest possibilities beyond iPhone gaming. We also love Freeverse’s sense of graphic design.
10. Open Door Networks. A surprise entry on our list is Open Door Networks, which with five $1 applications—Art Envi, Comic Envi, Kid Book Envi, News Envi, and Space Envi—plus a $10 iEnvision application containing all of these categories and more, enables iPhone and iPod touch users to gain high-speed access to famous works of art, comic strips, newspaper content, astronomy pictures, and classic children’s books. It’s truly impressive to be able to install a simple application, click on an artist’s name, and begin to browse his or her most famous works in proper iPhone/iPod touch screen format; a globe icon lets you go out to the Internet from any image and see more information on whatever you’re viewing. While the premise of this software seems simple, it’s only because Open Door Networks has done a really impressive job of streamlining what otherwise would have been the less than fun task of searching the Internet for content and presenting it properly. It will be interesting to see how this company, and these applications, evolve in the future; notably, Art Envi was the #1 paid app in the Japanese App Store.
Though we’re not going to go into as much detail about these companies, most of which have developed only one iPhone application, the quality and/or popularity of the programs makes them worth watching in the future.
Hassey Enterprises. Maker of Galcon, an impressive sci-fi strategy game that needs a little additional polish; this developer is already doing cool things, and could easily do great ones.
Tapulous. Maker of Tap Tap Revenge, a music rhythm tapping game that is one of the iPhone’s most popular free downloads. A version with better known artists could be a huge hit on the iPhone.
Danielle Cassley and Jason Citron. Makers of Aurora Feint, an as-yet-unfinished puzzle and role-playing game that is already impressive and could become an even bigger deal over time.
NewsGator Technologies. Maker of NetNewsWire, the best RSS reader for iPhone OS—a great piece of software. NewsGator would have been included in the top 10 list above, but we’re not sure whether there will be additional iPhone apps from this company.
Hudson Soft. This Japanese developer released one of the iPhone’s most intriguing games, Aqua Forest, and has been involved with Click Wheel iPod development as well. Most of the company’s titles have struck us as good rather than great, but it continues to release interesting games and has a very notable back catalog of popular titles.
Palringo. Maker of a potentially breakthrough instant messaging program called Palringo Instant Messenger, which finds crafty ways to integrate photo and audio content into chats, and also offers support for AOL, Google, Yahoo, ICQ, Windows Live, and other instant messaging services.
Evernote. Has a very smart approach to cross-functional note-taking, blending text, photo, and voice note features into a single free application, also titled Evernote. A voice recorder is built in, and the fact that you can add text to images or audio notes is really cool, as well. The only problem: Evernote missed out on inclusion in our massive voice recorder roundup because of bugs that prevented it from working on our devices. We’re watching to see how it develops, because it’s promising.
Fullpower Technologies. Makers of MotionX Poker, this developer clealy understands how to incorporate a cool iPhone technology gimmick—shaking the device to roll dice—with a physics engine that properly renders the dice, and art that renders photorealistic both the dice and the surface they’re on. We’re not sure what’s coming next from Fullpower, but this initial good release has us very intrigued.
Notably Not on the List
Sega. Sega is not the same company we knew and loved in the 1990s; what remains of that once great developer is a crew of people who are still apparently struggling to find ways to port or otherwise exploit its incredible back catalog of games on other formats. The first two stabs at that were disappointments: Super Monkey Ball was visually impressive but awful in control and progress saving—it still sold well, but that’s not enough to pass it in our book—and Columns Deluxe just plain sucked. We could easily name 25 classic Sega games we’d love to see updated for the iPhone, but we’re afraid to do so, because the last 25 we would have named to see on other consoles have been catastrophes.
Jirbo. This company quickly made a name for itself releasing awful budget-priced games on the iPhone, flooding the device with mediocrity on day one. One example: iMahjong. In our view, Jirbo illustrates all that’s right and wrong with having an open development platform at the same time.
Namco. The company that made Ridge Racer and dozens of other amazing console and portable games has stooped to releasing execrable ports of 25-year-old games such as Pac-Man and Pole Position for the iPod and iPhone. We used to love this company, but in the words of Kanye West, Namco doesn’t care about the iPod or iPhone. And on the iPod or iPhone, we don’t care about Namco either. For now.