Four for iPhone

iPhone AppsLet’s face it, I’ll probably never create an iPhone application of my own. I don’t have the time, for one, and even if I did, I haven’t got the programming talent. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t have some ideas for some applications. And because I’m one of the lucky few who have a blog, I’m not just going to let these ideas go to waste — no, I’m posting them right here instead. To be sure, none of them are game changers, but all of them would find a place on my iPhone’s home screen if someone out there makes them.


A dictionary is one of the most useful, satisfying tools anyone can ask for, in my opinion. Wouldn’t it be great to have a dictionary application in your iPhone, where the heft and bulk of a traditionally printed dictionary becomes immaterial? And wouldn’t it be great if the dictionary allowed you to look up additional definitions at and Also, wouldn’t it be great if it could keep a running list of words you’ve looked up, or words you need to refer to often? I think so.


One of the best things about recent upgrades to the iPhone is the map application’s ability to triangulate your current position, where you’re standing right now. I’m not sure that ‘useful’ would be the right term for this application, but I do think that it would be interesting at least to be able to use this feature to remember where I’ve been. With a click of a button, the iPhone would triangulate my current position and essentially mark my tracks as I walk or drive across town or even across the country. Each mark would drop a pin on a map, record the time and day, and connect it back to previously marked locations. The data would be exportable and synchronizable, so that something more interesting — and more immediately useful than I can imagine at the moment — can be done with it offline.

Super Contacts

Of course, there’s already a reasonably capable contacts module stashed inside the phone application. But what I have in mind for Super Contacts is a kind of meta viewer that would also aggregate people-related activity from throughout the iPhone — regardless of what application that activity happens in. Super Contacts would sit on the home screen for easier, quicker access to all the addresses and numbers for my contacts, which would already be an improvement. But more to the point, it would also show me all the text messages I’ve exchanged with a given person, and all of the emails and a log of phone calls, too. And, who knows, it might also tie in with future contacts-related iPhone applications, including whatever Facebook is almost assuredly cooking up for the platform.

This is really only half an idea for an application, I know, but I’ll tell you my real motivation: I also want to bundle in complete support for all of the data fields that are available in the Mac OS X Address Book. It’s an unfortunate but profound truth that not all of the information that goes into the Address Book is synchronized with the iPhone. In particular, I’m referring to the ‘related names’ field, where a contact’s spouse, child, assistant, etc. is stored. With my terrible memory for names, this is a critical piece of information that I desperately wish the iPhone would carry for me. It boggles my mind that Apple chose not to sync this data, and so I figure it’s just as reasonable — or unreasonable — to hope for a third party solution as it is to hope that Apple will fix the situation itself.

Scan It

Using the iPhone’s built in camera, this application would allow me to scan bar codes for books, DVDs and basically any packaged goods, while out shopping in the ‘real world.’ Scanning a copy of Clay Shirky’s “Here Comes Everybody,” for instance, would automatically add that book to my shopping cart at — or some other user-selected retailer. If isn’t working on something like this already, they should be; for a relative pittance, such an application would effectively turn Barnes & Noble’s hundreds of brick and mortar stores into a nationwide chain of huge, high-resolution, immersive catalogs for selling their own wares. Actually, I take back what I said at the top of this post; an application like this would be a game changer.

  1. Your list of ideas sound like good additions to the iPhone, but with the exception of your last idea, I could easily live without them.

    At the bookstore I’ve had to literally take a photo of a book with my iPhone so I could find a used copy on Amazon later. I’ve done this numerous times and find it very inconvenient.

    I’d love to have a way to scan the bar code of a book and have it sent to my Amazon account. Despite such a good idea, I doubt it will happen due to legal reasons. For one, book stores will lose sales and would most likely prevent Amazon from attempting something like that.

  2. Hey, Khoi – Nice list. Someone has already done something similar to your last idea for the Android developer competition Google is hosting for it’s new mobile OS. Check it out, it’s really cool.

    as for myself, I’m in the iPhone deveoper program and am already working on a few (undisclosed) iPhone apps.


  3. The dictionary would really be great idea. And why stop at that, how about a multi-lingual dictionary, that would be really handy for people who speak a second or third language.

  4. Most other mobile phones ship with or can install readers for the various 2D codes (QR Codes, Datamatrix, etc.). It’s HUGE in Japan 🙂 and it’s coming to U.S. shores Real Soon Now. It’s kind of a glaring omission from the POV of anyone not safely inside U.S. borders.

  5. All good ideas. Here’s what to do with the Backtracker info, among other things: Correlate the data with photos taken on the phone and with the metadata of photos stored in iPhoto. Instant (good enough) geotagging. If you want fancy, then let me access the photos by location from within Maps on the iPhone.

  6. Sorry dude, barcodes are relative to the stores they are in 🙁

    Unless Amazon teamed up with a few stores, (ie waterstones etc etc), wouldnt work as a barcode in two different store, of the same book, are completely different.

    That said, GREAT idea!

  7. Delicious library manages to read the barcodes from all of my books, dvds etc and display the information on that title from amazon so i think it is easily possible. I’d thought of making an iPhone app that does this for books/dvds etc with a free barcode scanner that’s out there for objective-c.

    Some good ideas Khoi

  8. Correlate the data with photos taken on the phone and with the metadata of photos stored in iPhoto. Instant (good enough) geotagging.

  9. Hi Khoi, i think the camera could have many useful applications – and your idea is excellent. The map app: i used it in France recently (prepaid the roaming charge) to find the street in the village we were staying in. It found us no problem. I was impressed. i like your thoughts on the map being able to track where one has been . .perhaps allowing notes to be made and a journey saved.

    As for dictionary, I use the excellent Untralingua which his a dictionary, translator etc in one. I’m very excited to see what the iPhone application lansdcape opens up, perhaps even for us newspaper types!

  10. Love the BACKTRACKER idea – in fact, if an upcoming iPhone was to have GPS – there are some really cool things you could do with this. Distance athletes, like runners or cyclists could have a map of their training routes with times, elevations, etc. It would be like integrating a Garmin into the iPhone – add to that some snazzy web or software integration on the computer side and it would be a powerful (and fun) training tool.

  11. Jeffrey Sharkey’s Android Scan application reads barcodes with a camera and then looks for pricing and reviews online. Google just gave him $25,000 for his efforts. Of course you’d have to ditch that old iPhone relic and get a shiny new Android phone.

    Google is giving away $10,000,000 in prize money for cool Android apps. Apple partnered with KPCB to offer $100,000,000 for iPhone apps.

    So if just having a spot on Khoi’s iPhone home screen isn’t reward enough, there real money out there for mobile apps.

  12. Regarding the scanning program: I had the same idea for an iPhone app when they announced the SDK and began development shortly thereafter. However, due to the technical limitations of the camera’s API, there is no usable way of scanning barcodes.

    The main issue is that you can only capture images via the camera *application* and not through a continuous image stream. In other words, the user would need to repetitively snap images of a barcode: take a picture, wait to see if the app could extract a UPC, if a code was not extracted (a likely scenario for one sample) take another image, rinse repeat.

  13. I misspelt the link for Ultralingua, for those interested

    There’s actually already a form of the scanning app available, where you can text Amazon the product you’re interested in and buy it from the reply.

    It’d be nice to have a Delicious Library like interface on it but there’s nothing stopping you doing what you need now using the SMS app.

  14. Kyle: There is something stopping me from doing that right now, actually, and it’s the fact that I’m lazy. I want my expensive phone to do the work for me! Still, I didn’t realize that such a service already existed, thanks for pointing that out. Where do I find out more?

  15. You should check out ViPR — as it relates to your scanning request.

    Evolution Robotics ViPR (visual pattern recognition) technology provides a reliable and robust vision solution that truly gives electronic devices the ability to detect and recognize complex visual patterns – in effect, to see.

  16. Building upon Blinx comment, I can’t but think you could use Evernote (or similar capturing service) to take a photograph of any product (not just a book), send it to Evernote, have Evernote OCR the text, and then look it up on Amazon.

  17. Here’s a revolutionary idea: if you see something you want in a shop, put your iPhone away for five minutes, take the book to the counter and BUY IT. Instant delivery. Lovely.

    The real world: it’s like the Internet, but more lumpy.

  18. Me again – facetiousness aside (it’s Monday, I’m bitter), the backtrack idea is genius. Given the amount to of time I spend checking to see what I’ve been listening to, a record of where I’ve been and when would be great!

    Plus, when combined with data from the iTunes and camera in the iPhone (and countless other data-tagged things it’s capabale of) you could create a detailed recording of your existence. Scary but amazing.

  19. The Dictionary app doesn’t have to be a native app. It doesn’t use any of the iPhone’s unique features, and therefore can easily be a web app.

    Backtracker is impossible because iPhone apps aren’t allowed to run in the background.

    Super Contacts *is* possible and I’m sure synching with Gmail and other services is coming. However, Facebook sync won’t happen because Facebook doesn’t allow you to persist their user’s private data.

    I think Scan It is a great idea, but we will have to wait until Apple adds video capabilities to the Camera API for barcode scanners to work.

  20. Khoi, the service Kyle mentioned is here. It’s called TextBuyIt. While it’s not exactly what you suggested, it will get the job done.

  21. Shane:

    Backtracker is impossible because iPhone apps aren’t allowed to run in the background.

    I wouldn’t want the app to run in the background anyway. I would be happy to press a ‘check in’ button when I wanted to share my position.

  22. The tracking concept isn’t just a good idea, but is really a necessary one for continued evolution of the way we produce content. Lifeblogging used to seem so friggin’ goofy, but now it is starting to make sense.

    The idea of scanning upcs with phones has been around for years. The problems arise not so much from the mobile tech but w/ the up codes — thus the bullseye or 2d upc (invented in the ’50s) has started becoming more popular. Sometimes you see them on non-flat products like soda cans. So yeah, you can keep a log of all the soda you are drinking even if you can’t keep track of the books you want.

  23. I’d like a PDF reader application – a kind Kindle Light – something into which I can dump all my PDF e-books (and a few boring whitepapers), that’s searchable and has a nice interface for moving between chapters and pages.

  24. ditto for the extra fields in the contacts.

    I spent 2 hours on sunday asking my wife the names of friends spouses/kids and adding them to my address book and was gutted when it didn’t sync.

    I was half way to curing my awful name-memory vortex.

  25. Funny, I had thought about the barcode idea but the other way around: using amazon as a support for offline purchases.

    Suppose you find a nice looking flat-screen TV that you might be tempted to buy, you take a photo of the barcode on the box, and Amazon sends back the rating and their price. If all is good you make your purchase at the moment.

  26. I am without a doubt a word-geek who makes daily use of the dictionary from my (3G Windows Mobile) device. With the iPhone’s 3G speed, it can make fine use of any of the freely available (and already developed) web dictionaries available.

  27. That’s true. Today’s announcement of a 3G option does change the equation quite a bit for any application ideas, the dictionary included. Still, I really would like to have a dictionary that’s available when the network isn’t.

  28. Your iPhone does have a dictionary built in… well a spelling dictionary. The best example is when I texted the word Nokia, and the spelling checker prompted the word Booya.

  29. There’s actually already a form of the scanning app available, where you can text Amazon the product you’re interested in and buy it from the reply.

    It’d be nice to have a Delicious Library like interface on it but there’s nothing stopping you doing what you need now using the SMS app.

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