It wasn't always obvious that applications would be as important to mobile users as the iPhone has helped them become. Or that they would be even more important for keeping competitors at bay.
The first statement is a personal admission that I never expected a mere cellular telephone could become so important in my life. The second is an observation that applications are Apple's firewall--at least for now--against encroachment by Palm, BlackBerry, and Google Android.
I realised last night that I have downloaded in excess of 60 iPhone applications, for which I've paid about $US100 total. Only one is a game--Yahtzee--and I've settled on about 30 as "must haves" on my phone, though the lineup is changes from week-to-week.
My most recent addition is the Sirius XM app, which may or may not stay. While the iPhone's own player will run multitasking, the Sirius/XM application stops if you leave it to do something else. Thus, I can listen to "iPod" content while reading my e-mail, but the XM political talk channel I like (POTUS) dies as soon as I try to multitask.
This is an example of where making multitasking available to developers, as Palm and Google Android already do, would be a win for iPhone customers. I have to think Apple is working on it, but my suspicion is there's a reason Apple doesn't want too many apps running simultaneously, hence the delay in making the technology available to developers
If someone handed me a Palm Pre today, I would doubtlessly be able to use it for many things, like phone calls, calendar, and e-mail. I could make that transition smoothly and might even appreciate the "real" Pre keyboard.
What I'd miss would be the applications I've grown used to. Some favorite apps, like Evernote, will probably end up on all the major platforms. Less likely, I suspect, is Things, a to-do manager out of the Mac world that has an iPhone version for carry-around convenience. (And it syncs using Wi-Fi, something more apps should be capable of).
But, what about the ham radio callsign look-up that I use at least as often as Evernote? The hazardous materials database application? The medical apps I sometimes want, or at least feel better having around for reference? And, there is iBird, which allows me to not always have a field guide in my briefcase. It's not as good, but iBird is a lot more portable.
I bet topo mapping apps will become more widely available, but I already have mine. Likewise the various news and social networking tools, such as Tweetdeck, available for both Mac and iPhone.
Of course, I believe that good applications will become available for other platforms, but how long will it be until I can switch smartphones and not suffer withdrawal pains? How long before I won't pitch an iPhone to unwashed friends by showing them all the cool apps that I have that whatever platform they are considering doesn't?
The maxim that "software sells hardware" is truth. And to whatever extent your phone hardware is better than mine--which I think is a stretch for any iPhone competitor at the moment--it will be a long time before competitors can beat the iPhone apps library. Or its music store.
And that "long time" may prove to be some competitors' undoing.