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Screen saviors

It seems there are no problems too small for app developers to solve. But, in doing so, they may accidentally solve much larger ones, too.

Author Boyd Farrow Illustration Koren Shadmi

tech

Never mind the meaning of life. Apparently, the most pressing question gnawing away at humankind is: Where the heck are my keys? While technology hasn’t been very good at things like uncovering the existence of a higher power, it can at least help us with our propensity to lose stuff.

We refer, of course, to Tile, the digital tagging device recently launched to the kind of fanfare you’d expect for a handheld World Peace Facilitator. What the product does is help us find things, lost or stolen, via Bluetooth and a plastic chip not much bigger than a piece of Chex cereal. Attach the chip to an item, foolishly misplace that item, and the app will tell you where it is. An early crowdfunding campaign for Tile attracted 50,000 backers and preorders quickly climbed into the millions of dollars.

In the tech world, finding solutions to small problems has become big business. Consider Shazam, an app that identifies music you just can’t place. Shazam is used by 450 million people and is one of the 10 most downloaded apps for the iPhone worldwide. The company that developed it is valued at around $500 million.

The world is brimming with applications whose functions are, on the face of it, absurdly modest. There are apps that remind us to write to-do lists, apps that allow impartial strangers to tell us if our butts really do look big in these pants, apps that tell us if our breath is bad. And while it’s no surprise that legions of technophiles are downloading these things, the investment dollars being poured into them are more of a mystery.

Marcos Sanchez, of research firm App Annie, argues that, to gauge the true value of such apps, we need to look beyond the obvious. The promise of many applications, he says, lies in the fact that they could have other applications. “Some have a real use that is not clear for a long time, or they introduce groundbreaking technologies or talented developers.”

Shazam, for instance, now allows users to download the song the app has identified, and to access exclusive content when they “Shazam” something on TV, which could have huge implications for advertisers. Tile, meanwhile, contains a feature that, if your lost or stolen item is outside the range of your Bluetooth, can tap into the devices of other users, which will not only make it easier for you to find your keys, but also creates the potential for an ever-widening network of crime busters.

Then there’s Adamant Technologies, developers of the aforementioned phone app that tells you when your breath is bad. It turns out that the complex sensor Adamant has created for its product can identify much more than stale Fritos. “An app that just tells you your breath is bad is pretty useless,” says company founder Sam Khamis. “But detecting chemicals informs us of specific aspects of our health.”

Sanchez likes to remind people that software development is no different from any other business. “The crazy stuff goes nowhere,” he says, “while some apps are responsible for real breakthroughs.” One breakthrough that’s been on everyone’s lips lately is WhatsApp, the mobile messaging service that Facebook is in the process of acquiring for $19 billion. Much beloved by sociable foreign exchange students, the app is also used by doctors in remote areas to send electrocardiogram images and by rescuers looking for lost hikers.

No one knows the redemptive potential of frivolity better than Kostas Eleftheriou, founder of Fleksy, one of the hottest startups around. Eleftheriou first came to prominence with the iSteam and IceBreak apps, which enable users to amaze their friends by turning devices into foggy or icy surfaces and then allowing them to wipe the mist away or crack the ice. The touch-screen technology behind the apps has led to another one that enables users to type “instinctively”—that is, without looking at the screen, which could be a major boon to people with limited vision.  

“At first, it may look as though there is no connection between what Fleksy is doing now and those earlier fun apps, but it is part of the same journey,” says Eleftheriou, who, like Sanchez, believes that the flurry of seemingly frivolous apps hitting the market will usher in significant technological advancements. “Of course,” he adds, “the one constant in developing apps is that to make something simple is so much harder.”

Boyd Farrow, a London-based writer, recently spent an hour trying to thread a frayed shoelace—a task for which, he is sorry to say, there is still no app.

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