Top 20 Mobile Apps of 2012

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Besides being excellent, these apps show wider trends in the market in 2012.

More than 650,000 iOS apps are now available on the Apple App Store, and well over 500,000 Android apps are on Google Play. The vast majority are junk, although thankfully, few people have to encounter them — analyst firm Canalys recently estimated that up to two-thirds of apps are downloaded less than 1,000 times in their first year.

Happily, the good apps are really good. Every day, a handful of new apps are knock-your-socks-off creative, innovative, surprising or disruptive. Most of them are available on iOS or Android, although Windows Phone is starting to gather momentum among developers.

So much good stuff is hitting smartphones that any attempt to choose 20 from a half-year period will be an inherently personal selection. In my case, that means a skew toward the consumer side of the apps industry: entertainment, games, social and productivity apps.

I've tried to pick apps that, besides being excellent, show wider trends in the apps market in 2012. Read on for the rundown, which is in no particular order.

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SpotON Radio

Free

We can’t get Pandora’s personal radio service in the U.K. — the company pulled out a few years ago in protest at the royalties it had to pay music rights holders. But the idea of creating personalized radio stations based on specific artists and similar songs still appeals.

SpotON provides it using Spotify as its base, so you need a premium subscription to the latter to use it. Then it’s just a matter of choosing an artist, then skipping, liking and disliking songs to hone the personalized stream to your liking. It also adds songs to a playlist in your Spotify account so you can find them later.

The wider trend here: Services like Spotify, with their developer APIs, are going to be spawning lots of innovative music apps for listening to, discovering and sharing music. Spotify has just launched its own mobile radio feature, but I suspect a lot of people will be sticking with SpotON.

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Thumb

Free

A lot of apps are coming out that tap into the social graph — Facebook's social graph specifically — to provide a stream of recommendations based on what friends are doing, often with the blithe assumption that you're interested in everything your friends think and do. Actually, just as interesting are apps based on the opinions of strangers.

Thumb is a good example — I was a bit cynical about it before trying it, but it delivers on its promise of "Instant opinions. Real people." The idea is that you post a question, opinion or photo from your smartphone, then get a blizzard of responses back from strangers.

Good for clothes shopping, wine-buying, friend-ribbing ("Should he have left this hat at home?") and a host of other uses. Plenty of daily-life decisions can't be crowdsourced, but Thumb is proving good value for the ones that can.

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Vyclone

Free

Social video apps are all the rage right now, thanks to soaring downloads and usage for Viddy and Socialcam — both of which make it easy to shoot short video clips then share them on social networks. If those apps are the video equivalents of Instagram, Vyclone is more complex and also potentially more disruptive.

Here's its pitch: Vyclone taps into the iPhone's GPS sensor to figure out if anyone else is shooting the same thing in the same place as you. Think music concerts, sporting events or even political demonstrations.

The cleverest feature is yet to come though: Vyclone edits videos together into multi-angle clips, which are then made available to remix by any user. To really take off, it'll need a lot of people using it, admittedly.

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Spotify

Free with subscription

Spotify's smartphone apps have been out for a while and are a big factor in the company's growth to more than 3 million paying subscribers for its streaming music service. This year Spotify has brought these apps to tablets — iPad and Android devices running Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich.

It's very slick, making good use of the larger tablet screen to show more information on songs and artists, as well as album cover art. And just like the smartphone versions, it ties in neatly to Spotify's Facebook-fuelled social features, so you can see what friends have been listening to.

But what Spotify's iPad app in particular shows, with its support for Apple's AirPlay technology that streams music wirelessly to a compatible hi-fi, is how tablets really could become the universal remote controls for our home entertainment in the not-too-distant future — the smart control for other, dumber screens and speakers.

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Pocket Planes

Free

Pocket Planes came out in June as the follow up to one of 2011's most successful freemium mobile games, Tiny Tower. It takes the pixelated little people from that game and sends them into the sky on airplanes — your airplanes, to be specific, as the game involves running your own airline. Pocket Planes is noteworthy partly because it's one of the most ferociously addictive games on the App Store in 2012. You buy planes, unlock new airports to open new routes and link with friends in "Flight Crews" to take on the world.

The more you play, the more game play nuances you discover. But the game also represents an encouraging trend in the way its freemium business model works. Rather than forcefully pushing players toward buying its virtual Bux currency, Pocket Planes doles it out generously for free. People pay because they love the game itself not because of aggressive in-app purchase marketing.

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Toca Train

$1.99

Swedish developer Toca Boca has been on the radar of many parents for a long time now, thanks to its habit of releasing charming, playful "digital toys" for children on the App Store. "Digital toys" is a carefully chosen phrase because the company's apps aren't games with goals and time limits but are more open-ended affairs for explorative play.

Toca Train is Toca Boca's latest release, and for the first time, the company is expanding into 3-D graphics. It's simple on the surface: Your child drives a train along a track, stopping at stations to pick up passengers and cargo along the way.

It's this simplicity and repetitiveness that provides the space for children to create their own narratives. Who are the people in the trains, and where are they going? Toca Train is like a real-world toy train set in that respect.

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Sparrow

$2.99

Apple has wielded its App Store banhammer in the past against apps that too-closely replicate key functions in its iOS software. Thank goodness Sparrow escaped that fate: It's an excellent email client that has replaced the native iOS mail app in the permanent menu bar at the bottom of my iPhone's home screen — high praise indeed.

Sparrow is a deceptively simple, intuitive email app that works beautifully with your Gmail account, especially if you're a power user with lots of folders set up to archive email into. A couple of swipes and taps is enough to access nearly every feature you'd want. It's much better than even the official Gmail app, let alone Apple's own mail client.

Sparrow encouragingly also shows that there's room for innovation even around the most core features of current-day smartphones.

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Barclays Pingit

Free

There's innovation in mobile payment technology happening around the world, but Pingit is the app that made a splash this year in my homeland, the U.K. It's not been a happy few months (well, years) for British banks, but Barclays deserves hatfuls of praise for its work on Pingit.

The idea: an app to quickly send or receive money to and from friends and family members, simply by choosing their mobile number from your phone contacts — as long as they're a registered Pingit user too. Up to $470 can be sent in a single day, and you don't have to be a Barclays customer to use it.

The idea of person-to-person payments is one whose time is coming, and other companies are also working hard on it — PayPal for example. But for Brits, Pingit was one of the few surprises we've had from our banks in recent times that was actually welcome.

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Angry Birds Space

Free to $2.49

As a brand, Angry Birds has become ubiquitous, thanks to the plush toys, T-shirts, other merchandise and close to 1 billion downloads of its various games. "Angry Birds: the marketing and retail phenomenon" can sometimes obscure the fact that the actual games are top-notch. Angry Birds Space, however, reminds us all about that.

It takes the Angry Birds formula (slingshot birds at pigs hiding in wooden structures, if you need reminding) and fires it into space, complete with planetary gravitational fields to spice up the action. A mixture of free and paid level packs will keep it fresh in the coming months.

Part of the reason I'm including it here is its status as a phenomenon. Partnerships with NASA and National Geographic along with 100 million downloads in its first 76 days make this the flagship mobile game of 2012. And thankfully, it's a great game, too.

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SwiftKey 3 Keyboard

$3.99

This app, just like Sparrow, shows how companies are innovating around the core functionality of smartphones this year. In this case, that functionality is the keyboard. This latest version of the SwiftKey app, developed in the U.K., makes Android typing a lot … smarter.

Like previous versions of the app, this new release offers better predictions and corrections to help you type faster. The company's technology is focused on personalization, so SwiftKey learns the words and phrases that you use regularly and adapts to become more useful.

There's a big debate around whether paid apps can do well on Android, but SwiftKey has sold by the bucket load — one of the success stories that is good news for developers and Android device owners alike.

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Figure

$0.99

One of the most exciting things about Instagram was the way it helped ordinary people make beautiful images, with no technical knowledge required. Figure does a similar thing for electronic music-making, which is not to say that it will turn anyone into a Chemical Brother or a Richie Hawtin, but more so that it will give them the joy of making sounds a bit like these artists.

"Create an addictive beat before the next bus stop or lay down a beefy bass line while waiting in line at the bank," suggests its App Store listing. Elegant touchscreen controls help you set and tweak drum, bass and lead lines for a two-bar blast of electronica, with wonderfully squelchy results.

Its developer Propellerhead Software is behind serious music-making software like Reason and ReBirth, so to see that technology powering a simple, accessible music app is really heartening.

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New Star Soccer

Free to $2.99

As England crashed out of the Euro 2012 tournament on penalties, many football fans consoled themselves with a New Star Soccer session. The game, which started life as a Web Flash title, has been one of the biggest word-of-mouth hits here in the U.K. in 2012, and deservedly so.

It might look like an 8-bit game from the 1980s, but that's part of the charm. This is a football-themed, light roll-playing game in which you star as an individual player, scoring and setting up goals while juggling the affections of teammates, managers, fans and girlfriends.

It's enormously addictive — I've missed several tube stops while playing it. It's exciting that pure game play can still create an App Store hit rather than being squeezed out by richer marketing budgets or big-name brands.

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Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomy

$13.99

U.K./U.S. publisher Touch Press has been one of the key companies trying to reimagine books for tablet devices ever since the first iPad came out. Its Barefoot World Atlas, Solar System, The Elements and The Waste Land apps have helped me dig into subjects I stupidly wrote off as boring at school. Recently it's Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomy that's been fascinating.

The iPad app digitizes all 268 pages of da Vinci's human anatomy notebooks, so you can pinch-zoom around the body to your heart's content. A neat translation feature lets you read his notes, and text and interviews with experts help explain the significance.

I wish we'd had devices like the iPad and apps like this in my school days. As more schools get tablets into the classroom, the implications of apps like this for education are huge.

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Stories About Me

Free

A lot of work is being done on apps for children with autism on the iPad, particularly around the area of "social stories" — stories that describe everyday situations to help children understand how to behave and make the situations familiar rather than frightening.

Stories About Me takes that idea and personalizes it. Parents and teachers can use the app to create social stories for the children in their care, using photos, text and voice recordings to make it even more relevant to their lives. I like the fact that its free, so people can try it out. It neatly ties in with cloud service Dropbox to store and share the stories created, and an in-app purchase of $4.99 makes that feature unlimited. It's a creative app that could make a real difference.

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iPhoto

$4.99

A year or two ago, there was a lively debate about whether Apple's iPad was just for consuming rather than creating: good for reading, playing and listening but not necessarily for making and creating. That debate has been largely set to rest through a new generation of apps, including several published by Apple.

iPhoto is one of them: It does all the simplest photo-editing tasks you might need well, but it has a lot of depth if you sit down and burrow into its features. Its interface is very impressive too — one of the flagships for showing how more complex creative apps don't have to be in thrall to predecessors created with a mouse in mind rather than fingers.

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Pip and Posy: Fun and Games

$2.99

Alongside Toca Boca, Nosy Crow is one of the other children's app publishers that I'd recommend to any parent for its craft and attention to detail. The company makes physical books and, separately, apps. This one's based on a series of books by Axel Scheffler — also known as "the guy who draws the Gruffalo."

It's a collection of very fun puzzles and activities for young children, from finger-painting and matching pairs to jigsaw puzzles.

There's also a marvelous Make a Face feature that uses your device's camera to show your child on-screen as he or she pulls a variety of faces in response to prompts. Rather than hammer an educational message home, Pip and Posy wears its learning lightly and playfully.

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King's Cross Streetstories

Free

One of the publications I write for is The Guardian, to declare an interest — although I had nothing to do with the development of this app. The idea: It's an audio guide to the King's Cross district of London (where the newspaper's office is located) delivered as an app for Android or iPhone.

Rather than provide tourist information, the app is based around stories on the buildings and history of the area, told by local historians and residents — from architectural experts to former prostitutes from King's Cross' earthier days.

It's a beguiling combination of journalism and historical research, best experienced while actually walking to the places you're hearing about (although it's not essential — there's a manual mode to listen wherever you are).

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Bubbly Voice Blogging

Free

he first time a lot of Westerners hear about Bubbly, it sounds silly. Like Twitter but with recorded voice messages rather than text sentences — who'd use that? But then you find out that Bubbly has been an enormous hit in India, attracting more than 14 million users earlier this year when it launched in the U.K. and U.S.

One of the big draws is that celebrities use it, just as with Twitter. A range of Bollywood stars have been enlisted for Bubbly, recording regular updates that people pay (not a typo, honest) to listen to.

Will it catch on in the West? It's too early to say, but it has some intriguing potential beyond celebs for media and journalists to use Bubbly in their work. Although admittedly, it's in competition with services such as SoundCloud and Audioboo in that sense.

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Bobo Explores Light

$4.99

This is certainly ambitious, promising to allow you to "hold a fully functional science museum for kids 4–12 in the palm of your hand." But having praised apps like Toca Train and Pip and Posy for NOT putting education to the fore, Bobo Explores Light is a good example of how it can be done entertainingly.

The focus is on science: lasers, lightning, holograms — everything to do with light, basically. Presented by a robot named Bobo, it's a mixture of explanations and experiments spread over 100 interactive pages, with bags of character and color.

Apple gave it a Design Award at its WWDC 2012, shining a spotlight (which is apt, really) on developer Game Collage's work.

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Clear

$2.99

There was a lot of hype around the productivity app Clear when it first came out, but don't let that put you off. App developers were enthralled by its stripped-down user interface, which does away with buttons altogether, in favor of pure gestural controls. You swipe down to create a new task, swipe across to cross tasks off the list, pinch to switch between lists and so on, with everything color-coded according to priority. As someone who used to keep track of tasks in the iPhone's default Notes app, this has been a godsend. A good example of less being more, at least when it comes to user interface design.

What's your must-have new app for 2012?

Stuart Dredge is a freelance journalist in the U.K. writing for The Guardian,The Sunday Times, Music Ally, The Appside, MSN and his own apps-for-kids site Apps Playground. A version of this article originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 2012 issue of SAY Magazine.