We're in the middle of a mobile app boom, with thousands upon thousands being released every week.
Some are silly, some are serious, and some just plain suck.
But there are a few that web designers and developers simply can't do without. Here we unveil the cream of the crop: the time-savers, the speed-boosters and other mobile web design tools that will make your working life a whole lot easier – whatever your mobile platform.
Apps like WhatTheFont are more proof we're living in the future. While we can't yet point at something and have our robot butler tell us riveting facts about it, we do have apps that attempt to figure out what they're seeing to save us time.
With WhatTheFont, you take a photo of some text, confirm the characters and wait for the app to identify the font. Unsurprisingly, it's not always accurate, but it's often close – and for those times when it's bang-on, it'll save you hours, despite costing you nothing.
19. PHP Cheat Sheet
Platforms: Android, BlackBerry, iPhone, Palm Pre
Concentric Sky offers a small pile of code-oriented cheat sheet apps for a range of devices. While they are, according to certain experts, rather variable in terms of quality, they also happen to be cheap (typically 59p), accurate enough, and can prove useful in certain situations.
Karl Stanton, a developer at Fi New York, is pretty happy with PHP Cheat Sheet: "It's handy when you're developing and don't have an internet connection – on a plane or a train – and you need some PHP help."
There are two reasons why Convertbot is worth installing on your iPhone. First and foremost, designers often have to juggle units, and Convertbot happily enables you to convert data rates, lengths and units relating to typography.
Secondly, as Kicker Studio's principal Dan Saffer says, the app offers a major additional draw: "I'm a big Convertbot fan, not only for its practical use, but also for its example that there are ways of manipulating data in a small space that don't have to be boring." That sounds pretty good to us.
For developers at the more technical end of the spectrum, tools tend to veer away from the graphical and towards the practical. An app in this area recommended by a couple of contributors is ConnectBot.
According to its web page, this app aims to "create a secure connection through which you can use a shell on a remote machine and transfer files back and forth to your phone". Yup, it's a Secure Shell Client, but it's a good one and it happens to be free.
Unfortunately it turns out that iPhone users are somewhat out of luck regarding the free aspect, but we hear good things about TouchTerm for Apple users wanting some SSH goodness. There are two flavours of the app available – the basic one is £2.39; the pro release is £5.49 and it adds a slew of extra features.
Visit jbrink.net/ for more info.
Basecamp, from 37signals, is a web-based project collaboration tool that's hugely popular among designers and developers.
Many iPhone clients accessing Basecamp have sync issues, but Sherpa is robust. You get access to projects, messages, to-dos, milestones and contacts, and your information is secured using SSL.
15. Creative Whack Pack
Occasionally, apps are worthy of note not because they're useful tools or powerful programs, but because they can inspire you. Amy Hoy, Webnographer for slash7, is a big fan. "It's a deck of cards with the creative principles from Roger von Oech's book, A Whack on the Side of the Head," she explains.
"When you're stuck or want a dose of inspiration, you pick a card and apply that rule to your thinking." She has a pack of the physical cards, but, "with this app, I can use them whenever I want – and the descriptions are even fuller than those on the real cards."
14. View Web Source
Most web users don't care about source code, so it's perfectly understandable that mobile browsers don't shoehorn a View Source option into streamlined user interfaces.
For developers, though, the ability to peek under the hood is of paramount importance. On Android, View Web Source enables you to load the source of any URL of your choosing, search the resulting text, and also copy and paste the code.
The free HTML Viewer does broadly the same thing if you've got an iPhone.
Web designers and developers like to keep track of what's going on in the industry, and most of that information comes from blogs. To that end, RSS is a huge time-saver, meaning you needn't visit dozens of sites daily.
Reeder is a Google Reader client that you probably don't need, but once it's installed you'll wonder how you ever did without it, thanks to the app's great interface, offline caching and excellent sharing features.
Android users should check out Feedr.
12. Dolphin Browser
Android users who feel restricted by their default browser could do worse than check out Dolphin Browser, which emphasises speed and the social aspect of the web.
The browser offers multitouch pinch-zooming where possible, and you also get gesture-based commands, tabs, the ability to save cache to an SD card, YouTube video downloads, and easy share with the likes of Twitter and Facebook.
RSS feeds are detected and easy to subscribe to, and there's also integration with Read It Later. The lack of location awareness is a pity, but otherwise this is a great alternate browser.
Hipstamatic makes our list because of its potential to inspire you, although it also has the ability to provide interesting photography for your websites once you've mastered its nuances. It essentially turns your iPhone's ropey camera into a decent digital Lomo.
The tactile nature of the application's interface is a major plus point, although it's also just one of many great iPhone toy-camera apps – we also recommend checking out QuadCamera and Toy Camera (both by artandmobile.com).
10. SketchBook Pro
Although Adobe Ideas (see number five in our list) is the sketching app that's most caught the imagination of iPad owners, illustrator Michael Heald has fallen for Autodesk's professional-grade painting tool, SketchBook Pro.
"Lugging a laptop around can be a pain, so having a competent iPad sketch tool is a no-brainer. Once I got SketchBook Pro, I instantly fell in love," enthuses Heald. "Initially, painting with your fingers seems strange and archaic compared to a stylus, but you soon enjoy it.
Precision was my initial worry, but once you take into account that the iPad can zoom in and out very quickly using multitouch, the accuracy issue fades. It's also a brilliant tool for throwing down rough concepts in front of clients, since it's often easier to sketch out an idea than explain it."
If you're caught short while out and about and need to make a swift change to a website, AndFTP provides you with a capable FTP client.
You get upload, download and resume support, the ability to open files on your device and all the usual important features you'd expect from a desktop FTP client – including the ability to rename files, copy and paste, and set up permissions.
Jealous iPhone and iPad users should skip immediately to number three on our list for a nice surprise.
8. Opera Mini
Platform: Android, BlackBerry, iPhone, Windows Mobile
Having mobile browsers that render web pages in the same way as desktop browsers is great until you find yourself with a slow data connection. In such situations, its worth having Opera Mini installed.
In layman's terms, it shoves pages through Opera's own servers, compresses them, and then flings them back at your phone faster than downloading the same pages using your device's native browser.
7. Color Expert
Unless you're one of those rare people who has a perfect eye for colour, it's a good idea to have some kind of colour wheel lurking. Of late, digital colour wheels have become somewhat rare and are often pricey if they offer more than a basic feature set.
Color Expert for iPhone somewhat bucks the trend – it only costs six quid and yet it's packed with features. You get an interactive colour wheel with multiple schemes, an image picker that draws a palette from any photo on your device, a basic swatch book and the ability to export palettes.
The latter is a little slice of magic – the palette email you receive from the Color Expert app is beautifully laid out, and you also get an Adobe Swatch Exchange (ASE) file to drop into your design app of choice.
Plenty of designers and developers have been bitten by the WordPress bug and use the tool for a blog – or even to deal with client website content management.
Although you can use their dashboard via your mobile device's browser, that's a route for masochists only. Instead, if you've a WordPress blog and an Android, BlackBerry or iPhone, download the relevant app to write and edit posts, and manage comments and images.
5. Adobe Ideas
Platform: iPad and iPhone
Despite the ongoing spat between Apple and Adobe, the latter company has created Adobe Ideas for the iPad and iPhone. Adobe refers to the app as "your digital sketchbook, letting you capture and explore ideas anywhere you go".
It's essentially vector finger painting, enabling you to add an optional photo layer to sketch on top of. Designer and developer Dan Rubin has certainly found the app useful:
"It makes a great sketchbook for quick ideas, without having to scan or photograph them to send to people. I've used it quite a bit to jot down rough wireframes while on conference calls, and then email them to everyone for confirmation. It works like a dream."
We like Things a lot, but we only recently realised just how popular it is within our industry. This innovative to-do manager was propelled to its lofty position in our list by enthusiastic cries from a number of designers.
For example, Keith Robinson, calls it "the best to-do and productivity app I've used", adding that it's "well designed, works well in conjunction with the desktop and iPad versions and is one of the apps I use most on my iPhone".
Designer Jonathan Snook agrees, saying that "Things is simple and straightforward and I often find myself using it to keep track of notes as well as to-do items."
Much of why Things excels is down to a well considered workflow model. You can tag items or make them part of a larger project, but the main benefit is its ability to help you focus. New to-dos are collected in the inbox, and you define what you want to achieve today, soon (via the Next category), soonish (via Scheduled) or at some point in the distant future (Someday).
It's a simple, effective means of organising tasks and your time.
3. FTP On The Go
Platform: iPad & iPhone/iPhone-only
Picture the scene: you're on the train and a client calls. They're in a right old state – their website's broken, and you, the designer, are at that very moment the subject of their ire.
With your iPhone, you can use Safari to check out the site in question and maybe figure out why it's not working, but with FTP On The Go, you can access servers, download files, poke around with them, make edits and upload changes.
The app also includes built-in backup and local storage, the ability to upload images from your device's Photos app, a browser for previewing changes you've made, and a master password feature for protecting server login info.
The new Pro version on the iPad also makes use of that device's extra screen space, and comes across a little like Coda Lite rather than the kind of simple app you might expect to get in return for the small sum of six quid.
Platform: iPhone, web
Although a number of online storage services exist, Dropbox is the one that's most transformed the life of web designers and developers. Many use Dropbox to seamlessly sync files between a number of Macs or PCs.
However, the service's online component means documents can potentially be accessed via any mobile device as well. If you've got an iPhone, the free Dropbox app enables faster access to your files, although it doesn't automatically download them.
Instead, you browse them online and mark items as favourites for offline use. Many file types can be browsed on-and offline – the latter being handy for catching up with reading proposals. "On the iPhone, I do find myself using Dropbox to interact with files while on the go," says Rubin. "It's just a viewer, and an editor would be useful – although I think I'd mostly wait to work on documents until I got back to my desk."
If you only use Dropbox for basic syncing of the odd document, the 2GB free service should be more than enough. But you can also upgrade to 50GB ($9.99 per month) or 100GB ($19.99 per month) of storage.
The winner: Remember everything, all the time
Platform: Android, BlackBerry, iPad, iPhone, Palm Pre, Windows Mobile (premium service $5 p/m)
If you're a designer or developer, chances are that you spend a lot of time inside your head, thinking about stuff and coming up with ideas. Although this is a key part of day-to-day creative work, ideas are often lost because there's no easy way to record them for later retrieval.
Evernote is therefore a perfect service for people in the creative web industry, as it enables you to collect, store and access all manner of things – web pages, photos, ideas, chunks of code, screen grabs and sounds. It then organises them all automatically, and you can further refine your notes by tagging and placing them into notebooks.
But what makes Evernote take pride of place at the top of our list is the company's understanding that people want to take their ideas anywhere and access them on the move.
So along with enabling access to your notes via the web and desktop apps for Mac and Windows (and Web Clipper for Safari/Mac, Internet Explorer/Windows, Chrome and Firefox, which provides a quick way to store chunks of websites), Evernote provides clients for iPhone, iPad, Android, BlackBerry, Palm Pre, Windows Phone and Sony Ericsson X1.
Therefore, regardless of which mobile device you favour, chances are you'll be able to use it. Evernote's chosen a freemium model. This means that for free you get a basic service, which should be fine for most users – a 40MB per month upload allowance, sync of images, audio, ink and PDFs, and text recognition inside images.
Pay $5 per month and your limit is upped to 500MB, plus you get sync for any file type, search within PDFs, SSL encryption, optional collaborative note editing and a bunch of other benefits.
First published in .net Issue 203
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