The Power of Web Applications

I never planned on purchasing an iPhone, mainlfy because (at that time) it lacked support for Microsoft Exchange. But then, one day last August, I stopped by an AT&T retail store on my way home. I walked in, picked up the iPhone and playefd around with it for a while, and foundf myself handing over my credit card to a helpful sales rep. When I got home and told my wife about my new purchase, her only comment was, "It took longer than I expected." I initially planned to use the iPhone as a secondary device, but within a week I loved it and was looking for ways to make the iPhone my one and only device. I loved the feel of it, the browsing, and especially the way in which it seamlessly hands off between Wi-Fi and EDGE. However, that annoying little problem remained—lack of support for MS Exchange (solved with iPhone 2.0). I was so determined to use the device that I began to search for solutions. I figured that if I could find a workaround, I would be able to sell my other devices on eBay.

The workaround came in the form of Gmail. Since Gmail is Web-based, it allowed me to access my e-mail, contacts, and calendar through both the iPhone's mail application and directly through the iPhone's Safari browser. I had never used Gmail before, but it was compatible with the iPhone and integrated with Mac OS X's Mail. So I decided to give it a try. I found that I really liked Gmail, especially its ability to "tag" e-mails instead of organizing them in folders. I also liked the fact that by using Gmail's mobile Web site on the iPhone, I was able to see changes in real-time. The same applied to my calendar. Normally, the 
iPhone's calendar only changed when I synced it with iTunes. But with the Web-based approach, it always reflects the most current information in my ever-changing day. I should note that the next generation iPhone firmware (supported on both the original and the iPhone 3G) will include full support for MS Exchange.


The power of Web apps

Gmail led to my use of Google's entire suite of Web applications on both my iPhone and my desktop. In fact, during my sermon preparation for the Jewish High Holy Days last fall, I collaborated with a colleague using Google Docs on my desktop computer to edit and critique each other's ideas without ever having to be in the same space. Unfortunately, I could only view, not edit, the documents when I used Google Docs on my iPhone.

It quickly became clear to me that the power of Web applications and their lack of reliance on any particular platform made them the perfect solution for mobile computing. In addition, I felt that the iPhone was the ideal device to leverage the power of Web apps for the following reasons:

  • It had a full-featured Web browser built into it.
  • It had both Wi-Fi and EDGE connectivity (with high-speed 3G connectivity to be added).
  • It seamlessly switches between Wi-Fi and cellular connectivity, depending on which one's available.

In the months since I transitioned fto the iPhone as my full-time device, I have found myself taking greater advantage of Web applications.


Task management

Screenshot of ToodledoWhile the iPhone has numerous capabilities, task management isn't one of them. For some reason, Apple chose to neglect this all-important function common to most PDAs and smartphones. Fortunately, there are a number of excellent Web applications that fill in the gap, and many of them are optimized specifically for the iPhone. Two of the best ones I've found are Remember the Milk ( and Toodledo (

While each application brings some unique functions to the table, they are quite similar. Both are easy to use and highly customizable. Both allow you to set up a variety of reminder options, including the ability to receive an e-mail or text message to remind you about upcoming or overdue tasks. Both offer a free version of the service, as well as a paid upgrade that includes access to a superb iPhone optimized site.

Among the most powerful functions on both apps is the ability to create a new task on the run simply by sending an e-mail to the Web application. In addition, by integrating the Jott voice service into the mix, you can create new tasks by using nothing more than your voice (see sidebar). For busy people who have a difficult time juggling their responsibilities, either application is a potential life-saver.

While I have used both applications, my current favorite is Toodledo because its linear desktop user-interface is more in keeping with my work-style.


Data storage and access

Another area in which the iPhone falls short is data and note storage and access. The iPhone currently offers up to 16 GB of storage. But that still doesn't come close to the amount of storage on my desktop or notebook computer. In addition, the iPhone's storage capabilities are focused on music, video, and photos synced to the device through iTunes. It does come with a Notes application, but it's as rudimentary as can be.

There are workarounds for these issues. One is to save a document as a JPEG image file and sync it with the iPhone. Another is to use a third-party application like PhoneView ( to create notes on your computer and then sync them to the iPhone's Notes program. While both methods work, a number of Web apps offer far better solutions.

Two of the best are Evernote ( and Backpack ( While the two are entirely different applications, offering vastly different features, both can be viewed as "online notebooks" for collecting, organizing, and accessing your digital life. You can add and edit notes and e-mail, store and access documents and pictures, and save files.

Screenshot of BackpackEvernote allows you to easily capture information, resident in any digital source (Web pages, text, etc.) using whatever device or platform you choose. It makes this information accessible and searchable at any time, from anywhere.

Best of all, both applications have ways to access everything stored through their applications via the iPhone. Evernote offers a superb iPhone-optimized site. While Backpack does not offer iPhone optimization, Justin Michael, an enterprising Backpack user, has written and made available code ( to do just that. Both Evernote and Backpack are far more powerful than this brief description suggests. They both extend the usefulness of the iPhone in a remarkable way.




SugarSync and .Mac

Two other Web applications that deserve a mention are SugarSync ( and MobileMe.

SugarSync is best known as an excellent Web-based backup system, but it is also an excellent way to access files stored on either your home computer or the Web. It too has an iPhone-optimized Web site that allows you to quickly find the files that you need and then e-mail them with ease.

Apple's .Mac Web-based application had fallen behind in its offerings. .Mac has been re-released as MobileMe (see page 72). This re-worked application promises to take Web-based services for the iPhone to an entirely new level, combining 20 GB of Web-based storage with an easy way to store and access pictures, files, and PIM information. If the actual version matches Apple's early description of the service, it will take the iPhone to an entirely new level.


The future of "cloud computing"

"Cloud computing" refers to accessing your applications from and storing your data on a server that you access via the Internet. The Web-based server is the "cloud" you access for all your needs. The Web apps described in this article are perfect examples of cloud computing. In the months since I started moving to cloud computing, a number of things have changed. Gmail released a new version of its service that lets you access IMAP e-mail accounts. This makes it a far better e-mail solution because it keeps e-mail accessed via the iPhone in sync with the rest of your Gmail account. In addition, an increasing number of Web applications have added iPhone-optimization, making accessibility to the applications quicker and easier. This is something particularly important to owners of the first generation iPhone with its slower EDGE data connection. There are two other changes that are now making Web applications an even better option.

The first change is a shift toward what I refer to as the "Hybrid Cloud." This includes applications that are primarily Web-based, but also include a component that resides (is installed) on the computer or mobile device. The application stores data on the device and keeps it in sync with data on the Web. This means that the user is no longer entirely dependent on a data connection in order to use the application. It also means that they have a backup of all their data—something of significance for those who do not yet feel comfortable relying entirely on Web-based storage.

Evernote and SugarSync offer such a hybrid approach. Each of these applications includes a desktop component for both Mac and PC computers. Further, Evernote and SugarSync offer a device-resident version for Windows Mobile devices and, in the near future, the iPhone. A similar hybrid application called PackRat has been developed for Backpack by a third-party developer, while Remember the Milk leverages Google's Google Gears to provide offline access.

The second big change is the release of the iPhone 2.0 firmware, which is built into the new iPhone 3G and can be downloaded and installed on earlier versions of the iPhone. Until 2.0, iPhone had been limited to using Web applications and did not have the ability to install third-party software without hacking their devices. As a result, the hybrid options I describe above could not be used on the original iPhone. All that changed with the release of the second generation iPhone firmware. And, while none of these hybrid solutions had been formally announced at the time I wrote this article, there is little doubt that they will be in the very near future.

Adopting the iPhone as my device of choice forced me to look for ways to compensate for its limitations. The result—I took up residence in the "cloud" and became a user of Web applications. I'm happy to be there, and I will definitely stay.


Jott voice service

The most powerful application I use isn't really a Web application, but it definitely makes them more effective. Jott ( is a voice service that can be accessed from any phone once you've created an account. I mention it here because Jott powerfully integrates with many of the Web services discussed in this article.

Jott is a free service that transcribes brief voice messages and sends them to you or the person of your choice via e-mail or SMS. Imagine that you're driving to a meeting and realize that you must call a certain client in three hours. You can pull over and write yourself a note, but that means stopping the car now and remembering to look at the paper later. Instead, dial Jott's toll free number and create a reminder. The process would look like this:

Jott: Who do you want to Jott?
You: Mysel
Jott: Jott yourself
You: Remember to call Sally
Jott: Got it. Do you want a reminder?
You: Yes
Jott: What day?
You: Today
Jott: What time?
You: 1 o'clock
Jott: AM or PM?
You: PM
Jott: Setting reminder for Thursday June 19, 2008 1 o'clock PM. Is this Correct?
You: Yes
Jott: Got it


Fifteen minutes prior to the appointment, you'll receive an e-mail and/or SMS message reminder (depending on your settings). It could not be easier.

The real power of Jott becomes clear when it is linked to a Web-based service. Through JottLinks, Jott can create notes, appointments, or reminders in an ever-growing number of Web-based services, including Remember the Milk, Google Calendar, Toodledo, Twitter, IWantSandy, and others.

For example, once Jott is linked to Remember the Milk (easily done on Jott's Web site), you can dial Jott and create a new task. For me, the process looks like this:

Jott: Who do you want to Jott?
Me: Milk Task
Jott: Milk Task—is this correct?
Me: Yes (then after Jott beeps) Pick up the milk, tomorrow at 11:30 AM
Jott: Sent

A few minutes later, a new task appears in my Remember the Milk account reminding me to pick up milk and a due date of tomorrow at 11:30 AM. You can even use Jott to get prices from or hear your favorite RSS feeds read to you over the phone.

Although the iPhone's touch screen is relatively easy to use, nothing is easier, more convenient, and more powerful than voice. And nothing leverages voice as effectively and flexibly as Jott—it's amazing!

Web apps fill in the gaps in the iPhone's applications suite and turn it into a powerhouse
October 2008 (Premier Issue)
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