If my smartphone is so smart, why don't I use it?

April 08, 2013|By TIM ROWLAND |
  • Tim Rowland
Tim Rowland

The first smartphone I ever saw had an app that could “listen” to a song on the radio and then display the name of the song and the name of the artist. Well, I thought that was so amazing, I immediately downloaded a copy and gave it a prominent place on the home screen of my own smartphone.

Where it has remained, entirely unused, for about the past five years now.

But even though it’s hogging memory, I can’t quite seem to separate myself from the concept that I could … if I wanted to … at any time … no matter where I was … hold my smartphone up to a radio and positively ID a song whose title and artist is unknown to me.

Just because that situation never comes up doesn’t matter. It might, and if I delete it you just KNOW that the very next day the prettiest girl in the room will say, “I do not know the name and artist of this song that is on the radio right now, and it distresses me so. If only someone had a way of identifying it for me, he would be my hero.”

Still, I’ve been promising myself an app spring cleaning for a couple of years now. Here is an abbreviated list of things I can do with my phone, but don’t:

Search a database of 250,000 recipes and upload the required ingredients to a digital grocery list; access six different news agencies; scope the weather in San Francisco; edit photos; read barcodes; tie knots; determine whether a piece of lumber is level (I would use this one if it worked, which it doesn’t); identify the stars; find the cheapest nearby gas; discover where the leaves have changed color in the fall; track commercial flights; look up synonyms; review restaurants; discover my National Parks; translate Christmas carols into German; and “increase my productivity” with office sync programs that, considering the amount of time it takes to sign in and get them operable, actually decreases my productivity.

But what pushed my over the edge on this app business were two discrete phenomena. First is a trend of 10-year-olds inventing apps and selling them to Yahoo for $300 million.

The first thing they teach you in journalism school — even before they teach you to complain endlessly and pointlessly about “like” vs. “as if” — is to get used to the idea that everyone will make more money than you. I’m cool with that. Until the person making more than I do still eats Count Chocula for breakfast and the app he invents lets you do something truly amazing like organizing your virtual cat-food coupons alphabetically.

And this brings me to the second issue, the fact that people are making millions for apps that will seem useful for about 3 seconds. The latest app that caught my attention was one developed by a couple of college students that allows you to save time when ordering a drink at a bar.

I do pity these kids the frustration that develops when one is forced to wait an extra 90 seconds to get drunk. And I know when you’re young, time is more valuable. As you age you will learn to wait; the people with the least time left on earth always have the most patience.

But the odd thing was this: The app lets you immediately beam your drink order to the barkeep — after you have gone through about 87 screens asking what kind of drink, what brand of liquor you prefer, what payment option you will be accessing & c. & c., all the while you are squinting at a phone in a bar as dark as a cave and getting jostled by an inebriated clientele.

Kids: Appreciate the app. But if you’re so smart, why don’t you cure cancer.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 6997, or by email at

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