You've probably heard everyone talking about 'apps' - but what are they? In short, they're a way to perform almost any task on your phone, and in just a few years they've become a phenomenon.
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How do they work?
Apps can let your phone or tablet do almost anything that the programmers can imagine, within the technical limitations of the device. This means that you can turn your phone into a remote control for a toy helicopter, your tablet into a turbo-charged drawing pad, and much else besides.
Since the release of Apple's iPhone, smartphones have become powerful enough to perform more than just the features that were built into the phone. Once Apple allowed anyone to develop apps for their phone they began to rise in popularity, and there are now over 500,000 apps available on the iPhone alone.
Competitors were quick to join in, and there are now also a huge number of apps on Android, Windows, Blackberry and Nokia phones. Tablet computers use almost the same technology as smartphones (just with a bigger screen), and so can usually use the same apps as mobiles. They have a lot of dedicated apps that make use of the larger screen size too.
What apps are available?
With so many apps to choose from, it's difficult to choose just a few to talk about. There are apps that let your phone stream radio stations over 3G or Wi-Fi, turning your phone into a pocket radio. Another app uses your phone's camera to take pictures of products' barcodes, and then automatically searches the internet for the best price deals on that item. Yet another uses your phone's GPS to work out your location, and then tells you exactly which buses and trains you need to reach a destination you've chosen.
There are apps that are useful in the home as well. Many cut-down versions of programs for home PCs are available in app form. Word processors, spreadsheets, presentation makers, music production suites, and both video and image editors are available as apps, often with capabilities rivalling their big PC brothers. There is also a vibrant market for games in the app stores.
How do I get apps?
Apps are downloaded from an online shop run by the makers of the phone or tablet's operating system. In the case of the iPhone and iPad, it's simply named the 'App Store'. On Android phones it's the 'Android Market', on Windows Phone the 'Windows Marketplace' and on Nokia phones it's the 'Ovi Store'. These are all accessed by an icon on the device's home screen.
Apps can range in price from free to around £50 for some specialist programs, but most are in the region of just £1. Most app stores will allow you to browse specifically for free apps, and there are a large number available - though of course the more advanced apps usually cost money. To pay for apps, you can register a credit or debit card, though gift cards can be bought from normal shops for some app stores.