nosignThis week’s column features a couple nice little time wasters, but the real meat of this post is the complete lack of hidden gems in two essential categories – chat and feed readers.

There Isn’t A (Good) App For That

I consider chat and feed readers to be home screen worthy apps. Unfortunately, an app has yet to impress me enough to even stay on my phone. I searched hard for these and wasted a couple bucks to test out apps that ultimately just couldn’t get the job done.

Chat apps have an excuse for not having good entries in the App Store. There’s no way for an instant messaging app to notify you of a new message when the app is closed. Sure there are some quality apps like Fring, Palringo, Yahoo! Messenger and AIM, but no matter how slick the interface is or how fully featured it is or how many different accounts it lets you log into, it is essentially useless because you have to have it running to operate. Yes, you can jailbreak your iPhone and use backgrounder to run the app all the time, but come on, that’s not a good solution.

However, we know that Meebo is on its way. Meebo lets you log into virtually every chat protocol, including MSN, AIM, Yahoo, Gtalk, Facebook and MySpace. It features a great Web app that functions just as well as any native app and the iPhone optimized web app is pretty slick too.

When Apple announced iPhone OS 3.0, the company had the developers of Meebo demonstrate what they are working on. Essentially, the Meebo people said they’ve refused to build a native iPhone app because push notifications are absolutely necessary to make it all work. And they’re exactly right.

So when Meebo finally debuts for iPhone OS 3.0 with push notifications, I’d be willing to bet it is not only the best chat app, but I also expect it to change the way we communicate in a fundamental way. It will be the beginning of the end for text messages (something I’ve been looking forward to for a long time).

Both AIM and Gtalk allow users to send and receive SMS/Text messages using instant messages. So, with Meebo on iPhone, you can be logged into every instant messaging protocol at the same time and send and receive text messages instantly through push notifications. This means every iPhone user could forgo paying extra for text messages.

I’ve emailed Meebo about this feature to make sure there won’t be anything standing in the way of making this possible, but I have yet to hear back. Honestly, I’m a little concerned AT&T would disable this feature somehow because it would threaten their precious text message revenues. AT&T wouldn’t be that greedy, would they? Would they?? UPDATE: I heard back from Meebo. It turns out Meebo doesn’t send SMS messages through their chat service and they have “has no planned announcements for the integration of SMS into Meebo.” However, sending and receiving text messages does work for AIM. So now I’ve asked them the same question. If nothing else, it means two chat programs will be installed on my phone come iPhone OS 3.0. One will be AIM and the other will be Meebo, logged into every service but AIM.

Now that’s the situation with chat apps, but what about feed readers?

I’ve tried out Doppler ($0.99), iNews ($0.99 on sale), Pro RSS Reader ($1.99) and Byline ($4.99) and none of them come close to beating how easy and fast it is to use the Google Reader web app.
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The problem with the web app is you can’t read things offline or cache stories for later viewing. Offilne viewing is incredibly important on the iPhone. You might be traveling through a subway or on an airplane or not want to use the phone’s slow data connection because you have an original iPhone or have bad 3G coverage.

Though the apps above have some pretty cool features, like the ability to Twitter a story you’re reading as well as Instapaper and Read It Later integration.

Unfortunately, all lack speed and perfect Google Reader integration. The best of the lot was Doppler, which lets you choose individual feeds or folders from your Google Reader account. This is a great feature because you can manage the time it takes to download your items and, at the same time, weed out certain feeds because they make for better reading when you can sit down in front of a computer. For example, I don’t necessarily need all my tech news with me wherever I go, so I can just stick with Gizmodo and leave all the others for when I get back to my computer.

At the same time the apps suck because you usually have to hit refresh before you close the app for the changes to sync to Google Reader. This is not very intuitive and again compares unfavorably to the Google Reader web app.

I’m just baffled as to why Google was able get the Javascript of their Web app to load faster in Mobile Safari than a native app. I can’t believe the App Store is still in need of a speedy, powerful RSS feed reader that links up to your desktop feed reader of choice.

Anyway, I’m sure there are more categories that still don’t cut it but these are the ones that bug me every day. Let me know in the comments if you know of any hidden gems in these categories that answer my gripes or if you have any other app categories that you’re unsatisfied with.

Now, onto a couple time wasters.

Toobz ($0.99) and Toobz-Free (Free)

toobzThis game is very plain in its appearance but extremely addicting. I opened it up to write this section and lost an hour of my time.

I’m sure I’ve played games exactly like this but I can’t remember when. It is probably a minigame on some lengthy RPG.

You start with a 5×6 grid and the goal is to try to build pipes to get water to as many spots as possible without letting the water run free. You can direct the water off the edge of the grid but can’t let it run into an open area. There are a bunch of different shapes the pipes can be and you never know which one you’ll get.

It is a great way to turn off your brain for a while.

Geek Test (Free)

photo-3Woe be the day that someone creates a quiz program with Facebook Connect. Imagine dozens of those annoying quizzes coming up in your Facebook feed every day. In fact, why hasn’t that app been created already? Seems to me that would be incredibly profitable. Hmmmmmmm.

Anyway, Geek Test has likely been taken from somewhere else on the web because it didn’t mention some newer geek stuff. For example, it mentions Star Wars Episodes I and II but not III.

And thus, I have proved what a geek I am. But, in my defense, if you are reading this then you’re probably a geek too. You’re on a site dedicated to iPhone apps – I rest my case.

It’s pretty much a single use app, but it is fun to see how much of a geek you are. After checking all that apply in a long list of geek interests, you are given your geek percentage. I’m not sure whether I’m proud or embarassed by my score.