iPhone apps are fun and quirky – but are they safe?

You can link to webcams or make yourself sound like a cartoon. But you might also pick up a virus.

By , Columnist for The Christian Science Monitor

For my wife’s birthday recently, I wanted to get her a little something out of the ordinary. So I bought her the latest iPhone.

Anyone who thinks that only the male of the species craves tech gear is fooling himself. My wife is living proof that women can be as attracted to shiny, beeping tech devices as any guy is.

In fact, after watching her with her new phone for a while, I confess to feelings of tech envy. She’s let me use the phone a few (and I do mean few) times, just so I could see how cool it is. I was most impressed with its easy Web access and the quality of the photos it takes – not bad for a device whose primary function is still as a phone … I think.

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But the other cool thing about this newest version of the iPhone are its applications, or apps. Apps are the little programs that a user can download to his or her iPhone for a plethora of uses. (My wife is always looking for a better appointment/scheduling application, for instance.) Some of the stuff is pretty amazing; most of them are also free. And the fee-based ones I’ve seen range from 99 cents to $15.

Take the RDM+: Remote Desktop for Mobiles. This app allows you to access your desktop remotely from the iPhone. So while you’re taking the train or subway into work in the morning, you can log onto your home computer and e-mail yourself that file you forgot to take to work. It’s possible to do this from a laptop as well, of course, but it’s a lot easier to get to your iPhone than to open up your laptop.

Then there’s Mobiscope. It lets you connect to any webcam you like – up to four of them at once. You could use it to see what’s happening at home if you’re on the road – the program can even send you e-mails if motion is detected. (That could generate a lot of e-mail if the cat is moving about.) But there’s an even better use: Link to your favorite public webcams and see what’s happening with the traffic around your city. Better than updates on the radio.

Some apps are more practical than flashy, like Remember the Milk (gotta love the names these developers come up with). It is, of course, a to-do list.

But while I was looking through the thousand-plus apps now available for iPhones, I came across a few that made me wonder why someone would even bother.

Take Birth Buddy. It allows you to time contractions if you (or someone you’re close to) are in labor. You can even e-mail news of these contractions to friends and family. But as I recall from my contraction-intervals-counting days, the last thing in the world a woman in labor wants to hear about is how far apart the contractions are. She is more than aware of that fact.

Or perhaps you’ve always wished that life could be more like a sitcom, a Saturday morning cartoon, or a computer game! If so, you need World 9 (yes, the name is a nod to the popular Mario Brothers games.) The program makes sound effects every time you jump around or run. Imagine the fun you could have with this program in a crowded elevator.

But while it’s great to think you can access more than a thousand apps, some worry that maybe Apple is getting a little ahead of itself. How secure are all those applications at the iPhone App Store? Have they been run through a battery of tests before they go up on the site? Apparently not, if news reports are correct. And that means someone could sneak a malicious program into the pot.

Earlier this week Apple CEO Steve Jobs admitted that every iPhone is equipped with a “kill switch” that can be activated remotely. So if you download an app that Apple doesn’t like, or thinks could cause problems for other iPhone users, Apple can zap that program off your phone. Sounds like a good idea. But some folks worry that this might be like closing the barn door after the cow is out. What good is it to zap the program if it has already passed along your private information to a third party?

The iPhone is very cool. And many of the applications available for it are useful or just plain fun. But Apple needs to be careful. There have already been complaints about bugs in this newest version. It would seem to be in Apple’s interest to offer fewer, thoroughly tested apps on their site, rather than let developers simply post at will and deal with the consequences later if problems arise.

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