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The app-driven life: How smartphone apps are changing our lives

Our app-driven life: Smart-phone apps are becoming the north star for millions of Americans who use them to navigate through life –  shopping, playing, reading, dating, learning, and more with their fingertips.

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Svelte, intuitive hardware helps propel the movement, but this new era in consumer electronics really started a year after the debut of the original iPhone. In early 2008, Apple opened the digital doors to its App Store, an online marketplace for programmers around the world to sell their own mobile apps.

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While Apple guarded the gates – demanding that each app be submitted for review – it kept a wide berth. Programmers for the iPhone and Google's competing Android line could take advantage of tools unavailable on most personal computers: touch screens, cameras, tilt sensors, compasses, location tracking, cellular Internet connections, and the fact that people carry these devices with them at all times.

Soon, apps emerged for practically every need in a person's day.

Productivity goosed by zombies?

Matthew Ablon uses his Android phone to keep fit. This freshman at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Ark., never liked running in high school. It seemed monotonous. Boring. A single app changed his mind.

This past semester, Mr. Ablon downloaded Zombies, Run! – a workout app that motivates people to run by appealing to their Darwinian desire not to get eaten by zombies. As Ablon runs, this run tracker mixes in elements of an audio adventure game. The app interrupts his normal music playlist with mission instructions – such as news that he's found (virtual) supplies that he can distribute to survivors living in a nearby (fictional) compound. But before he can return home with the provisions, he needs to pick up the pace and outrun the zombie horde.

This $8 app – quite a bit more expensive than the traditional 99-cent threshold for phone apps – is "worth every penny," says Ablon. He now runs two to three miles twice a week with imaginary zombies on his heels.

Is this a peculiar way to encourage good habits? Definitely. But is it effective? The British government thinks so. As the workout app rang up a quarter-million downloads, Britain's National Health Service commissioned the team behind Zombies to design a self-improvement app for the broader public (i.e., without the undead theme). The group plans to reveal this new project in the spring.

As apps worm their way into our daily lives, plenty of smart-phone owners now find the word "phone" becoming an increasingly anachronistic term for these devices. In a TIPP poll commissioned by The Christian Science Monitor, close to half of respondents (46 percent) reported using their smart phones more than 10 times a day for actions other than making a phone call.

"Apps bring out the human part of technology," says Scott Steinberg, a consultant and professional speaker on innovation in St. Louis. Desk-bound PCs were designed for business, he says. They're tools of productivity occasionally co-opted for entertainment. Yet while iPhone and Android owe a lot to BlackBerry (the pinstriped, business-minded older brother of the smart-phone family), apps were predominantly designed for life outside the office.

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