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Cool applications are not limited to iPhones

Based on what we’re hearing about all the new iPhone applications, you’d think it was the first smart-phone to run third-party software. It’s not. In fact, all three major smart-phone operating systems – Palm, BlackBerry and Windows Mobile – have a big head start when it comes to available software.What’s more, basic cell phones – the ones you get for free from your carrier – also can run software and often be programmed to perform many of the advanced functions of an iPod or smart-phone.

Apple didn’t invent cell phone applications, and it’s not the only company that’s innovating. Yet, the rest of the industry owes Apple a debt of gratitude for opening its online applications store and helping publicize the fact that cell phone applications exist on virtually all platforms. And Apple has raised the bar for ease of use. I hope other handset makers will take note and make their applications easier to find.

The most popular smart-phone brand is still Research in Motion’s BlackBerry, which works with lots of third-party programs in addition to the applications that come with the device. One way to locate them is by using a search engine to find “Built for BlackBerry,” which will lead you to the company’s application portal. It’s divided into categories of “News & Weather,” “Sports,” “Travel & Mapping,” “Games & Entertainment,” “Music & Media,” “Lifestyle” and “Finance & Bankinare quite sophisticated. Under the “Music & Media” service, there are even programs that let you listen to live radio or connect to your personal music collection. However, unlike the iPhone, BlackBerry devices use a smaller-than-usual headphone jack requiring you to use the brand’s headphones, a plug adapter or Bluetooth headphones if you want to listen to music or a video soundtrack.I also just got my hands on the new Treo 800w, which is built by Palm, runs the Windows Mobile operating system and uses the Sprint network. This device, which costs $249 with the usual two-year contract, comes with lots of programs but also supports software you can download from the phone using the Sprint software store or one of many vendors that provide software for Windows mobile.

When it comes to choice, the combination of Sprint and Windows Mobile outshines what you can get with an iPhone – at least for now. The same can be said for smart-phones that run on Verizon Wireless, which also has its own applications along with the programs available from Windows Mobile, Palm, BlackBerry and the many independent vendors that support these phones. There are even distributors who specialize in making these programs easily available.

Handango offers software for all the major platforms as does Handmark. Handmark also has a free program called “Pocket Express” that provides news, stock quotes, sports and more for many phones and smart-phones.

Even if you have a phone you got for free or really cheap when you signed up for service, you probably have more available software than you realize. Take a look at the tools menu for all the things you can do with your phone such as setting alarms, calculating tips or keeping track of your schedule.

Almost all phones have some type of e-mail service, but they also work with the free e-mail applications from Google (Gmail) and from Yahoo Mobile. Of course you’ll have to peck out your messages on the numeric keyboard, but the interface on the mobile version of Gmail is actually very good – arguably as good or better than what you get with smart-phones. Yahoo Mobile also offers search, instant messaging and other features that – like Gmail – work on most regular phones.

Nearly all newer phones also have GPS built-in as well as available applications that give turn-by-turn directions, which is not yet available on an iPhone even though the iPhone 3G has GPS.

Then there’s Google’s Android operating system. Android phones aren’t yet available, but when they are, expect a great many choices. Android is an open-source operating system that Google will license to cell phone makers and carriers around the world, which means there will be plenty of incentive for developers to jump on that platform with some great applications.

So while it’s understandable to have iPhone envy, don’t think for a moment that Apple has a monopoly on coolness or neat applications. Shop around and look at that phone you already have. You might discover it’s a lot more powerful and versatile than you thought.

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As with any platform, the quality of applications varies. But some