When the iPhone jumped to the front of the smartphone class, it didn't take long to figure out what was making all the other cell phones look like so many D-student dropouts.
Sure, raw sex appeal helped. But it was an exponentially expanding library of apps that made the iPhone the apple of everyone's eye.
Now, newcomer Android and old-school BlackBerry are hoping to prove they're not just handy-capable wannabes as they try to fight their way to the top of the hand-to-hand heap with their own rapidly expanding app emporiums.
Even while the Pentagon explores how to enlist smart phones into service in more formal ways, troops have wasted no time double-tapping everything from fitness apps to bullet trajectory calculators.
Just ask Air Force cyber special ops expert Command Chief Master Sgt. Jesse Davis.
Give him a minute to catch his breath, though. He's just back from another run. Or you could just check his Facebook page — his stats are already posted. In fact, before he's got time to unlace his running shoes, a map of his route has beaten him to his e-mail inbox.
The app that makes it happen: RunKeeper. It layers GPS tracking with earbud-delivered updates on speed and mileage. It even turns down your motivational music for the midstride advisories.
It's the auto-posted stats and mapped routes that keep Davis in step.
"It helps motivate you when you know your friends are seeing your run data, and it also helps motivate them to get off the couch and work out," says Davis, a unit fitness program manager and physical training leader for Air Force Special Operations Command at Hurlburt Field, Fla.
And fitness fanatics are hardly the only ones catching the wave.
When Army Master Sgt. C.J. Grisham needs a quick peek at the new per diem rates, or wants to consult the Uniform Code of Military Justice or re-check the housing allowance rates for his new duty station at Fort Hood, Texas, he doesn't have to go online or crack open some dusty old manual.
"It's the best thing since canned bacon," says Air Force Capt. Randy Sharpe of his ability to deposit a check into his bank account simply by taking a picture of it with his iPhone.
Yep, there are apps for all that.
Since opening its doors to outside developers two years ago, Apple's online App Store has grown from a few hundred humble programs to a 150,000-strong fleet of app-tastic downloads. True, some are more accurately described as craptastic. Still, the sheer density ensures there's something for everyone.
So maybe it should be no surprise that when snipers at the Navy's Special Warfare Development Group — better known as SEAL Team 6 — were looking to fine-tune their long-distance shooting skills, they found no fewer than five ballistic trajectory apps to try.
Retired SEAL Homer Nearpass, who earned a Silver Star in Somalia and now works for the team as a civilian, tested all five.
Ballistic: Field Tactical Edition came out on top, he says. "It was easier to use, and we like the barometric input feature."
Killer apps meet mad science
Similar stories have gotten the attention of the warrior-geeks at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon's fighting mad-scientist division.
In fact, they're so impressed that they're looking at putting a fully loaded iPhone into the hands of everyone in the military. In a recent blaster to developers, officials wrote, "DARPA's objective is to identify apps suitable for widespread use by military personnel" for everything from thumb-and-gun tactical fights to hands-on help in disaster relief.
Officials said they're sick of the low-speed, high-drag gear that troops have been getting, lamenting that the current generation of mil-spec hand-helds are more one-trick ponies than multifunctional mustangs. Radios without data transfer, for example, or translation aids without messaging just don't fly in a world where college students enjoy more connectivity than combat units.
Unless, of course, you're in Air Force Capt. Scott Derenzy's crew. When the KC-10 refueler pilot is getting ready for a trip, PerDiemCalc is his go-to app for breaking down expenses. Not only does it give rates for a particular locale, "it also allows you to enter a custom itinerary for anywhere in the world and calculates your trip total," Derenzy said.
Push a button and everyone on the crew gets an e-mail with all the information.