I hear about a lot of apps – and not just because I’m a part of the Syracuse School of Information Studies. Today, you see apps everywhere: on television commercials, on billboards, and even in print publications. What’s more, apps are now becoming ads themselves, like this most recent offering from Toyota, the “Prius Experience.”

But I’m here to let you in on a secret: most apps are absolute garbage. In fact, I’m willing to state – publicly – that at least 99.98% of apps are worthless. You probably already knew this, but were hesitant to admit it. I understand – smart phones are incredible devices that we’ve all put lots of trust and power into. We are literally changing the way that we live our lives because of the presence of this technology. But that doesn’t make every app great, and it doesn’t make every app-maker a millionaire.

In my opinion, there are only two types of apps that matter:

  1. Apps that are so useful, they can’t be ignored (.01%).
  2. Apps that are so fun and engaging, they can’t be ignored (.01%).

What Exactly is an App?

It might seem like a simple question, but as the line between web-based and mobile continues to blur, I think it’s worth our time to lay out exactly what we’re talking about here. To start, I am not talking about things that either started before the days of smartphones (YouTube and Facebook, for example) or about services that are largely driven by mobile content (like Twitter). These are services that have evolved for years before apps were even in the picture. Facebook only recently released an iPad app, literally arriving to the party years late. And why could they afford to do this? Because they’re not an app, they’re not an app-driven service, and they are perfectly capable of thriving outside of the app ecosystem.

I’m talking about programs that are designed exclusively to be run on mobile devices (even if they also have web components or pull web-based content). You get them from the App Store (whichever flavor you prefer), and you use them on your device. Plain and simple.

Useful  Apps

Apps that fall into this category are the ones that have earned that coveted spot on your home screen of both your phone and your brain. When you’ve got a problem to solve, or a question to answer, or a piece of digital content to retrieve, these are your go-to guys, your starting team. These apps have the power to make your life better each and every time you use them – that’s important, and it’s why you keep coming back to them.
  • Square: Led by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, the Square app works in conjunction with a free, small reader device that plugs into your headphone jack and allows you to accept credit and debit payments directly. This means you can split the check when nobody has cash (and not deal with the “I’ll pay you back” friend). It means your coffee shop or lemonade stand can take cards without needing an expensive machine or vendor contract. And, it means that the Salvation Army will likely make more money in donations this year – despite the tough times – because they have a new way to interact with their customers. That’s why Square tops my list of useful apps.
  • Evernote: While it’s not a new company, and it does have a web component, the mobile/app elements of Evernote make it one of the first things I put onto any of my new digital devices. I love that I can snap a picture of anything I see, and keep it for later using this app. I can jot a quick note, or write a longer composition, and it’s saved and fully searchable on any connected device. I can take a picture of a business card I receive, and it will let me search for the text later. I can even hand-write a note, and Evernote’s handwriting recognition will ensure that I can find that note later. I can clip web pages, send it PDFs, or forward Evernote emails, and everything is there for me when I need it. For an information professional, this is a game-changer, hands down.
  • Dropbox: Like Evernote, Dropbox exists on the web, and also in app form. Also like Evernote, my Dropbox contents are accessible whenever, wherever, and however I need them. I can use my Dropbox folder to save my work on my laptop, and access a draft on my phone. I can email and share digital content from my own personal dropbox, or use it as a collaboration tool. Again, for the mobile information professional, the ability to live without hauling around backups, or to know that your documents and photos are backed up in a safe and secure location is incredibly valuable to me. I even pay for extra space because I use their service so much!
  • GoogleMaps: Anybody who has explored a new place with a smart phone has used this app. It comes bundled on any Android device and all iDevices for a reason: it’s useful. Whether it’s getting directions or looking for a coffee fix, figuring out public transit systems, or alternate routes, GoogleMaps makes moving around your physical world a breeze. And, while I much prefer the integration of Google’s Navigation utility on the Android version of GoogleMaps, the iPhone version works fine, too. It’s truly the one thing I miss most about jumping from the Android ship.

Fun and Engaging Apps

  • AngryBirds: If you’ve played it, you know. Incredibly simple, yet complex enough to keep you going for hours. You can play for a minute or two, or as long as you’d like. Your kids can play, your grandma can play, your boss can play — and they probably all do. It was the top iPhone app of 2010 (by downloads) for a reason, and has redefined the casual gaming industry. You’ve probably seen their merchandise in stores, and there is even talk of an AngryBirds movie! Why? It’s just that much fun.
  • Instagram: With the rise of mobile phones, we also began carrying around a plethora of other formerly standalone devices with us: GPS units and digital cameras chief among them. Instagram provides a simple and entertaining platform to take and share photographs. It’s responsive, easy to link to Twitter and Facebook, and provides some fun effects. But mostly, it gets out of your way and lets you take and share to your hearts content.
  • Flipboard: Taking advantage of the iPad’s increased screen real-estate, touch-screen interface, and abundance of easily accessed digital content, Flipboard provides an easy way to navigate what could otherwise be an overwhelming amount of information. In addition to being able to easily see and read what’s out there, Flipboard lets you save things (using Instapaper – another incredibly useful app), share something on Twitter or by email, and even view things in their original web format. It’s easy and fun to use, the content streams are customizable, and it looks great doing it. A trendsetter if there ever were one.

The Rest

If we are being honest about our app usage, we know that most of the ones we download we either try once and delete, or relegate to a back page on our phones where they are essentially “out of sight, out of mind”. Maybe some of us post reviews with low amounts of stars and offers for suggestion, but it’s unlikely that will change anything. We have entered the age of the “blank for blank” – the “Instagram for the enterprise,” the “AngryBirds for the elderly”, or the “Flipboard for education”. Copycat apps abound, and it’s truly unfortunate.
What we need are more ground breakers, more risk takers, and more game changers. The last thing we need are more apps like anything on this list. These apps are already so well-done, have so much traction, and are so refined, that newcomers to the app space are better off spending their time trying something new, rather than repurposing something that’s already well done. Entrepreneurs and app makers – the ball’s in your court!

Did I miss your favorite app? Disagree with my rankings and ratings? Sound off in the comments below!