Pardon the pun, but a flashlight app doesn't need to be flashy. It just needs to do and be one thing. It's even more utilitarian than the phone part of a smartphone, which can get muddled by a long contacts list and a whole bunch of numbers on the keypad. The flashlight just needs to be one button -- tap it for on, tap it for off. It's simple. It's elegant. It's absolutely everything it needs to be, not a drop more.
So people made it more -- a lot more -- because when we see simplicity we chuck spears at it and roast it on a spit.
I don't know how to make an app, but I can't imagine a flashlight app is difficult to make. It seems like the potato-powered lightbulb of the app world. I wouldn't be at all surprised if up to 90 percent of the hundreds of flashlight apps out there began as the first homework assignment at app school, or wherever people go to learn to make apps. There are lots of them, so someone decided they needed a new feature to set their flashlight app apart from the legion of others. They wanted their app to turn on the flashlight, but to also ... do another thing. This person -- this Prometheus -- meant well and was right to follow through on that instinct. But they created a monster that has not stopped procreating.
Today, flashlight apps do a great many things, yet the actual flashlight remains the only one that's useful.
Even the S.O.S. feature is limited to being useful only when you're
stranded on an island, unable to make a radio from coconuts.
When I began this column, I wanted to go through a bunch of flashlight apps and highlight the worst ones and their awful, no-good features. I found plenty. Like the one that has some poorly drawn and animated women who get mad when you touch them:
"I'm sorry, Kiko. But you're wearing sexy bats, so you're practically begging for it."
Or the one that was made up of hundreds of buttons -- all were ads, except for the one labeled "Flashlight." I was genuinely surprised when it turned on the flashlight and didn't ask me if I wanted to download Clash Of Clans.
For the person who loves accidentally clicking on the talking hamster app
five times in a row when they're trying to find their keys under the sofa.
Or the one that was only one screen that had two things on it: a button for the flashlight and the Ukrainian national anthem:
But then I found one flashlight app that contained more useless bullshit features than any of the other ludicrously overstuffed flashlight apps combined. Everything I wanted to say about a dozen different apps spread out over two different app stores was condensed to one. It was all I needed to prove my thesis. It's so useless it feels like a parody -- like it was created as an inside joke among app developers that normal people were never meant to understand.
It's called Color Flashlight, and it is a garbage masterpiece.
Gaze upon it in wonder.
After a quick glance at the extra features, I realized I hit the mother lode: Color Flashlight does 14 (!) things other than being a flashlight. None are useful. If single-button flashlight apps are a man playing guitar on a street corner, Color Flashlight is a man playing accordion, knee cymbals, kazoo, bass drum, tuba, and wind chimes. Yeah, you're doing more, but at what cost?
I'll go ahead and answer that rhetorical question: the pride of having created a sturdy, lasting product of unrivaled quality. That did not, for example, fuel the creation of Color Flashlight's candle feature:
The flame doesn't move. It is not animated. It does nothing to simulate the fluttery dance of a real flame. This app has a button that brings up a still image of a burning candle. It's an emergency need-picture-of-a-candle button. Those two buttons on the bottom corners, they give the illusion of a customizable simulated candle experience. The one on the left offers minimal control over the image brightness. The one on the right does nothing at all. It claims to offer the ability to change the image color, but here's the candle set to pink, blue, bright green, and default:
Candle's headshots, from top left: sporty, flirty, nerdy, scary.
Look at that fucking stunning array of colors. It's a goddamn blinding rainbow of joy, that picture.
Inevitably, in their quest for an abundance of choice with very little function, flashlight app developers end up fumbling simple ideas. Such is the case with Color Flashlight's "I Love You" feature.
Have you ever opened a door and accidentally hit yourself in the face with it like a big ol' idiot? The "I Love You" feature is the digital version of that door. The main event is the sentence "I Love You" written in a romantic font that pulsates with a warm glow. At least, I assume it says "I Love You." This is all I can see:
Cuuu you. This feature had one purpose: to say "I Love You." It failed. It doesn't love you. It Cuuu You. I have restarted the app many times. I've even restarted my phone, just in case. Nothing fixes it. Cuuu You, every time. The only people who screw up an "I Love You" that badly are people who don't.
But let's say you're an old timey, wax-mustachioed Snidely Whiplash-type villain, or maybe a Wile E. Coyote-type. Either way, you have a nemesis that's a real thorn in your side. All of your ACME anvils, bundles of TNT, and rocket-powered roller skates have yielded no results in your obsessive quest to bring down your loveable arch rival. Is there a feature on this flashlight app that is entirely useless except for in your very specific case of cartoon villainy?
There sure is!
The next time your nemesis is slipping from your grasp for the umpteenth time, whip out your smartphone, fire up Color Flashlight, and make them gaze into the hypnotic swirl until they are yours to command. And then you can finally make them your sexual meat puppet, or whatever the poorly explained motivations are for why you've dedicated your life to capturing this person.
There is no real function for this feature other than to stare at it and say, "Thank you for swirling." It's at this point that I feel I should remind you that this is all a flashlight. Imagine it's 20 years ago. Your power goes out. You turn on your flashlight. Are you sad it cannot hypnotize?
Today, it still can't hypnotize, but you can sure make it look like it does. Are you any happier today because you can simulate cartoon hypnosis? Probably not. But at least you got it for free. That's something.
I know I'm being a bit of a downer when it comes to these features. They're ultimately harmless. For the most part, they don't interfere with the flashlight itself, and it's not like I'm forced to use them. If I don't like the features I can find a simpler, more streamlined flashlight ap- OH MY GOD IT HAS A SPINNING DISCO BALL:
Fuck whatever I was just saying. I dare you to go to the comments and give me a legitimate use for a spinning, flashing disco ball. Not, like, in the grand scheme of things -- in the specific context of an app that turns on a light. This feature isn't unique to Color Flashlight, either. There are dozens of them out there that all have some variation on this disco ball. Here's another Android app called Flashlight+ that has a voice-activated, color-changing disco ball that flickers the flashlight corresponding to sound.
"This is bullshit."
I can't discuss the subject of flickering lights without mentioning the police light feature. It's almost universal among flashlight apps. One person added it to their app, then every other developer figured people would throw a fit if the flashlight app they downloaded for free didn't include a button that poorly simulates the experience of having a police cruiser parked in their living room.
Here's what happened when I realized Color Flashlight's police lights feature had a button that activated a siren:
That video, along with turning on the lights to trick drivers into thinking they're being pulled over and then you subsequently being arrested for impersonating an officer, represents the absolute extent of the police light's use.
But none of this compares to the dreadful, utter uselessness of the text feature.
Type in words and they show up on the screen. The default word in the text field is "HELP." I guess that's useful if you've got a flat tire on the highway and have no idea how to use the smartphone's other features, like the phone, to get help.
But ... wait. The words in the text field can be changed to whatever I want. Whoa.
And with that discovery, my quest for ancillary flashlight app function usefulness has reached its end. Finally, a function I can find legitimate and practical use for:
I can now stop my whining and be happy that some flashlight app features, even if they're kind of dumb, do have a proper use in our world:
May this innovation propel humanity into the stars and beyond, into a brightly lit future of unparalleled beauty, discovery, and wonder.
Shine on, useless flashlight app features. Shine on.
Luis is faaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrttttssss. In the meantime, you can find him on Twitter, Tumblr, and now on his snazzy new Facebook page that he probably won't update very often but you should Like anyway.
Some apps just aren't quite there yet. Check out a sign translator app that translates in a hilariously inaccurate way in The 5 Most Horribly Irresponsible Smartphone Apps, and see all the best apps (if only they existed) in Apps That Would Actually Be Useful.
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