From the apps that first put seemingly unlimited music and movies in our pockets to the ones that first showed us what it means to go viral, entertainment apps have played a huge role in the App Store.
This list is a look at the best music and entertainment apps to ever make their way to the iPhone.
If you thought the “apps as content” idea began with Yo, you may want to rewind back to 2008 and check out Koi Pond. The app — whose sole purpose was to present interactive fish darting through a virtual pond — was a phenomenon. Pretty much anyone with an OG iPhone or iPhone 3G downloaded Koi Pond at some point, mostly because it let you cleverly show off the device’s multi-touch display and accelerometer (still novelties at the time): Tap to make a splash, shake to feed the fish… and that’s it. No scores, no menus and no point. Which really was the point.
When people think ticketing and events, they assume big concerts, big venues and Ticketmaster, but Eventbrite (free), whose service dates way back in 2006, had a better idea: Let anyone create and event, manage it and sell tickets. Thus was born Eventbrite, though it’s never been just about event organizing — it’s for selling tickets, too. The company eventually got so good at it that it moved from small events like parties and company functions to bigger ones like Black Eyed Peas concerts. But the app was successful because the interface was easy to use and it also smartly integrated with existing social platforms. That helped event organizers get the word out. Eventbrite is the event app others aspire to be.
Songza (which Google acquired in 2014) helped bring the personalized mix tape to streaming music. Songza’s brilliance is that it gives you perfect playlists for every occasion, every mood, even every time of day. The best part: The playlists are curated by real people — they aren’t just predictable mixes designed via algorithm. That concept of mood-based playlists has become more widespread now that Apple Music and Spotify offer similar features. Google plans to retire Songza in January 2016, though its features live on in Google Play Music. Of course, part of what makes Songza so great is that it doesn’t require a subscription — you can just open it up and go. And that’s pretty awesome.
Before Ocarina, apps were things you tapped and pinched and swiped. Then, with one download, everything changed. When you launch Ocarina, the screen shows you four different-size dots along with a message encouraging you to blow into the microphone. Suddenly, you weren’t holding a “device;” the iPhone was now an instrument.
A brief sensation upon its 2008 debut, Ocarina is all but forgotten now. But its creator, Smule, saw some success with other apps like the auto-tune creator I Am T-Pain and the fun-for-all-ages Magic Piano — one of the first apps to support 3D Touch on the iPhone 6S. Smule even has a more full-featured sequel to Ocarina itself.
Ocarina’s time in the spotlight was brief, but it showed the world how mobile apps could lead to entirely different experiences from desktop programs. By taking advantage of the integrated components, sensors and inherent portability of a handheld, a new class of software was beginning to take shape. Since then, legions of games, fitness trackers and augmented-reality experiences have picked up where Ocarina left off.
Back in 2011, HBO did something very bold and forward-thinking for an old-media company: It accepted that on-demand streaming was the future and embraced it completely. HBO Go allows subscribers to access current films airing on HBO, sporting events and the entire catalog (past and present) of HBO’s acclaimed TV series. It’s taken almost five years for the other networks to embrace the shift to streaming the way HBO did with HBO Go (and its version for cord-cutters, HBO Now), but the App Store is now replete with streaming services. Plus, how can you not love an app that lets you watch Game of Thrones and every episode of Sex and the City on your iPhone.
At the moment, Director J.J. Abrams is known as the director of the new Star Wars movie, the guy who rebooted Star Trek and the man who introduced us to Jennifer Garner in Alias. But Abrams is also behind Action Movie, a clever app that lets anyone with an iPhone introduce movie-level special effects to their short videos. Not only is it incredibly easy to use and completely addictive, it’s a huge crowd-pleaser. Filming a Thanksgiving dinner where a virtual car can unexpectedly crash across the dinner table is guaranteed to inspire roaring laughter. Action Movie is free, but smartly uses in-app purchases to sell you additional effects, all as good as the originals. It’s the rare app that has few competitors and has maintained a high level of quality.
If you’re a movie fanatic, Fandango is a dream come true. From ticket purchases to heaps of movie trailers, it has everything. Mobile ticketing is a given now but the app was among the first to begin experimenting with e-tickets (not just the ability to buy tickets, but the ability go completely paperless.) The app has becomes less relevant in recent years — you can simply ask Siri or Google to check showtimes or theatre locations — but Fandango is still a must-have for movie buffs.
Shazam is the magical music-identification genie that lives in our pockets in case of emergency — like needing to immediately know what the hell that song is playing in the elevator. The app relies on the iPhone’s built-in microphone and captures a 10-second clip of any song that’s within earshot. It matches the sample to its database of 11 million songs, and voilà, now you know Mr. Big sings ’80s power ballad “To Be With You.”
While the company emerged in 2002 as an SMS service (called “2580”), less than a decade later it became one of the most-downloaded apps of all time. In 2014, the company announced it had more than 100 million monthly active users and had been used over the years to identify a staggering 15 billion songs. The app gets most of its revenue via ads and referrals (by directing users to services such as Apple Music or Spotify after identifying a song).
While identifying songs remains the app’s main feature, it has since rolled out a discovery tool based on music you’ve previously Shazamed (the name was predestined to become a verb) and the ability to see what popular artists like Alicia Keys are Shazaming. The app has evolved beyond music, too: The app now works with a video database as well, letting users Shazam certain ads or shows to get special deals or specific information like cast details.
While iPhone technology has advanced since the app’s debut, Shazam has aged well: Its ability to pull a song title out of what seems like thin air never gets old.
Spotify may run the cool kids’ table when it comes to music streaming, but Pandora is consistently the most-used app for Internet radio. It’s easy to see why: The app is free, and it’s dead simple — just tap that big capital “P” and music will start playing. Pandora has retained that simplicity and its signature thumbs-up/thumbs-down rating system since it debuted as one of the very first apps for the iPhone. Sure, the ads are intrusive and annoying, but since you can always pay to get rid of them, that’s really the point.
As the late Steve Jobs said, simplicity is hard. Fortunately, Netflix has managed to master the art of simplicity with its iOS app without losing any of the functionality of its well-known web app. The mobile experience is straightforward: select from a vast array of television shows and films and start watching on your iPhone. And, unlike some apps, there aren’t a million options to rate and share your selections (except for a Facebook sharing option). But what makes the app so powerful is you can also send what you’re watching to any Chromecast- or Apple TV-equipped television. The app is free, but the lowest monthly charge for the service itself is $7.99. Whether you prefer your screens small or big, the Netflix app is all you need to carry your video library with you anywhere.
Spotify came to the iPhone in 2009 as one of the first (legal) ways to stream music on demand on a mobile device. Although the app was initially only available to Spotify Premium customers in Sweden and the UK (the service came to the U.S. in 2011), it was a unique iPhone app because not only did it bring millions of songs on demand, it also let you save songs for offline listening — provided you paid the monthly fee. Six years later, Spotify has tons of competition in the online streaming space (including Apple itself), but the app continues to be one of the best ways to listen to music and podcasts on demand and on the go.
With iOS 6, Apple decided to get rid of the iPhone’s native YouTube app. Luckily, Google developed its own app, and the results were pretty brilliant. As you’d expect from Google, the app was thoughtfully devised and the company consistently releases meaningful updates, most recently video-editing features. Users chagrined when mobile ads arrived, but they unlocked lots of material that was unavailable in the original iOS app and, for content providers (which, for YouTube, is everyone), a new way to make money. Thanks in large part to YouTube, our smartphones became the entertainment hubs they are today.
Vine started as an independent video-sharing platform that might have gone unnoticed if not for two things: Twitter snapping it up before it was even a thing and the discovery that you could create six-second animations if you knew how to use Vine’s native “tap-to-record” feature.
Vine’s existence as a creative tool helped drive it to prominence. Over time, Vine added tools specifically designed to help the creative crowd, such as the Ghost feature, typically called “onion-skinning” in animation. In the meantime, the world discovered you really could be funny in six seconds and soon Vine was filled with comedy. It helped launch the careers of more than a few entertainers and created its own subgenre: the Vine star.
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