With over 100,000 apps in the app store, it's getting harder and harder to find something new; most apps seem to be 'me too' versions of something else. Balloons! US $2.99 [iTunes Link] for iPhones running OS 3.0 or better, is something I haven't seen before, and it's really very clever. TUAW first got a look at an early development version of Balloons! back at WWDC, including a video interview with the developer.
Balloon mail has been used, along with the more common phrase message in a bottle, to describe sending a message into the wind or sea and hoping that someone finds it and contacts you. It's sort of non-directional social networking with a hint of mystery built in.
In this app, you start making a balloon by choosing from a variety of balloon styles. Next you create a message that the balloon will convey. Tap in the middle of the screen and the camera activates to take a picture of what's going on in your life at the moment. Then add a bit of text and send the balloon out into the world. Other users, over 900 in the first 3 days of sales, are doing the same thing. Over 3500 balloons have been sent up from the US, Europe, and Japan already.
Next, you'll want to catch a balloon. When you do, you'll see the message from the person who made the balloon along with a separate flippable page from everyone who caught the balloon, added something to it, and let it fly again. As more people catch, add to, and release balloons, each balloon takes on a history and often has a story to tell.
The balloons don't travel randomly. If launched in New York City, you can't immediately grab the balloon in London; it needs time to travel.
If you want to see what has happened to your balloon, there is a balloon tracking option that tells you how long your balloon has been flying and if has been caught or not. Tap on one of your caught balloons and you'll see all the notes added by those that have seen your balloon. I found this to be a lot of fun.
There is a free, advertising-supported version of the app [iTunes Link] that doesn't include the tracking option. I liked the idea of giving out a free appetizer, since you can get a great idea of how Balloons! works and quickly realize that the best part of the app is the tracking option.
The graphics suit the app nicely. Screens are very cartoonish using bright colors and animated clouds. I was taken by the whimsy of this app, and can see it being great for kids as a nudge toward becoming interested in geography. It's also fun, tinged with a bit of longing for faraway places, for everyone.
Take a look at the video in the 2nd half of this post to see it in action.