Carriers love to make sure their preloaded applications are jammed into our smartphones--a source of frustration to many of you, I know, and something that's enough to put you off the idea of any carrier app whatsoever. Still, every once in a while a company gets one of these little programs right.
Take AT&T's Smart Wi-Fi app, which is available today for free on the Android Marketplace (unlike other carrier apps, this one does not come preloaded). The app lives up to its name in finding Wi-Fi hot spots. It also has a number of nifty extra features that set it apart from other Wi-Fi finders.
I've had a chance to play with the app for a few days, and I like it a lot.
Smart Wi-Fi has a built-in feature that can sense nearby hot spots and automatically turn on the Wi-Fi connection to take advantage of them. It uses the cellular network to detect nearby Wi-Fi hot spots. That's a lot easier on the phone's battery than keeping it on all the time in hopes of finding a random connection.
It also features a clean and intuitive user interface. By using a slider, I can filter out all public Wi-Fi hot spots, popular hot spots with ratings, or ones that I've used before. On the bottom of the app is a list of hot spot opportunities I didn't connect to but that I can direct the app to find the next time I'm in the same area.
Most importantly for AT&T customers, there's a button that allows me to check how much cellular data I've used in the month, compared to how much Wi-Fi data I've consumed. That's useful because AT&T sells tiered data plans only with caps, and the company is actively sending out notices to customers who use an excessive amount of cellular data.
Some of the extra features do set the program apart from the myriad of Wi-Fi finding apps in the Android Marketplace, though I still like Boingo Wireless, which is also easy to use and offers a comprehensive library of Wi-Fi hot spots around the world.
So did AT&T suddenly come down with a random bout of generosity with this app? Hardly. The company, like all carriers, has been gradually trying to get its customers to go off of its cellular network and onto a Wi-Fi network (read: someone else's bandwidth problem).
Wi-Fi has played a particularly important role with AT&T since the company acquired Wi-Fi operator WayPort three years ago. The company has signed deals to create Wi-Fi hot spots in major chains such as McDonald's, Starbucks, and FedEx locations.
The Smart Wi-Fi app, meanwhile, is proof that some cool stuff can come from the carriers. The app was created by a team in AT&T Chief Technology Officer John Donovan's organization.
The app is possibly AT&T's way of staying relevant in the app game. The carriers have essentially been shut out of the growing revenue that comes from apps, as it's split between the developers, Apple, Google, and the other smartphone players. AT&T and its peers, in this case, have been relegated to the role of dumb pipe with little hope of getting a slice of the revenue.
AT&T has offered the occasional app that it has created itself, including ones accessing music; its U-Verse TV content; and ones dealing with navigation and messaging. Some of them are free and are meant more as customer retention tools than revenue drivers.
And not all are as useful as Smart Wi-Fi.
Corrected at 8:11 a.m. PT: the previous version used the wrong name of the Wi-Fi operator AT&T acquired.