Take a look inside today's home improvement toolkit and you'll find all the things you might expect - hammer, paint brushes, fabric swatches - and one that you might not: an iPhone. The increasingly popular handheld device is fast becoming the decorating and DIY tool of choice thanks to the rapidly growing number of apps (applications) that are now available to assist with renovation and decoration.
Do you need to calculate how many tins of paint or rolls of wallpaper you are going to need for your villa? Maybe you want to identify the colour of an existing wall so you can buy matching paint? Are you eager to find out where to buy that Swedish rocking chair you saw somewhere in a magazine? Do you need to keep careful track of all of the improvements you're planning, and their cost, without having to employ an expensive project manager? All of the answers are at your fingertips in the mini-computer roughly the size of a piece of sandpaper. The growth of home improvement apps is part of a much bigger information phenomenon, which is increasingly being referred to - quite cleverly - as Planet of the Apps.
Depending on whom you believe, there are between 100,000 and 200,000 apps available for smart phones, the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. In January Apple issued a press release claiming that more than three billion apps had been downloaded from its store by iPhone and iPod Touch users worldwide.
"Three billion applications downloaded in less than 18 months; this is like nothing we've ever seen before," cooed Apple's boss, Steve Jobs. According to the business news network CNBC, "studies estimate that the Apple iPhone apps store alone generates about $200 million a month in sales". Apple says that iPhone and iPod Touch customers in 77 countries (including the UAE) can now choose from a range of apps in 20 categories, including games, business, news, sports, health, reference and travel.
They range from the smart and immensely helpful to the downright useless and infantile. The most innovative and creative can undoubtedly change our lives by offering solutions to problems and giving us ways of doing things faster and more efficiently while others will do nothing but put a smile on our face or drive us mad. Joggers can download RunKeeper Free, which uses the iPhone's GPS to show a running route, providing maps and statistics to show speed and the number of calories burned; news junkies and day traders can keep up with the very latest developments and stock market reports with Reuters News Pro; and for those with way too much time on their hands there's HoldOn, which asks you to press a button on your iPhone for as long as you can and then rewards you with the resulting time so you can tell all your friends how clever you are at pressing a button.
You might think that remodelling a bedroom or installing a new kitchen would mean taking a break from your iPhone and doing something more rewarding, such as bashing down walls, ripping out old stoves and scratching pen on paper to calculate how many thousands of dirhams it's all going to set you back. Far from it; there are now scores of apps that apply directly to home improvement and can do a lot of the hard work for you (apart, presumably, from wielding a sledge-hammer).
Take Evernote for example. Before you even begin looking at ripping out walls, laying new floors, instigating a plumbing overhaul and starting on several days of plastering and painting, get your plan in order. Traditionally this has involved sketches, photos, architects' drawings, decorators' impressions and endless pages of hand-written notes. Today it is likely to be mostly digital and the Evernote app is your virtual renovation planner. It can organise photos, files, web pages and even videos into a soft-copy scrapbook that allows you to have all of your precious research and ideas in your phone.
Let's say you want to make a start on the easy stuff - deciding on a paint scheme, for example. If you have fallen in love with a terracotta wall in your villa and want to find an identical paint colour it could mean days of trekking to and fro to paint shops with a printed out photo in your hand. With ColorSnap (an app from the big US paint manufacturer Sherwin-Williams, which has a presence here in the UAE) you take a photo and upload it to your iPhone. The app studies the colour in the photo and pops up a list of the closest matches in the Sherwin-Williams range.
But there's a snag: the lovely terracotta-coloured wall has cracks across it that resemble a satellite photo of the Ganges Delta. Before you reach for the rags and spackling paste, download the PaintRemedy app, which presents a gallery of common paint problems. Find the one that looks most like your beleaguered wall and click to read the details and potential solutions. If, after this, the worst cracks seem impossible to fix, how about something to cover the embarrassment? The auction house Christie's has an app that lets you flick through its catalogues, see previews and real-time auction prices and get a taste of how to bid for a work of art.
So far so good; you have not yet had to leave the house or spend a dirham because all four of these apps are free. At this stage it's probably wise to get the alternative to that pricey project manager. TaskThis is an app (also free) that acts as your foreman, offering a calendar, list of events, categories of work projects, reminders, a shopping list, a confidential section in which you can lock information and a rather scary "Overdue!" section.
There are numerous apps claiming to be able to calculate accurately your total bill for a project once you have tapped in the required amounts and types of materials and the cost of local contractors; however, they seem to be based on North American standard rates and I was unable to find one that uses UAE prices so you might have to head to the DIY store to look them up, or trust your contractors' quotes.
One calculation-based app that works perfectly anywhere in the world is ConvertAid (costs about US$0.99 or Dh3.65), which deftly transforms yards into centimetres, litres into gallons, square feet into square metres and pounds into kilograms so no matter where your desired materials originated and which system was used to measure them, you can convert them all to one system before purchase. For those unfamiliar with Fahrenheit, the device will also tell you that the 44C in the back yard is a much hotter sounding 111.2F. ConvertAid will also help when working out which furniture to buy and where it can reasonably fit.
While you are in a furniture frame of mind try the app SwedeShop, which (for US$0.99 or Dh3.65) will revolutionise your visits to Ikea. Type in what you want and its location in the store (aisle number is usually required) and the app will calculate the total cost of all the desired items, allowing you to put some things back if you have crept over your budget. Another useful app for furniture shopping is I.D. Wood, which identifies more than 150 different kinds of wood and tells you which is perfect when you see a must-have coffee table in dark wood but need to know if it is a rare and endangered species that you might think twice about buying - or why it costs Dh10,000 (that'll be mahogany). I.D. Wood (US$4.99 or Dh18) lets you know the botanical name of the tree it comes from, the hardness of the species, likely origins and durability.
Now all you need is to turn your iPhone into a virtual toolkit and you are ready to start improving. RealTools (US$1.99 or Dh7.30) gives you an incredible 18 different virtual measuring tools including a ruler and a battery-level reader plus an angle gauge and - if you suddenly feel the need to go for a spin around Yas Marina circuit to ease the stress of home renovation - a device for measuring G-Force.
Another gem is iHandyCarpenter (US$1.99 or Dh7.30), which includes a digital spirit level to make sure your new windowsills are dead flat and that piece you bought at auction with your Christie's app is hung straight. But the House & Home favourite is the HandyManSidekick (also US$1.99 or Dh7.30). It takes the room dimensions you feed into it and magically works out how much paint or wallpaper you need to cover the walls. It does the same for flooring and for gardens if you are planning to pave or turf, meaning that you'll have almost zero waste materials at the end of the job.
Finally, perhaps the most useful of all apps for home improvers (or night joggers) is the free Flashlight, which turns your iPhone into a small torch - extremely handy for peering into dark spaces in your half-renovated Dubai apartment and even more useful if you happen to be improving your villa in Sharjah when the power goes out.