Last week, I looked at the apps chosen by CNet for the productivity section of the Webware 100. There were, however, 10 other sections – 9 categories of apps voted for as top in their class and an extra categories of apps chosen by the editors at CNet. This week, I want to look at a selection of applications from the rest of the Webware 100, with an eye towards their use to increase or improve personal productivity.
Some of the categories aren’t very productivity-oriented, like the music and audio section – I love Pandora and Amazon MP3, but I can’t say they help with my productivity in anything but the most indirect way (by giving me music to listen to while I’m working). The browsing category is particularly useless – picking the 10 best apps for web browsing is a bit like picking your ten best fingers. But scattered throughout the list there were some interesting apps, worth taking a look at.
Both Digsby and Pidgin are multi-protocol IM clients, meaning you can use them to connect simultaneously to a variety of instant-messaging networks: AOL, Yahoo, MSN, Google Chat, and others. I use DIgsby, which is highly customizable with various skins, which allows me to chat in a very clean, clear, and large-fonted format that’s easy on my aging eyes. Digsby offers integration with Facebook’s chat system, which is nice – the built-in client on Facebook tends to crash on me a lot. It can also pick up your Twitter account, but I find that much too annoying and difficult to work with in Digsby, and leave Twitter duties to dedicated clients. (Interesting that there were no Twitter clients in the Webware 100…)
I certainly don’t need to sing the praises of Skype – the VoIP service is already beloved by many. I pay about $40 a year for a SkypeIn number, unlimited US SkypeOut calling, and voicemail, and use it as my business phone. A cheap handset attached to my desktop makes it very phone-like to respond to calls; for interviews for articles I’m working on I use a $30 Logitech headset and either CallGraph or Skype Call Recorder to record the calls to MP3 (always ask permission when using call recording software!). I also use PamFax to send faxes for a small fee (which can be taken from my Skype credit).
Like Skype, the glories of Gmail are widely known. What makes Gmail more than just another email service are the various “extras” Google has added to the service, both directly and as options available through labs. Some of my favorites:
- Canned responses for saving snippets of text (up to whole emails) to reuse in future messages;
- Tasks which also integrates with Google’s Calendar, allowing you to place dated tasks directly onto your calendar;
- IMAP access which means I can check my email from wherever, online or through a client, and not worry about things I’ve read showing up as “unread” when I download my email on a different computer;
- Google Docs and Google Calendar integration allows me to view my calendar and recent Google Docs from Gmail;
- Google Chat pop-ups directly in the Gmail interface.
Dropbox is a file syncing service that has one feature that sets it apart from similar services: shared folders. You can set up a folder on your desktop that is “mirrored” on another desktop – say, a client’s or collaborator’s. Then, whenever you want to share a file to them, you just drag it into the folder, and it’s uploaded to their computer (or held until the next time they’re online). So far, I’ve only used this for work, but I think I’m going to set up two folders on my parent’s computers. The first one will be on their desktops, and I’ll use it to send them family photos and other files (since the whole concept of “email attachment” seems so confusing to them). The second will be deep inside the folder structure, which I’ll use for backing up my own files – since all they do is web browse and read email, they never come even close to using up the 160 or 320 GB of space on their hard drives, making it a perfect site for my off-site backup.
Drop.io offers an easy way to share large files – with no sign-in or registration necessary. Of course, you can create private, password-protected repositories, but you can also just upload a file and send people the drop.io/whatever URL. You can upload up to 100MB for free, and photos, videos, and audio get converted so they can be viewed or listened to online.
Aviary and Picnik are, believe it or not, high-quality online graphics editor. Aviary is the more complex of the two, offering full-featured vector and raster creation and editing, spread over 4 sub-apps. Picnik is more of a touch-up app, allowing you to sharpen, adjust colors, resize, and do other photo editing tasks. Online image editing is a bit of a solution in search of a problem – local apps like Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, or even IrfanView are more powerful and work faster, but folks with netbooks, especially those with small flash-based drives, will appreciate the ability to work on an image now and again without having to install software or wait for their slower processors to apply unsharp mask..
Evernote keeps getting better and better. The basic idea is you can make notes in various ways – type directly, clip form the web or other documents, take a picture, record a voice note – and the program keeps it organized. Evernote also syncs to an online repository (subject to transfer limits) and to any other computer you install the client on. Apps for mobiles like iPhones and, just released, Blackberry allow you to create and send notes in a variety of formats from your smartphone (unfortunately, neither iPhones nor Blackberries have good enough cameras for up-close shots of text like business cards – try putting a magnifying glass or card over the lens for close-up shots). My favorite recently-discovered feature is the ability to store and index PDF files, of which I have hundreds (academic articles downloaded for various research projects). Since I have a free account, I don’t sync these online – they’d quickly use up my monthly transfer allotment.
8. Google Voice
Only available to former Grand Central users, Google Voice offers powerful call forwarding and voicemail services. Basically, you get a single number that you can have forwarded to any or all of your phones – and you can set up rules to decide what gets transferred where. Voicemails can be forwarded as audio files to your email, or you can read – yeah, “read”, since they do so-so voice transcription on your messages – them online in a very Gmail-like interface. Got a troublesome caller, maybe from an autodialer system? Mark it as spam and block it, just like email! You can also make low-cost international calls, but a) I don’t have any to make, and b) the process is a bit complex, so I’ve never tried this.
9. Windows Live Sync
You’d be forgiven for mistaking Windows Live Sync with Windows Live Mesh – both synchronize files placed into a designated folder over the Internet, and both are free. Oh, and then there’s Windows Skydrive, which doesn’t sync but, like Mesh, offers online file storage. Apparently, all these services will one day be a single service, probably called Windows Live Skymesh Sync (or, more typically Microsoft, Windows Live File Storage and Online File Synchronization for Windows, Premium Professional Version 2010). Whatever it’s called, the technologies involved are pretty slick – I use Mesh to backup my netbook, storing all my documents in a folder that’s synched to my “regular” computer’s desktop (and from there saved to an external hard drive and, through Mesh, to the Web).
10. Twitter Search
THe only Twitter-related choice in the list, this once gave me heartburn at first – I mean, really? But after a little thought, it seems a more fruitful choice. Twitter Search is what transforms the screaming multitudes on Twitter into a resource – a cross between a social network, news feed, and trend tracker. It’s real-time, which means you get what’s going on right now, and several Twitter clients incorporate it into their interfaces. I keep a couple of Twitter searches in columns in Tweetdeck – one that catches sites, tips, and jobs for writers, another that lets me know when people are talking about Lifehack, and a couple of “topic of the moment” searches for whatever I’m interested in on any given day.
Well, that’s my take on the Webware 100. A lot of the apps chosen were, to be perfectly honest, a bit… well, boring. Maybe that’s what happens when web applications stop looking like the future and start being the present? In any case, I feel like there’s more interesting stuff going on out there – maybe you’ve got a favorite web application or service that didn’t make the list? Let us know in the comments.