Ever since I started at Lifehack in mid-2007, we’ve compiled year-end lists of the best web 2.0 applications to come out in the previous year (here’s my list for for 2007 and Joel Falconer’s for 2008). The development of ever-more-complex software accessed online via a web browser is a huge boon for personal productivity, since it offers an increasingly nomadic workforce “always-on” access to the data, documents, and software they need. At the same time, low-cost and free online services offer an affordable alternative to costly office suites, collaboration tools, and graphics programs, especially for the vast majority of us who don’t need 90% of the functionality of an MS Word or an Adobe Photoshop.
This year I searched in vain for 10 great new apps to fill my list. Don’t get me wrong, there are some fantastic contenders. I’m particularly enjoying TeuxDeux, a new to-do list app that lets you schedule tasks on particular days and view your whole week at once. And of course Google’s Wave has everyone enthralled, even if nobody’s quite sure what it’s for. We also saw evolutionary improvements of webware classics: apps like Remember the Milk came out of beta, Google Docs and Acrobat.com added presentations, and some services, like Nozbe, released 2.0 or higher versions that revamped functionality and/or interfaces.
But by and large 2009 saw few new web applications that really stood out. So rather than try to compile a list of new web applications, I thought I’d take a look at the changes across the field of web programming that are transforming web applications from “gee, neat” proofs of concept into genuinely useful tools. These are the trends that are changing the Internet into a platform for getting work done, often in surprising new ways, and if it’s still too soon to move everything online (I’m writing this on MS Word 2010, for example), these trends are at least moving us towards that future.
2009 was the year that web programmers realized that holding their customer’s data hostage wasn’t the best way to build brand equity. Instead, a growing number of services are offering easy ways to get all your documents, images, videos, or other data out of their applications. Just as important, they’re doing this using standard formats that you can use elsewhere, making it much easier to switch to another application, share with others who use different tools, or make a meaningful evaluation of a service. Google’s Data Liberation Front is helping to make this a priority at Google, for example with the addition of Google Docs’ new “Export All” function which allows you to download your entire work history in the format of your choice, and setting the standard that Google’s competitors will have to reach to remain competitive.
2. Synchronization and Sharing
In addition to exporting data all together, the ability to share data from one application to another is finally starting to take off. Developers are realizing, finally, that users often have multiple streams of data that they need to be able to access in one single place (such as calendar data from several sites), and vice versa – that we often need to access the same data in several different places (like sending a status update to several social networking sites). In 2009, the promise of RSS and other data feed standards (e.g. Atom, iCal) finally started to be realized, with services like Twitvite offering one-click methods of inserting events into various online calendars. Likewise, numerous services have released plugins or widgets to access their data from other online apps, like Remember the Milk’s integration with Google Calendar. The centralization of authorization for various services using Facebook Connect or Sign in with Twitter, and the increasing adoption of the authentication standard OAuth, are finally starting to fulfill the function that OpenID was supposed to perform, allowing easy and secure transfer of data and login credentials between sites.
In addition to swapping data between online apps, a growing number of apps are bridging the divide between online services and the desktop by allowing access though and synchronization with desktop programs. Google’s Sync Services synchronizes calendar data and (on some platforms) contacts with desktop applications like Outlook and Apple’s iCal, although until contact synchronization is universal and they add task synchronization, it’s utility is limited for most users. At the forefront of the web/desktop integration movement is Twitter and the dozens, if not hundreds, of applications for every platform that have added layers of functionality to the service using its API. Twitter’s API has raised expectations for every other online service, and it won’t be long now before applications that don’t offer APIs simply cannot compete with those that do.
The lack of new applications to get excited over is counterbalanced by the stability, security, and usability of apps that have been under development for 2, 3, or more years now. As a few applications in each area have come to dominate, it’s become harder for new applications to break in, but the existing applications have become better. Just as importantly, the business practices of the companies behind these services have improved (somewhat). New Twitter users experience nothing like the almost daily downtime that plagues the service just a year ago. Acquisitions are handled much more smoothly, with Google’s graceful transition from Grand Central to Google Voice setting the tone (and their graceless handling of the recent acquisition of collaboration tool and Wave rival EtherPad quickly set right). Although privacy concerns are still unsettled, with companies like Facebook repeatedly having a hard time fighting the temptation to exploit their users’ data for all it’s worth), new standards for privacy and security are emerging, and companies that violate their users’ expectations that their data will be backed up and kept private are being called out and avoided.
4. Hidden technology
One sign of the maturity of online applications is that the technology used to create them is increasingly invisible. Applications no longer feel like Ruby on Rails applications, or advertise their “AJAX-y” interfaces as a feature. In large part, this is a triumph of design over engineering; frills like text boxes fading slowly out of view are being replaced by more immediately usable, and useful, design. This means the engineers can focus on what they do best: getting stuff to work better.
It’s almost impossible to conceive of an online application these days that doesn’t forefront sharing, collaboration, or integration with social tools like Twitter and Facebook for publishing and commenting. The pinnacle of this trend is, of course, Google’s Wave, which as thousands of early adopters have discovered, doesn’t do much of anything until you start adding your social network. New applications like Aardvark (which allows you to pose questions to targeted members of your social network) are focusing on refining this process, allowing for greater control and selectivity over which parts of your social network are most relevant to particular tasks.
6. Mobile integration
There’s an app for that! With mobile phones edging ever closer to the dream of the portable supercomputer, the promise of “access anywhere” has come more and more to mean “access from my smartphone”. While web-enabled phones are generally up to the task of accessing online applications directly via their browsers, the small-screen experience of websites designed for widescreen desktop monitors usually isn’t very satisfying. Increasingly, every online application worth its salt is offering mobile apps for iPhones, Blackberries, Palms, and Android phones, the best of them – like Evernote – making good use of smartphone tools like voice recorders, GPS, and photo and video capabilities.
7. Location, location, location
GPS is following the path digital cameras took a few years ago – practically everything has one. Mobile phones, cameras, cars – can it be much longer before media players and pens come with GPS built in? The ubiquity of GPS – and GPS-alike services using cell tower triangulation – has made location-sensitive search and other applications possible. So you can find the nearest coffee shop, search for the lowest gas prices in the area, or have your shopping list served up to you when you walk in the grocery store’s front door. While services like FourSquare seem to have little function besides cluttering my Twitter stream with notices that some people go to the donut shop waaaaaay to often (I’m sorry, I meant to say that people have obtained really, really important titles of distinction based on their frequent patronage of places of business), it’s easy to see the potential of services like this. (Although as noted above, we’re still working out the privacy implications.)
8. Online storage and anywhere access
As services open up their APIs, online storage becomes more useful. Where your Box.net or SkyDrive accounts have been, up to recently, closed silos that allowed you to upload and download files and that’s about it, today they act as repositories of files you can access through other services. Box.net files can be opened with, worked on with, and saved from Zoho applications, meaning that working on a single document from several locations is not just possible, it’s practical. Also, online services are drastically increasing the amount of storage they offer; services that just a year ago offered storage measured in megabytes not offer 10, 25, 50, or more gigabytes, meaning that you can back up, share, or use your entire Documents folder.
Two of my favorite online applications are Live Mesh and Dropbox, neither of which I actively “use”. They’re just there, doing their thing. For example, I have a Dropbox folder I share with the Stepcase home office in Hong Kong; if I need a file, it’s just there, and if I make changes, they automatically get them. Same thing with Mesh – everything in my laptop’s Documents folder is “meshed” to my desktop, so anything I create on the go is just automatically waiting for me when I sit down at my desktop. Google Sync works the same way on my Blackberry – I add an event on Google Calendar, or a Contact in Gmail, and a little while later it’s just on my Blackberry. This is the revival of “Push” technology, and we’ll see more and more of it as online apps become mainstream – or they won’t become mainstream.
10. Ubiquitous Internet
This isn’t a quality of online apps as much as a quality of the real world in which we use them, but it’s an important factor nonetheless. Wifi is nearly everywhere, and high speed cellular Internet is just about everywhere wifi isn’t. This has already changed the way people use the Internet – such as the location-sensitive apps I mentioned above – and will continue to do so.
That’s how 2009 looks to me, anyway. What emerging trends have you noticed that have made online applications better or more useful? And what do you think is on the horizon – what will I be writing about at the end of 2010? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.