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The Top 10 Web 2.0 Trends of 2009

The Top 10 Web 2.0 Trends of 2009

The Top 10 Web 2.0 Trends of 2009

    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.

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    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.

    1. Export

    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.

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    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.

    3. Maturity

    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.

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    5. Social

    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.)

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    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.

    9. Automation

    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.

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    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    No!

    It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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    But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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    What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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    But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

    1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
    2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
    3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
    4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
    5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
    6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
    7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
    8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
    9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
    10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

    Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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