SiliconFilter

Five Apps and Web Services that Deserved More Attention in 2011

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For every hyped app or web service (think Foursquare, Quora etc.), there are at least a dozen of competitors out there that are often better, but never quite get the attention they deserve. At the end of every year, I round up some of my favorite apps and services that mostly flew under the radar of the tech press during the last twelve months, but that deserved a lot more attention. Last year, I featured my6sense (still alive and kicking), Pearltrees (growing steadily, just launched an iPad app), Producteev (also doing well this year) and EchoEcho (which got a nice investment led by Google Ventures earlier this year).

This list is obviously quite subjective, so feel free to chime in with your personal favorites in the comments.

Trover

I’ve never been a fan of check-in services like Foursquare, but I’m a big believer in location-based apps nevertheless. The reason I like Trover  (available for Android and iOS) is that it strips out all the unnecessary gamification crud and just plain focuses on letting you share and discover cool stuff around you. Instead of virtual badges, you simply send a friendly “thank you” to the person who first shared that cool place you found thanks to the app. While it focuses on sharing photos, there are no filters and nothing to distract you from what you really wanted to use the app for in the first place.

In my review earlier this year, I called it “the best location-based app you’re not using (yet).” Thankfully, more people have discovered the app since, but overall, it mostly flew under the radar this year.

Spool

With Apple adding reading lists to iOS and a lot of attention on Instapaper and Read It Later (though that service also doesn’t get the attention it deserves), time-shifted reading hit it big this year. Spool is the latest entry into this market and it’s quietly building a very competitive product which doesn’t just offer support for text, but also videos.

Another feature I really like about the app is automatic detection of multi-page articles. It doesn’t always work 100%, but often saves you a few clicks on sites like the New York Times, for example. There are also Chrome and Firefox extensions for Spool, which provide augmented links on sites like Twitter, Facebook and Techmeme. Given that the service is still new, though, it isn't integrated into any third-party apps yet, which is a bit of a problem if you want to switch from a well-supported service like Instapaper.

You can find my full review here.

Wunderlist

wunderlist_logo_150Everybody who owns a smartphone has probably downloaded a few task management apps at one point or another. My personal favorite is Wunderlist from Berlin-based development shop 6Wunderkinder. The company got an investment from Skype-founder Niklas Zennstrom in November, so it definitely popped up on some peoples’ radar this year, but while it got lots of traction, it never quite got the hype it deserved. The services’ apps and web services are beautifully designed and focus on simplicity over features.

This isn’t a tool for the hardcore Getting Things Done crowd (this isn’t OmniFocus, after all), but it’s among the best task management tools out there for those of us who just want to keep lists of things. The fact that it’s available virtually anywhere (Windows, Mac, Linux, Blackberry, iOS, Android and on the web), also gives it an edge over some of its competitors.

With Wunderkit, the company also plans to expand beyond its basic service next year, so keep an eye on the company’s blog.

(If you are looking for a more fully-featured service that includes support for small teams, by the way, take a look at Producteev, which was on this list last year and which added some nice new features over the last few months.)

Rhapsody

rhapsody_logo_200With all the talk about Spotify, MOG and Rdio, it’s easy to forget the granddaddy of all online music services: Rhapsody. When the service launched a full 10 years ago, it was among the first online music services to offer on-demand music streaming for a flat fee. Today, it can boast of being the largest on-demand music subscription service on the Internet, but it gets very little attention from the tech press (maybe because its legacy as a part of Real Networks is still a major turnoff for those of us who have been around the net for long enough). With 11 million songs and apps for every major mobile operating system (including support for offline caching), it’s worth taking note of and worth a try if you are looking for a subscription alternative to iTunes.

Microsoft’s Office Web Apps and Windows Live Web Services

skydrive_logo_official_200It’s obviously not cool to like a Microsoft product (except for the Xbox and Kinect, I guess), but even though the tech press loves Google Apps, Gmail and (almost) anything else Google does, Microsoft’s web apps don’t get the attention they deserve outside of the Microsoft blogs.

All of Microsoft’s online products took a major step forward in 2011, though. The latest SkyDrive update, for example, makes Microsoft’s online storage service for more competitive with startups like DropBox. The Office Web Apps suite (and, by extension, the paid Office 365 solution for small businesses) offers a far better online editing experience and document fidelity than Google Docs (and include support for OneNote, the underrated star of the MS Office suite). Hotmail has massively improved thanks to adding features like Active Views

All of these services are worth another look, especially now that Microsoft is rumored to launch an iOS version of its productivity apps, too.



6:09 pm


Google Music and iTunes Match: Modern Solutions to Yesterday’s Problems?

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With the launches of iTunes Match and Google Music, this was clearly a good week for music lovers (at least in the U.S.). With iTunes Match, Apple finally offers a cloud-based solution for accessing all your music on any iOS device, and with Google Music, Google can finally say it offers Android users a service that is competitive with iTunes.

Both of these announcement would have been really exciting to me two or three years ago. Today, however, they leave me absolutely cold. Why? Because I stopped buying music a long time ago in favor of using a subscription service like MOG, Rdio or Rhapsody. I know there are still many people out there who love the idea of owning music, but to me, it feels like Google Music and iTunes Match are smart solutions for a problem these subscription services solved for me in a long time ago.

Mog Music PlayerBoth Google and Apple are still betting on the fact that music is something people want to own – and if you subscribe to Apple’s vision, that also means you will only buy Apple products for the foreseeable future.

Don’t get me wrong. I listen to music almost all the time I’m at my computer or in the car. I love music. But unlike iTunes and Co., subscription services allow me to call up any song I want to listen to whenever I feel like it. They also allow me to listen to artists I would’ve never discovered if I just used iTunes. With iTunes or Google Music, after all, I would have to make a pretty hefty investment to listen to all the albums I listen to on MOG every month. With a subscription service, the investment remains the same no matter how much I listen.

Both Google and Apple base their services around the idea that you want to own your music. To me, music is more like subscribing to Hulu or Netflix. Sure, my music “collection” goes away when I stop subscribing or switch services – but who cares? How many of those MP3s you collected on Napster years ago do you actually listen to regularly after all?

Image credit: Flickr user lungstruck



6:14 pm


Apple Launches iTunes Match: You Can Now Get Your Piracy Amnesty for Just $25/Year

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Apple just launched iTunes Match, its cloud-based music backup and streaming service for iOS, Mac and PC. With iTunes Match, users can store up to 25,000 of their own songs from iTunes in the cloud. Unlike others music locker services (including Google Music and Amazon’s music locker), Apple managed to get a license from the music labels that allows it to just check whether it offers a certain song you have in your library in its store and then make that copy available to you. Because of this, you don’t have to upload your songs to Apple – iTunes will simply “match” your library to its cloud library and play back those songs instead of your own copies.

This also means you won’t have to wait hours (or maybe even days) for your music collection to upload to Apple’s servers. Only those of your songs that aren’t in Apple’s library will need to be uploaded.

iTunes Match is currently only available in the U.S. and it’s not clear when (or even if) Apple will release this feature in other countries.

Better File Quality and No More Worries about the RIAA

This also means that you will likely get better-quality versions of all those files you may downloaded from Napster a few years ago. iTunes Match makes all downloads available as DRM-free 256kbps AAC files.

Indeed, given that Apple doesn’t check whether you actually own a license to a given song, this new program is virtually equivalent to a piracy amnesty that costs you just $25 a year instead of thousands of dollars in potential RIAA lawsuits.

To get started, just make sure you have upgraded to the latest version iTunes (10.5.1) that come out today. You can download this new version from Apple.

But Not Yet…

For the time being, though, it looks as if Apple is somewhat overwhelmed by the demand for this service. New users are greeted by this message:

Update (11am PT): Looks like it’s working now and ready for new sign-ups.

itunes-Match-down



6:12 pm


Hands-On: Why Spool Could be the First Real Instapaper, Read It Later Challenger

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Just a few minutes after I posted a story about Instapaper’s latest updates earlier this week, I received my private beta invite for Spool, a free Instapaper-like tool for the browser, iOS and Android. While Instapaper and Read It Later mostly focus on making articles and other written content available for offline reading on mobile devices, Spool also adds audio and video to the mix. For iOS users, this also means that they can watch Flash-based videos on their devices with Spool that would otherwise be unavailable, as Spool’s backend handles the conversion automatically.

This focus on video means, for example, that you can watch videos embedded in a New York Times article, for example, that wouldn’t be available for viewing otherwise. It’s worth noting, though, that these audio and video clips are also available for offline viewing.spool_online

Pros:

Besides the video and audio aspects of the app, Spool does a number of other smart things, too. Because it actually uses a crawler to discover the text and other content on the pages you bookmark, it can also detect multi-page articles (the kind neither readers nor Google really like, but that drive up pageviews for publishers). It then hops from page to page in those articles, saves them all and assembles them back into one long article for you. In my tests, this worked very well, though some of the crud on the pages (page numbers etc.) sometimes found its way into the saved articles.

Using the service also couldn’t be any easier. You just install the Chrome or Firefox extension and you’re good to go. On your phone, you can also use Spool’s built-in browser to discover content and then save it from there (though this isn’t as easy as having a bookmarklet available for mobile Safari).

The service also has built-in support for augmenting links in Google Reader, Google+, Google News, Twitter, Facebook, Quora and Techmeme with an inline Spool button, making adding content very easy.

Cons:

Now, there are obviously some features and tools that are still missing. There are no bookmarklets for mobile browsers, for example (Spool only makes browser plugins available right now). You also can’t organize your bookmarked articles in folders besides Spool’s default Favorites and Archived directories. There is also generally a short delay between bookmarking an article and being able to read it online or on your phone.

There are also still some cosmetic issues here and there. While the overall design of the app is pretty much what you would expect, some of the text formatting is a bit off. Depending on the source of your bookmarks, Spool seems to have a dislike for paragraph breaks, for example.

Verdict:

Having spent quite some time with Spool now, I’m not ready to give up Instapaper yet, but given that this is just a private beta so far, I can’t wait to see where the Spool team takes this app.

All of these services, of course, have to face the fact that Apple itself could be working on a similar product right now. Safari’s Reading Lists so far aren’t quite up to par yet, but Apple will surely continue to develop this feature and may just put all of these firms out of business in the long run (especially those that just focus on iOS).

If you want to give the service a try, head over here to request an invite.

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4:41 pm


One Company’s Way to 5-Star App Store Reviews: Paying Users in Virtual Currency

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I was browsing Apple’s App Store yesterday, looking for some interesting new games to play during a very long flight I have coming up later this week. One of the apps that stood out as I was browsing the role-playing games section was GAMEVIL’s Destinia (iTunes link). It’s the #1 role-playing game in the U.S. store, has almost 5,000 reviews and a 5-star rating. There are not too many 5-star games out there for $0.99, so I took the plunge. Sadly, the game is a major disappointment. The graphics aren’t optimized for the iPhone 4’s display, the controls are bad, the music repetitive and it’s just plain boring as a game. So how did it get a 5-star rating?

Being puzzled by that, I went back to the App Store to take a look at the game’s reviews. The first thing I noticed was that most of them are badly written and often just one or two words long. Walking back through a few pages of these reviews, I noticed that quite a few reviewers were saying something about “100 cash” – not exactly something you expect to read in a game review. All of that made me a bit suspicious and indeed, it looks like there really is reason to be suspicious about these 5-star reviews.

According to some of the negative reviews I found, Gamevil is sending in-app currency to users who review the app and promises “free updates” to those who leave a 5-star rating. Most of Gamevil’s games use in-app purchasing to monetize them, so free virtual currency is a strong incentive to leave a good review.

gamevil_review_2gamevil_ratings_review

100 Cash and Free Updates: Who Can Say No To That?

Intrigued, I went back and actually played the horrid game a bit longer. Lo and behold, it turns out that just after you finish the first mission, the app indeed offers you “100 cash” for leaving your rating and “free updates” in return for a 5-star review. I’m not really sure what “free updates” refers to here, given that regular updates are pretty much always free in the App Store.image

Shady Business

All of this looks quite shady. I’m not sure it’s against Apple’s App Store policies, but it sure undermines the users’ trust when it comes to user reviews in the App Store – and not just with regard to Gamevil’s apps, but the apps of all the other developers in the store, too.

I didn’t play any of the other Gamevil games yet, but I did notice that some had reviews that were very similar to those that celebrated their free “100 cash” in Destinia.



7:08 pm


Skype WiFi Comes to iOS: Get Online for $0.06 Per Minute

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If you’re a frequent traveller, you know how much of a hassle paid WiFi networks can be. For a while now, recent Microsoft acquisition Skype has been trying to make things a bit easier by giving its users the ability to pay for WiFi access with the money they already have on their Skype accounts. Even better, Skype WiFi access is metered by the minute, so you don’t have to pay for an expensive hourly or daily pass just because you need to send an email from your laptop. Prices start at $0.06 per minute, though may be higher depending on the provider. Until now, Skype Wifi was only available for Windows machines and Macs, but starting today, you will also be able to use Skype’s new Wifi app for iOS to get online.

Once opened, the Skype WiFi app simply recognizes that you are on a network that supports payment with Skype credits (there are about a million of these worldwide). Once you sign in, you simply click the “Go Online” button and start using the Internet. Just remember to also go back to the app and click “Disconnect” before you get on your plane or leave that coffee shop in Rome.

Skype ios app wifi

For travellers who don’t want to pay roaming costs while abroad and who just want to get online quickly at the airport to download a book or magazine before a flight, this app could come in very handy. There are no caps on data usage while you are online and you only pay for the time you were actually using the WiFi. Once online, you can also use Skype to make phone calls.

For most people, this is probably a cheaper option than paying for a daily pass, though frequent travellers are probably still better off with monthly data plans from Boingo and similar companies. In order to give people a chance to try Skype WiFi, access will be free anywhere Skype credit is accepted “from Saturday 20th August 00:00 till Sunday 21st August 23:59 BST for a maximum of 60 minutes.”

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3:41 pm


The Google+ iPhone App Has Arrived – But It’s Not Very Good

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Google+ offers a pretty nice mobile web experience, but it’s relatively slow and limited when compared to the full web client on the desktop. While Android users have had access to a native Google+ app since launch – including access to Google’s Huddle group messaging feature – iPhone users had to wait for Apple to approve the app. That approval has finally come and the native iPhone app is now available in the App Store, though it is definitely not as good as it could have been.

Disappointing

There are no major differences between the Android app and the iPhone app. Indeed, the limitations of the native mobile app on both platforms are similar to those of the web app. Posting links and other attachments (as well as giving a +1 to a comment) is still not possible, for example. Neither is resharing posts. The overall design of the app is – in Google’s best tradition – lackluster. The Facebook app-style launcher with five icons doesn’t give you a lot of information and just makes the screen look empty.

Where the app shines, however, is in allowing you to post images directly from your phone (camera or library) and in bringing Huddle – the Google+ mobile group messaging service – to the iPhone. Getting native notifications of new comments, of course, is also quite a bonus, but you don’t get granular control over which notifications you receive.

Overall, then, the app isn’t great, but does give you easier and more complete access to Google+ than the mobile web client. Maybe Google should have just waited for feedback from its Android users and then launched an improved iOS version. None of the missing features would be hard to integrate, though, so I expect we will see an improved version pretty soon.

To download the app, just head over to the App Store and get started (if you have the developer version of iOS 5 installed already, though, don’t bother, as the app just crashes).

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4:08 pm


Taiwanese Law Forces Apple to Institute 7-Day App Return Policy

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One thing that has always bothered me about Apple’s app stores is the fact that all sales are final. While Apple has sometimes made exceptions – as in the case of its own Final Cut X – you can’t test an app for a few hours and then return it if it doesn’t live up to your expectations. Now, however, it looks like Apple could be slowly changing this policy. As MacRumors notes, the company’s Taiwanese Mac App Store, App Store, and iBookstore now allow for returns within a seven-day window after a user has purchased an app or book.

“YOU MAY CANCEL YOUR PURCHASE WITHIN SEVEN (7) DAYS FROM THE DATE OF DELIVERY AND ITUNES WILL REIMBURSE YOU FOR THE AMOUNT PAID, PROVIDED YOU INFORM ITUNES THAT YOU HAVE DELETED ALL COPIES OF THE PRODUCT. UPON CANCELLATION YOU WILL NO LONGER BE LICENSED TO USE THE PRODUCT. THIS RIGHT CANNOT BE WAIVED.”

Apple’s policy change isn’t just due to the company’s drive to help out users, though, but is necessitated by the fact that Taiwan’s consumer protection law requires that any product bought over the Internet to feature a “trial period” of at least 7 days. Google ran into similar issues with its Android store in Taiwan and was fined because of its violation of Taiwanese law. Indeed, Google and Taiwan are still at odds over this issue.

Is this Policy Coming to the U.S., Too? Probably Not

It’s unlikely that we’ll see a similar policy in the U.S., where Google offers a 15-minute return window and Apple only handles these things on a case-by-case basis. Still, I know that I’ve often shied away from making a purchase in Apple’s Mac App Store (where prices are generally higher than the $0.99 we’ve become accustomed to in the iOS app store) because I couldn’t try an app before buying it. It would be smart of Apple to allow for at least a 1-day return window everywhere – and this would likely benefit developers as well – but somehow I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

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5:17 pm


Trover: The Best Location-Based Discovery App You’re Not Using (Yet)

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We all got our fair share of laughs out of the failed launch of the over-hyped photo-sharing/social networking service Color. While the idea behind the service was smart, the execution was abysmally bad. Trover, which quietly launched earlier this month, takes some of Color’s most basic ideas and puts them into an easy to use free iOS app (iTunes link). The app is based around the idea that you want to share photos of cool places around you with the rest of the world. There is also a location-based social networking aspect to the app, but you could easily ignore this aspect of the service without losing it’s basic functionality.

Location-based social networking based on photo sharing sounds like a complete buzzword overload, but oddly enough, it actually works out very well in Trover. In some ways, it’s the kind of app you would expect Flickr to make if Flickr still had an ounce of innovation left in it.

trover_screenshots

How it Works

The idea behind Trover is very simple: it allows you to publicly share geotagged images with anybody else on the service. That is, admittedly, nothing too original, but it’s very well implemented. The main view of the app shows you all of the images around you, organized by distance. By default, you will see all the images around you, but you can also filter this down to seeing just the images of the people in your social network on Trover (you sign in with your Facebook account, but the app won’t automatically add your Facebook friends to your network).

Share Your Discoveries – Whatever They May Be

Because of the app’s open approach, you can virtually share anything you want. The people around me have shared anything from photos of restaurant menus and food to pictures of local sights, interesting stores and weird stuff they found while walking down the street (no dearth of that here in Portland). Of course, this also means that some people just take pictures of the food they made at home, but so far, I’ve seen surprisingly little of this.

Trover’s Currency: A Simple ‘Thank You’

Unlike other apps like Foursquare and Gowalla, where the focus is more on amassing virtual badges and collecting digital flotsam, the currency on Trover is a simple ‘thank you.’ To thank others, you don’t have to be part of their social network. This makes it easy to thank other and it’s surprisingly rewarding to be thanked by others.

For the most part, the service has been flying under the radar. Hopefully this will change soon. You can download the app here.



10:29 am


Mobile Gmail Gets Undo Feature on iOS and Android

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If you use Google’s mobile website for Gmail on your iOS or Android smartphone, Google just launched an update that will make your life a bit easier. You can now undo a number of actions in mobile Gmail, including whenever you archive, move and delete a message or conversation and when you add a label to an email.

Gmail will now show a small yellow bar at the bottom of the screen that will appear every time you take one of the supported actions and ask you if you want to undo that command. One nifty feature here, as Google notes, is the fact that the bar stays in position, “even if you move to another screen (e.g. moving to ‘Menu’ from ‘Inbox’).”

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4:58 pm