SiliconFilter

Five Apps and Web Services that Deserved More Attention in 2011

/

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?

/

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


Spotify Rocks the Desktop, Fails on Mobile

/

Spotify, the streaming music service which arrived in the U.S. to great hype and scarce invites earlier this week, may be one of the more frustrating companies to review. On the desktop, it offers the single best user experience of all the current streaming music services available in the U.S. today and easily bests its direct competitors like MOG, Rdio and Rhapsody. When it comes to the mobile experience, though, Spotify simply falls flat when compared to its competitors’ apps.

On Mobile, You Want to Listen to Music, Not Manage Playlists

The problem with this, in my view, is Spotify’s insistence on building its service strictly around playlists. This works great for creating shared playlists and discovering new music by browsing your friends’ lists, and it’s even a decent experience for just listening to music on your desktop. This approach, however, doesn’t quite work so well on mobile. When you are driving down the road, you don’t want to have to organize a playlist before you get started. Instead, MOG, for example, offers a hybrid on-demand/radio approach similar to Pandora, where you can choose one song to seed your playlist and then have MOG pick the rest of your list based on this. Spotify doesn’t have this kind of mode.

Spotify on Mobile: Frustrating

Indeed, Spotify doesn’t even make creating playlists on your mobile device easy and instead of giving you easy access to all your local cached files, they are somewhere in your playlist menu – some under the “starred” label, some under “local files.” Why which file is where it is, I’m not sure. The playlists themselves then are organized in alphabetical order by song title, but there is no way to browse by artist or album.

MOG, on the other hand (the Spotify competitor I’m most familiar with), offers a stellar mobile experience where the search feature actually autocompletes your queries (unlike Spotify) and where your cached files are easily accessible. While you can manage different playlists, the focus is on one central play queue. Want to add a song to it, just hold your finger over any song, wait for the menu to pop up and decide whether you want to play it next or add it to the end of the queue. Back buttons are where you expect them to be (top left instead of the “hide” button that often has the same functionality in the Spotify app – and which sits in the top right corner) and switching between song, album and artist views couldn’t be easier.

At the end of the day then, Spotify makes for a great desktop app, but most of my streaming music experience is mobile in the car or at the gym – and MOG simply beat Spotify there.



5:01 am