If popularity were a reliable indicator of a product’s greatness, the Big Mac would be the world’s best burger, Coca-Cola would be nutritious, and Microsoft wouldn’t have to spend billions to convince you to buy its software. Savvy computer users know that sometimes the best program is the one you haven’t yet used. So when we set out to find the ultimate online apps, we skipped the big sites that everyone already knows.
Sure, you can track your schedule with Google Calendar, watch videos on YouTube, and share pictures with friends on Flickr, but while these popular web apps certainly serve up great features, none of them is perfect. Meanwhile, the Internet is brimming with underdogs that are dreaming up some kick-ass new concepts—and putting them into action right now.
The rise of easier-to-use web development tools like Python and Ruby on Rails has caused an explosion of cool new web services that do everything from organizing your thoughts to tracking airfares across multiple travel sites to replacing your entire Office suite—and almost everything is free. Even as you read this, the world of web apps is expanding with cool new sites that take the features of your favorite old standbys and give them new, innovative twists. Some are terrible, but many are just plain brilliant, and we’ve narrowed down the field to 15 apps that will fundamentally change the way you use the web.
On the road of life, it's best not to go it alone.
If all you want is directions to the nearest diner or coffee joint, MapQuest and Google Maps have you covered. But if you really want to explore your world, Wayfaring’s social mapping is a better way to go. The service is based on Google Maps but enhances the basic direction-finding service with a social networking interface that lets you create custom maps and share them with friends. Visiting a new town? Before you shell out for a guidebook, log on to Wayfaring and check out customized maps created by people who’ve actually been there. From dining options to museums to obscure attractions, you can pinpoint just about anything on Wayfaring.
Three O's, unlimited uploads
Whether you’re fed up with daily upload and bandwidth limits or you’re just tired of letting Yahoo control your online life, Zooomr’s online photo-sharing features are bound to be greeted as liberators. The site’s biggest draw is its Infinite Upload interface, which lets you select every last bandwidth-hogging image on your hard drive and toss it onto Zooomr in one massive batch. You also get the usual array of captioning, organizing, geotagging, and sharing tools. At press time, Zooomr had just launched a paid Pro service, which adds video support and eliminates ads.
Free for basic account/$20 per year for pro account,
Simple organization for chaotic minds
Anyone with a Google account can track their calendars and to-do lists, but what if your needs are a little more unconventional? Backpack’s simple, customizable pages make it easy to organize your thoughts, no matter what you’re working on. Create lists and reminders; add notes, links, and versatile write boards; and share your pages with collaborators—or make them public. You can then link to them from other pages or email new entries to your pages from any device. The free service limits you to five custom pages, but the premium service enables up to 1,000 pages, a calendar, 500MB of file storage, and SSL encryption.
Free for basic accounts/$5–$14 per month for
premium accounts, www.backpackit.com
Get to your PC from any phone or browser
When you need remote access to your files but don’t want to lug a laptop along, you need Soonr. This lightweight desktop utility syncs your files and Outlook email to SoonR’s website while you’re working and then serves them up via a clean web interface. The mobile-optimized service worked like a charm on every phone we tried it with, letting us grab and view images, Word docs, and spreadsheets easily. It also sports an organizer interface for Outlook calendars and lets you call your Skype contacts from your cell phone.
12 million hours of video. No stupid self-submissions
Some people love whiling away the hours sifting through idiotic home-video footage on YouTube. If you don’t, try Blinkx. Built on a powerful search engine, Blinkx scours the web for videos, then analyzes and tags them for retrieval. So when you search for “White Stripes,” you’ll find the band’s videos, not a bunch of homemade vids of teenyboppers lip-synching to “Icky Thump.” Blinkx grabs videos from across the entire web, so it’s got everything YouTube, iFilm, Veoh, and the rest have, only more organized and with full-motion thumbnails. It includes a Safe Search control to filter out the dirty stuff—or not—and clicking a video’s title will take you straight to its source, so you can see it in its original context.
Cut your tunes some slack, man
Forget Last.fm. Never mind Pandora. Don’t even think about iTunes. If you want the ultimate in fully customizable Internet radio, get your slackin’ ass over to Slacker.com. Like Last.fm and Pandora, Slacker.com makes it mindlessly easy to create custom radio stations by typing in an artist you like and letting the site automatically compile a playlist of similar or related artists. The interface is way slicker than its competitors’, but that’s just the start of its draw. Soon Slacker will offer a portable player that’ll let you take your stations on the road and a satellite player for your car.
Free (player hardware to be sold
Hundreds of widgets for your online life
Most blogs are about as interesting as the cracks in a sidewalk. Some even less so. Widgetbox gives you the tools to add cool, dynamic content to your blog in the form of hundreds of widgets for just about any purpose. Need to add instant lolcats to your front page? Select the I Can Has Cheezburger widget, copy the code, and paste it into your blog. But there’s more to the site than mere diversions. Widgetbox also gives you the tools to create your own widgets—either by turning your blog into a “blidget” that others can subscribe to or by coding something unique and adding it to the Widgetbox collection.
A free MS Office alternative that lets you rock while you work.
Work sucks. If they didn’t pay you so well to do it, you probably wouldn’t bother. So why would you want to drop a few hundred bucks on a suite of business apps when you can get the same features online? Ajax13 is one of many free office suite web apps, offering a word processor, an Excel-compatible spreadsheet program, a drawing app, and a PowerPoint-compatible presentation program. These aren’t sloppy editors, either—each includes a standard button bar that’s loaded with familiar tools. Plus, Ajax13 comes with ajaxTunes, a mini music player loaded with Internet radio stations, so you can chill with some tunes while you labor for the Man.
One-stop IM shop for your web browser
Why anyone even bothers running a single-service IM app anymore, we just can’t figure out. And now Meebo is giving us cause to wonder whether installed clients are even worth the trouble these days. With its clean Ajax-powered interface, Meebo gives you slick, intuitive access to all the major IM services, including AIM, MSN, Yahoo, ICQ, Google Talk, and Jabber. The Meebo client runs within your browser, and like Google Talk, pops up with a single click. Just create a Meebo account and then link it to all your IM accounts for one-login access without having to bloat your PC with some overblown, adware-ridden chitchat client.
Share big files without making enemies
Remember when 1MB was considered a large file attachment? Well, even if it doesn’t seem all that big anymore, many mail servers still won’t accept more than a megabyte of attachments on a single message. And even if they did, it would be just plain rude to jam your friends’ inboxes with massive files. Yousendit lets you send single attachments of up to 100MB for free and gives you 1GB of bandwidth. If you need more than that, premium accounts let you send 2GB files with up to 200GB of bandwidth per month.
Free for basic account/$5–$30 per month for premium account,
Podcast-topia for short attention spans
You don’t need much to start your own podcast. In fact, a PC, a mic, and a free Odeo account will do the trick. After about 30 seconds of setup, you can start recording your own podcasts—up to one hour each—to host on Odeo’s website. Along with your content and thousands of other podcasts, Odeo hosts some 3.6 million MP3s that you can play online or download to your hard drive, and the site also offers a music player that you can stick on your blog, your MySpace page, or wherever else you’re able to paste widgets.
Like a Vulcan mind meld, only without the creepy touching
No matter how well you work with others, collaborating on big projects can be a logistical nightmare. Mindmeister helps you get your groupthink on with a simple mind-mapping interface that makes it easy to organize your thoughts—or help your buddies organize theirs. The shared workspace is a basic grid on which you and your colleagues can map out ideas. Just start with a central concept, and you can both add to it and edit the idea flow simultaneously while chatting over Skype, which you can launch from within the Mindmeister interface.
Free for basic service/$4 per month for
premium service, www.mindmeister.com
Don't be just another tourist sucker
There was a time when it was simple to find the best possible price for airline tickets online, but those days are long gone. Now every website on the planet claims to have the best fares—and they can’t possibly all be right. Once you download the Yapta tagger, it sits in your system tray waiting for you to go shopping. When you do, it adds a “Tag It with Yapta” link to the site you’re shopping on—be it Orbitz, Expedia, United, or a number of other sites. Once you’ve tagged a fare, go to www.yapta.com and tell Yapta to alert you when the price drops.
Watch what you want, when you want
Thanks to Joost, PC TV tuners might soon be obsolete. With a fast broadband connection, this free service brings you hundreds of full-screen shows from major broadcasters (and a few lesser-known ones, too). But instead of waiting around for your show to start, you just click the channel you want to watch and then browse for the show you’re interested in. Click it, and it starts. Plus, Joost adds social networking features, so you can chat with others and get user ratings while you watch. We wish all TV worked this way.
Express yourself freely, one tiny tweet at a time.
Loved by some, reviled by others, Twitter’s bite-size blogettes can be relentlessly addictive. The site’s insanely simple interface streamlines microposts of no more than 140 characters (called tweets), so you can tell the world you’re “Shopping for biscuits at Trader Joe’s!!1!” while you’re standing in line at the checkout counter. Post updates via the web and SMS, and get your friends’ updates slung at you on your mobile phone so you’ll never have to wonder what they’re up to. Twitter’s tweets make an interesting addition to your regular blog, so you can keep your site updated even when you don’t have time for a full-length post. See the sidebar on this page for Twitter tweaks.
Two easy tweaks to your Twitter tweets
Play Tunes on Twitter
A simple little tool called Play Twitter turns Twitter into a music-sharing machine. Go to http://gonze.com/playtwitter/ and drag the Play Twitter link to your bookmarks toolbar. Then you can use the bookmark to enter a URL for any MP3 file, and Play Twitter will convert the link into a bookmarklet you can tweet about.
Feed Your Blog to Twitter
Twitter was made for tiny posts, but that doesn’t mean you have to use it that way. To serve up your regular blog posts via Twitter, use Twitterfeed. Once you’ve signed in to Twitterfeed.com with your OpenID, you simply enter your Twitter username and password, paste in the URL for your blog’s feed, and choose the update frequency. You can create as many feeds as you like, and there’s no law that says it has to be your own blog that you feed.