As 2007 closes its doors, Webware writers Rafe Needleman, Josh Lowensohn, and Caroline McCarthy look back on the best and the worst to come out of it...
The Facebook platform. Facebook's new open platform has proven to be a great way to give Facebook users more to do, while putting eyeballs on and dollars into developer's sites. While the usefulness of some of the apps is questionable (see the misses category below), Facebook has built a solid foundation for new social applications, something that did not exist previously.
Google Gears. This platform lets developers write Web apps that can work offline. It is in its infancy, but it's an important step in the right direction for road warriors and anyone who wants to use Web 2.0 apps while away from a live connection. So far, it's limited to just a handful of apps, including Google Reader, Zoho Writer, and Remember The Milk, but with a developing API and support from Google, we think you'll be seeing Gears as a standard part of new Web apps in 2008.
Adobe AIR. AIR lets Flash (and other) developers take their apps off the Web and put them onto people's desktops, and it's seen a lot of progress this year. From launching an alpha version in late March, AIR has been met with considerable interest from both developers and users. Many of the apps that have been created are slick and easy to install. AIR, like Google Gears, is a key technology in the development of "hybrid" apps--Web services that work for users whether they are connected or not. AIR's special power is that its apps work outside of a browser. AIR apps look and feel like real desktop programs.
Twitter. Twitter was one of the first microblogging platforms to get it right. In addition to its open API, which has encouraged the development of dozens of ways to read and post Twitter messages on a variety of platforms, Twitter got the social angle right. It's simple, but not too simple, and it's fun. Twitter's brief messages tend toward the forgettable, but that's the platform's blessing: it doesn't ask too much of its writers or its readers.
Ning 2.0. The launch of Ning v2.0 in February gave anyone the chance to create their own social network with a series of highly focused and customizable modules. At CNET's HQ in San Francisco, a group uses it to track and discuss local lunch spots, but with a little know-how, anyone can use Ning to create simple and useful private social networks without having to know a lick of code.
Google Maps. Google has been busy with its maps property this year. Since launching in early 2005, the service has seen a wealth of updates, but this year brought some of the most useful ones for day-to-day use. Our favorites include: MyMaps, which lets you create your own maps with easy-to-use icons; StreetView, which lets you get a 3D street level look at buildings and local features; a rerouting feature to let you tweak any side stops or road preferences, and aerial, terrain, and live traffic views.
Hulu. Hulu serves up TV shows, movies, music videos, and many other pieces of video content in a simple Flash player. While still in private beta, those who have used Hulu (including us) are impressed with it. It brings all the goodness you'd find on the Web video players from TV networks' video sites, but puts them all in one spot with advertising that's both tolerable and far better than sitting through the four minute ad breaks you get when watching the show on regular TV. The service is beginning to add HD video to its repertoire, which might just be enough to get people to stop pirating content via P2P services.
Flock. For a long time now Flock's been on the outskirts of the browser world. Who really wanted a social browser? With the popularity of YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter making a splash in 2007, Flock's v1.0 offering finally had that value proposition of ditching the stock version of Firefox for something that would save us some time, and make it easier to keep tabs on our friends while continuing our browsing activities. The real hook of using Flock is the integration of social networking and publishing tools, which offer more right off the bat than a standard Firefox installation. Users don't have to muck with tracking down and installing plug-ins that might not be updated when the browser is. With Flock, you don't have to worry about that with the core components, and if you really want to add on, nearly all extensions that work with Firefox are Flock-compatible. If you're still on the fence, check our our Newbie's Guide to Flock.
Picnik. There was a time when you really needed Photoshop, or some other installed software, to edit a photo. Nowadays there are dozens of Web-based photo-editing solutions out there to help you tweak and edit shots. Picnik was one of the real standouts from this year, not only for its slick look and feel, but because it gives fantastic results without requiring users to know much at all about editing. The launch of a premium service, and integration as Flickr's default photo-editing tool give it a leg up on the competition.
Netflix movies-on-demand. Forget these expensive boxes you need to hook up to your living room TV for renting movies a la carte. The future is direct downloads, not optical discs. If you're already a Netflix subscriber with one of the supported plans, you can take advantage of their on-demand streaming service that gives members a multi-movie pass that's only limited by how much time (in hours) they're allotted each month. The only bummers are the reliance on Windows Media DRM, the lack of Mac support, and noticeably smaller video collection than you'd find on disc. Despite this, it's still better than waiting for the postal service when you need a movie fix. The service launched in late February--we've got a hands on here.
MySpace News. The first-leaked reports of MySpace News made it sound like a dream come true for both advertisers, and enthusiasts of sites like Digg and Reddit. A social news service working off the massive, multimillion member userbase of MySpace seemed like a great idea, but just seven months later the place seems deserted with no real changes since the late April launch. Front page stories are only getting a small handful of votes, while the competition is getting hundreds and sometimes thousands of votes and comments per item.
NBC leaving iTunes. There are many reasons for the split, but the No. 1 is money. NBC Universal simply wanted more per show than Apple was willing to allow. NBC has since moved its various content to other distribution channels like Hulu.com (seen above earlier as a hit), and its own streaming service, NBC Direct. After years of advertising iTunesas the place to get your fix of portable, digital, and multiplatform copies of shows like Scrubs, Battlestar Galactica, and The Office, ditching the iTunes media store just made the company look greedy.
Livestreaming. The technology and platform solutions for livestreaming are here and wonderful, but we're giving this one a miss because the content is simply not up to snuff. While JustinTV was a fun project to watch, what it's evolved into is simply not worth your time. Justin Kan's original solution was to strap a camera to his head and go on daily adventures, but the service has devolved into a slew of people sitting in front of their Webcams talking to a bored audience. Recent second-generation Livestreaming service ModMyLife puts a slight spin on the idea by giving users a bit more control, but it's not enough to get us away from professionally produced content. We're still really impressed with services like Mogulus, UStream.tv, and Operator11, but besides Chris Pirillo, who is making this technology interesting for the watchers?
Creepy ad platforms. Nearly everyone with a start-up is hoping to make some money, although two new monetization services of 2007 stuck out as a little creepy. The first was Facebook's Beacon, which sounded like the best of both worlds for advertisers and big companies, who would have a direct way to get some free advertising from Facebook users using their services. The company's big faux pas was to make the default method of input opt-out, meaning if users weren't savvy to uncheck one of those little check boxes when signing up for a service, or making a purchase, the information would be beamed back to Facebook. Despite a massive backlash, the company took a longer than expected time to respond, and eventually caved in to switch to opt-in by default, meaning users would have to check that box to participate in the program.
The other platform is The Pudding, which lets you make VoIP calls to people's landlines for free. The one caveat is that the company running the service will be monitoring your conversations and attempting to pull in contextual advertising. Somehow we're OK with this going on with our e-mails and Gmail, but the idea of voice calls with friends and family just creeps us out.
HD DVD's hexadecimal decryption key/Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Trying to keep something secret that's been put on the Internet is just about impossible. This proved to be the case earlier this year when Digg.com's front page exploded with stories that either related, or simply were the secret code to decrypt the copy protection from the still-struggling HD DVD format. The act of exuberance was a mob reaction to Digg's attempt to remove the stories to be in compliance with a cease and desist order from the MPAA. Incidentally, Digg's traffic skyrocketed shortly after--at least according to Alexa. This garnered a miss from us, not for Digg, but from the MPAA for attempting to censor Digg's stories to preserve a pretense of control over a format nobody really cares about.
Citizendium. If you Google Citizendium, you'll see the Wikipedia entry about it is pretty much the first link besides the site. That's part of the problem. Citizendium was created to solve the problems that can arise from letting Wikipedia be written by anyone with a keyboard and a 56Kbps modem--regardless of intellect or educational background. It's essentially Wikipedia, but with the hopes of having credible, scholarly sources that will both write the content and help moderate everyone else. While Citizendium has already ramped up a considerable amount of articles, why not put that effort toward bettering the larger, more established Wikipedia?
Zoho. We like Zoho, and on paper the number of products it's launched this year puts Google to shame. But more important than volume is polishing the ones that are there, which simply hasn't happened quite as much as we were hoping. We want integration and less disconnect between services. We're also looking for a little more pizazz and something to pull us away from our desktop office apps. We're hoping 2008 is the year of integration for Zoho.
Vampires and Zombies. And Ninjas vs. Pirates vs. I just slapped you with a sheep, etc. These Facebook apps might have started off cute, but now they're cluttering up the Facebook experience. The original poke was simple, subtle, and ingenious. Everybody could do it, and no one was left out. Now we've got to add an app to even tell you to stop it in the way you'll understand.
3D Mailbox. When's the last time that e-mail from mom needed a DirectX 9 capable video card to read it? 3D Mailbox was designed to make e-mail fun and exciting by turning your messages into onscreen 3D events, be it bikini-clad babes, or spam (represented by overweight beach goers) getting eaten by sharks. The company's latest foray has moved locales to LAX airport, with airplanes representing messages, complete with cargo for attachments. We found the app to be difficult to use, and a massive resource hog. As CNET Download.com's Peter Butler noted in his hands-on, "I don't know anyone who wants to spend more time managing e-mail." The one saving grace is the promotional video, which will leave your jaw agape.
iPhone apps. The premise of Web applications built for Apple's shiny new iPhone is simple: turn any Web service into a simple app that you can use with your fingers. The major snag? You can't download them to launch right off the phone and use local resources like mass storage and saved files. The other snag is speed, which is hampered by the outdated EDGE network. While an SDK for developers and 3G version of the iPhone are due out in 2008, early adopters have spent most of 2007 dealing with slow speeds, and having to hack their phones to get proper localized applications that can help overcome the EDGE network's inadequacies.
Got any hits and misses of your own? Share them in the TalkBack.