Wow, what an opportunity! Imagine having a newspaper column published precisely on the last day of the year. What a chance to step back, look ahead, sum it all up!
Or else I could just trot out my usual end-of-year silliness, better known as the Pogie Awards.
These honors, now in their fifth consecutive year, aren’t meant to identify the best products of the year; that’s way too obvious. Instead, the Pogies celebrate the best ideas of the year — great, clever features that somehow made it past the obstacles of cost, engineering and lawyers.
Kindly turn off your cellphones and refrain from flash photography. All right, then, let’s begin.
DROID DOCKS The Motorola Droid, of course, is an app phone (that is, an iPhone wannabe with a black rectangular touch screen, etc.). It’s generally a very good one, with slide-out keyboard, excellent speed and the Verizon network.
The winner here isn’t the phone, though — it’s the docks. One $30 plastic dock suctions to your windshield. When you slip the phone into it, hidden magnetic sensors automatically fill the Droid’s screen with Google’s new GPS navigation software, complete with turn-by-turn driving directions, spoken street names, color coding to indicate traffic, map icons (for parking and so on), satellite view and more.
Or buy the $30 home dock. When you insert the Droid, the screen becomes a handsome, horizontal-layout alarm-clock/weather display, complete with buttons that let you access your music or even dim the screen for sleepy time. You have to charge your phone overnight anyway, so why shouldn’t it be doing something useful in the meantime?
ITYPE2GO In 2009, the risks of text messaging went mainstream. Statistics made it clear that texting while driving was shockingly common — and incredibly dangerous.
But what about texting while walking? You’re looking down as you flail away on your keyboard; next thing you know, you’ve crashed right into a person, a tree or a fence. Trust me: It’s hard to look cool when you’ve just face-planted on a No Parking sign.
Fortunately, iType2Go (a $1 iPhone app) is a funny idea that really works. It superimposes what you’re typing over a live camera view, so you can see where you’re going even while you’re focused on the screen.
With the touch of a button, you can also direct your typing output to an e-mail message, Facebook page or Twitter update. And you can rotate the phone to get the widescreen keyboard, if you prefer. (Similar for Android phones: Droid Text’n’Walk, $4.)
MIFI. It’s not often a company invents an entire new category with one fell press release, but that’s what Novatel did. The MiFi ($100 from Verizon or Sprint; monthly fee required) is a tiny, credit card-size, personal, portable, powerful, password-protected wireless hot spot. That’s right: you now have a Wi-Fi hot spot in your pocket, purse or laptop bag.
In many ways, it’s better than those U.S.B. cellular modems that jack into your laptop. On the MiFi, five people can connect at once. There’s nothing to connect or disconnect and store. And the MiFi can handle more things than laptops; Wi-Fi netbooks, cameras, game gadgets, iPhones and iPod Touches can get online, too.
SAMSUNG DUAL-SCREEN CAMERA The front of Samsung’s DualView TL220/TL225 ($300/$350) looks completely shiny and black. But when you tap the empty spot next to the lens, a small screen lights up, right there on the front of the camera.
Having a front screen is great for framing self-portraits, for letting your subjects see what they are going to look like, for displaying a self-timer countdown, or for displaying a happy face as a “Smile!” cue when you’re taking a group photo. The screen can also display a choice of cartoon animations that keep younger subjects riveted, smiling and facing the camera. The camera itself isn’t so great, photographically speaking. But what a great idea.
NIKON PROJECTOR CAM You can’t mention great camera feature ideas of 2009 without bringing up Nikon’s Coolpix S1000pj ($430). It’s another so-so pocket camera with a killer hidden feature: a built-in projector.
When you want to show your pictures or videos to friends, no longer must you crowd them around the camera’s little built-in screen. Now, with a single button press on the top of the camera, you can turn on the projector. The image is beamed straight from the front of the camera onto a wall, a ceiling or a friend’s T-shirt. Nobody’s going to confuse the image (40 inches, max) with an Imax movie. But especially when the lights are low and the wall is nearby, the projected image is perfectly adequate and really something to see.
BING POP-UP PREVIEWS The actual search results from Microsoft’s new Bing.com service may not always be as good as Google’s. But Bing has a few incredibly juicy features, like the one that lets you point to any search result in the list without clicking. A popup balloon shows you the first few paragraphs of text on it. Without leaving the results list, you know if it’s going to be helpful. You really miss this trick when you return to Google, where you have to click a link to see what’s behind it.
PALM PRE DATA CONSOLIDATIONPalm’s latest app phones, the Palm Pre and Palm Pixi, offer a software trick that’s satisfying both in concept and execution: it consolidates the different sources of your life’s information.
For example, you get to see the appointments from your online Google or Yahoo Calendar, your Outlook work calendar and your Facebook events, all on a single color-coded calendar. Ditto with your various online address books, your various e-mail accounts and your various chat program buddy lists. Simple is a good thing; we like simple.
FIND MY PHONE. Your cellphone, obviously, knows where it is, especially if it’s a model that has built-in GPS functions. So why do we wind up losing our cellphones so often?
That’s the question that Apple answered with its Find My iPhone feature, an incredibly useful aspect of its $100-a-year MobileMe service. On the me.com Web site, with a click you can see where your iPhone is on a zoomable map.
If it’s just lying in your house somewhere, the Web site lets you make it beep loudly for two minutes, so you can hunt it down among the couch cushions. If the phone is in the hands of some stranger, you can make the phone display a message (say, “Return my phone! It’s covered with deadly germs!”) or even erase the thing completely by remote control, so at least your personal life is protected.
The only thing that could be better than Find My iPhone would be a free version. That’s what you get with certain Motorola phones, like the Droid and Cliq. May this one catch on with every phone company.
READABILITY The single best tech idea of 2009, though, the real life-changer, has got to be Readability. It’s a free button for your Web browser’s toolbar (get it at lab.arc90.com/experiments/readability). When you click it, Readability eliminates everything from the Web page you’re reading except the text and photos. No ads, blinking, links, banners, promos or anything else. Times Square just goes away.
You wind up with a simple, magazine-like layout, presented in a beautiful font and size (your choice) against a white or off-white background with none of this red-text-against-black business.
You occasionally run into a Web page that Readability doesn’t handle right — no big deal, just refresh the page to see the original. But most of the time, Readability makes the world online a calmer, cleaner, more beautiful place.
Go forth and install it.
Oh, yeah — and happy high-tech new year.