The 25 Most Innovative Products of the Year
Make no mistake, the Web is taking over. Applications are moving to browsers en masse, and technology to take Web apps offline promises to smooth the road ahead. And let's not forget breakthrough devices advancing the Web-anywhere world: Apple has redefined the phone, and One Laptop per Child's sub-$200 laptop is delivering Internet-style collaboration to kids in developing nations. But innovation isn't all on the Web; the PC is evolving as well. Apple has reenvisioned backup, HP has created the first useful touch-screen PC, hybrid hard drives boost speed and battery life, and ultraportables have become even more useful. Chosen from the hundreds of products we reviewed in 2007, here are 25 that will change the way you work, communicate, and play this year--and beyond.
1. Google Gears
Innovation: Plug-in lets Web applications work offline.
Benefit: Tackles the single biggest hurdle to making Web apps truly convenient.
Imagine firing up only one application--a Web browser--for handling all of your daily computer tasks. It's a nice dream, but it has one major problem: What do you do when you're offline? Google Gears, a Windows application now in beta, solves this problem by allowing service designers to create versions that still work when your PC doesn't have an Internet connection. Google Reader, Zoho Writer (which added offline editing via Gears in late 2007), and online task manager Remember the Milk already use it, and Google is working to add Gears to other applications in its stable. (If you're thinking of ditching desktop software entirely, read one writer's take in "Life Without Desktop Software.")
2. Apple iPhone
Innovation: Gee-whiz touch-screen interface and spartan case dial up a mobile revolution.
Benefit:Mac OS-simple software offering slide-and-glide access to bright, colorful menus sets this cell phone apart from its rivals.
The $399 iPhone has taken some criticism for its shortcomings, mainly its lack of 3G connectivity, but you can't deny that the sleek handset is innovative. Apple made navigating via a touch screen--sure to be a staple in future PDA phones and other small devices--intuitive and fun. iPhone's Safari browser makes the handset a great mobile Web device (at least when you can get a Wi-Fi connection.) And, sure, many phones play music, but Cover Flow cranks the iPhone up to 11 as a music player. (See PC World's iPhone Central for much more.)
3. One Laptop per Child XO
Innovation: $200 laptop does mesh networking, is sand- and waterproof, and works well in direct sunlight.
Benefit: What every child in the developing world needs; makes you ask, "When will my laptop be able to do that?"
Innovation isn't always about being bigger, better, and faster. One Laptop per Child's Linux-powered XO laptop, with a 7.5-inch display--designed for children in poor countries--is one of the cheapest, most power-conscious, and sturdy notebooks on the planet. It also has features you might wish you had on your mainstream laptop. One clear standout: XO's Wi-Fi allows it to function as a mesh-network node that can connect with other XOs, even when no Internet connection is available.
4. Time Machine, in Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard)
Innovation: Backs up changes hourly to an external drive behind the scenes, then lets you "go back in time" to restore data.
Benefit: Makes light work of the one task that every computer user should do and most people put off--and gives the function a pretty face, to boot.
Time Machine is the killer feature in Leopard. You'll either love or hate this wild and wacky space-and-time user interface, but performing backups will never be the same. One question: Why doesn't Windows Vista have anything this simple and useful? (For more information about the new Mac OS, read our Leopard review.)
5. Amazon Kindle
Innovation: Device takes the e-book to the next level with free EvDO connectivity.
Benefit: Tight integration with Amazon's bookselling site; thoughtful design.
Electronic-book readers are not new, and Sony's experience with its Reader shows that sales are not guaranteed. But with its Kindle reader ($400), Amazon has brought the e-book into the connected age by including free EvDO wireless connectivity to the e-commerce giant. Did we mention the seamlessness of buying books with this always-on device? EvDO could be the magic that e-books have lacked.