The Best Apps in Life Are Free

What, you're not using Microsoft Speed Launch? It's a free application that lets you instantly launch any application, Web site or document using any word or phrase you choose.

The app places a "bulls-eye" on your desktop. When you encounter anything you want to be able to quickly launch in the future, just drag and drop it on the "bulls-eye." It will prompt you for a name.

For example, let's say you run across a YouTube video that comically explores what would happen if Lassie were a cat. If you want to show people later, just drag the URL into Speed Launch and type "Cat." Later, just enter Windows+C and type "cat," and the video pops up.

This is just one of thousands of examples of apps that hardly anyone knows about, but that are free, powerful and -- let's face it -- really should be part of Windows.

Where Labs come from

The whole "Labs" idea was pioneered by Microsoft in the 1990s. Back then, Microsoft offered a range of "Power Tools" for Windows that brought features and functionality that could have been baked right into Windows, but for whatever reason was not.

The best of these was a Power Tool called TweakUI, which added more than 100 new capabilities to Windows. For example, you could speed up menus, get rid of those little arrows on shortcut icons and do a lot of other things.

Companies that make software tend to create far more applications, features, add-ons and plug-ins than they ship. Many of these are really great. But why do companies do this?

They know that every app and feature shipped will have to be tested against the full range of hardware and software supported by the hosting platform, will have to be supported and will add complexity and confuse newbies.

The solution is to post this software on a Web page, add "use-at-your-own-risk" caveats, and boldly claim that these aren't "real" products, only "experiments" that won't be supported by the company. In general, however, I've found "Labs" products every bit as stable as supported apps. Maybe even more so, on average.

Most people have at least heard about Google Labs. The company allows engineers to spend 20% of their work time developing projects of their own. Many of these end up in their Labs sites. The Lab sites themselves often serve as a kind of "farm program" for apps and features that might later become "real." Like Pinocchio.

But many companies have lesser-known Labs pages that can bring new tools and capabilities to your desktop PC, browser, mobile device or phone. Users tend not to be aware of these resources for a variety of reasons. One is that different companies throw around the word "Lab" to mean different things. For some consumer-software companies, "Labs" are just for software developers.

For others, they actually mean labs where researchers invent things. But a smattering of major companies, Labs pages provide a place where users can test concepts, enhance existing products and bring new capabilities to our gadgets and desktops.

Microsoft Office Concept Tests

One of the best of these is Microsoft's Office Concept Tests, where I found the Speed Launcher.

Microsoft offers a range of tools and even a game that can plug into or augment Microsoft Office.

One of my favorites is a PowerPoint plug-in called pptPlex. It simply makes a PowerPoint slide deck non-linear. You can jump forward and back to any slide in the deck, and even zoom in on data. If you give PowerPoint presentations, you've got to try pptPlex.

Several other major software companies have similar Labs. If you use some application frequently or professionally, such as, say, an Adobe application, search for the software company's name along with the word "labs" to find out if they have any free tools you don't know about.

Google's browser competitors offer great "Labs" pages with lots of free goodies, including Mozilla Labs, Opera Labs and others.

Of course, you'd expect software and browser companies to offer labs. But several content companies have Labs with truly powerful free downloads as well, including two of my favorites: Hulu and Reuters.

Hulu Labs

The online TV and video site Hulu has a "Labs" site, where you can add features to the site. For example, you can use one tool to search for TV shows based on their original air data. Or you can get captions for watching movies silently during boring meetings. Other add-ons and browser plug-ins generally enhance your video-viewing experience.

Reuters Labs

Reuters is a leading news wire service. Labs offerings from Reuters run the gamut from iPhone apps to online services. Reuters News Screener, for example, shows you 120 of Reuters' most recently posted stories.

Start typing a word on News Screener, and stories are instantly eliminated if they do not contain that specific string. Hover the mouse pointer over the headline to see the summary. If you're a news nerd, Reuters' News Screener is great.

Google has done a great job promoting the existence of its Labs tools. Other companies haven't successfully gotten the word out. And that's why Labs downloads and tools are the most under-utilized, under-appreciated resources on the Internet.

Do you have a favorite Lab tool that I didn't highlight? Share it in the comments area below.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com, follow him on Twitter, or read his blog, The Raw Feed.

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