Whenever we publish a story saying that a group of products, services or sites are All That TM, we get a wave of inevitable (and instructive) responses from readers doubting our sanity and/or nominating alternatives that should have been on our list.
Our recent feature called “10 Sites That Will Matter in 2009” was no different. Many PC World readers actually lauded our picks for 2009’s big sites, but they still submitted many other suggestions for sites that should have made the list.
I decided to go check out these sites that our readers say are All ThatTM. And some of them, I found, were pretty darn good.
Take the case of FindingDulcinea–a suggestion sent in by PC World reader EugeneO. FindingDulcinea is a news site that augments current stories with separate background information and analysis. Like any practitioner of good journalism, the site first explains the relevant facts, and then provides historical and ideological context for them. There’s usually a separate section about a related issue; and in a sidebar, you’ll find links to the sources used to build the whole enchilada. I like this site because I often happen upon interesting random news stories and wish that I knew more about the big picture they fit in. The Web Guides section provides the same sort of deep background on broader issues like “The U.S. Economy.”
Verdict: Not the next Facebook, but the site operators will eventually be rewarded with a midsize Web audience of news addicts. FindingDulcinea has clear value as a teaching aid for kids, too. And gratuitous allusions to Don Quixote are all too rare on the Internet.
Next let’s surf over to FreeNapkin, a site suggestion sent via e-mail from an anonymous reader. FreeNapkin turns out to be an eBay for free stuff. That is, you take pictures of unwanted junque in your garage and post the pics here, and the first FreeNapkin member to “claim” the item wins. The claimant pays the shipping on the item, or picks it up in person (the site filters the donations by city so you know what free stuff is nearby). People have given away everything from dogs to farm equipment on FreeNapkin. Without my having actually donated anything on the site (hmm, maybe my 401K…), I can only say that it appears to work well, based on the number of listings. FreeNapkin is no marvel of fancy Web design, but it gets bonus points for hitting squarely on the need to conserve and recycle in tough economic times. On the other hand, it loses points because the names and contact information of the site’s proprietors are nowhere to be found–a bad sign.
Verdict: FreeNapkin may not get huge this year; but as word spreads about this “eBay of Free,” the site could see steadily mounting membership in the next few years.
Open Proxy Network
Reader George7777 says that he finds Open Proxy Network to be useful. “A lot of people are having troubles accessing certain Web sites because some countries are blocking everything,” he writes. “It shouldn’t be this way; information is free.” So how does Open Proxy Network help? The site provides a list of links to various anonymous proxy sites, such as TheSurfHide.com. These “proxy sites” provide a generic IP address that you can use while surfing, enabling you to venture into places on the Web where your normal IP address could not gain admittance. So if you’re at school or in a public library, or even at some places of business, and you just have to visit FilthyWasteofTime.com and do some “research”, one of the free proxies listed at Open Proxy Network will let you browse there anonymously.
Not surprisingly, there is no sign of the identity of the proprietors of Open Proxy Network–always a sign to me that the operators are not fully accountable for the site and the service it provides. But then again, these guys obviously are really into secrecy.
Verdict: I had no way to test Open Proxy Network because my IP address is not blocked by any site. Still, I recognize the usefulness of this site to people who want to surf with complete anonymity. Will Open Proxy Network rack up billions of hits in 2009? Probably not.
At Woopid you can watch training video for various tech products–software, Internet services and some devices like the iPod. For instance you can learn how to manage and sync your files with SugarSync or how to build a presentation with PowerPoint. The site offers training videos for PC and Mac applications and services. Woopid organizes its videos in bundles: you can easily find and watch ten videos about using your iPod or managing your photos. You can also search the entire Woopid library for specific videos.
Verdict: In general the Woopid site is well organized and the videos are short, to the point, and helpful, even if there aren’t as many of them as at similar tech training sites, like Lynda.com. But Woopid has one definite advantage: It’s free.
“Another site I stumbled upon that I could see being very useful is Embedr,” writes reader svenski. “The problem with video hosting sites nowadays is that they aren’t compatible. If you have uploaded 10 videos to YouTube, 10 videos to Vimeo, and 10 videos to Blip.tv, you can’t have a uniform user experience when you embed them on your site.” Well said. I immediately liked Embedr because it appears to address a significant pain point in managing online video: videos are posted at YouTube and Vimeo and Yahoo and MySpace and about a million other places on the web–all in different players and formats. You can make playlists of videos at YouTube, but, as svenski points out, what if you want to watch a set of videos hosted by several different sites, in quick succession?
Embedr lets you make custom playlists by inserting the embed codes of videos from virtually any video site, stitches the videos together in one standard (and clean-looking) player, and posts the whole thing at your blog, web site or MySpace page. It’s a great way to put together a greatest hits package of music videos or to reassemble a movie video posted in 10 parts at Google Video.
Verdict: Embedr is not a world-beater, but video enthusiasts will find a bunch of good uses for the free tool beyond the ones mentioned above. A good idea well-executed. The developers also get extra points for posting a funny FAQ page.
“Just discovered TwitR.me, they describe themselves as Cross Social Network Messaging,” writes reader glueglme. “Sounds a like a Twitter Picture, Ask Twitter, Twitter Video, Twitter Maps, Twitter Bots, Twitter Private Group, Twitter Search, Twitter Tiny URL, if they execute it will be something to write about.” After reading that, my expectations for TwitR.Me were naturally pretty high.
TwitR.me is an ambitious little app. The idea behind it is to act as a translation center for different kinds of messaging. In other words, after you sign in with OpenID (your Gmail, Yahoo or Facebook username and password, for example), you can set up a group of friends and then communicate with that group through TwitR.me using e-mail, SMS, Twitter, or chat apps; you can even attach sound or image files to those messages. Group members can tell TwitR.me how they want messages conveyed to them. For instance, Twitter might be the best way to reach Bob, while Sally might be more of an e-mail person. All of this preference data is designed to rid you of the hassle of switching among several apps to communicate with your friends. TwitR.me also has a search page that displays tweets containing your keyword on a map of the word. I tested it by punching in “South by Southwest” and saw people from all over the world discussing the upcoming music conference on Twitter.
Verdict: TwitR.me is a broad application; it seems to do a little of everything. And in my somewhat limited testing of it, it seemed to deliver what it promised. Real-time communications like micro-blogging and IM are already headed toward mainstream use; as they move further up the acceptance curve, translator apps like TwitR.me may end up addressing the immediate needs of a lot of people. I’m giving this application “best in show” honors.
“ Tweetmeme is better than Tweetag,” writes reader govtrust. (If I had encountered a reader comment like that five years ago, I would have thought the aliens had taken over.) Staying with the Twitter theme, Tweetmeme is a far simpler app that TwitR.me. Tweetmeme goes out and reads all of the links on Twitter, determines which ones are the most-clicked, and then categorizes the links based on whether they are links to blogs, videos, images, or audio files. The app tells you how many times a link has already been tweeted, and offers you a button that makes it easy to tweet about the same link yourself.
Verdict: The app looks nice, explains exactly what it does, and does it well. I don’t think this will be a hugely popular app, though, because the one trick it does could easily be built into other Twitter-based apps–like TwitR.me, for example.
Reader felbero09 says: “Was just wondering where are the social networks for learning new languages? I am user of www.busuu.com, and it helps me a lot to improve my Spanish! For sure this is going to be a big trend in 2009!” Okay! Thank you! I agree!
The idea of using Web 2.0 tools to make learning new languages less boring and more social is far from new. Many other sites, like the well-known Livemocha and RosettaStone have employed social networking features. A large number of smaller e-learning sites, like Lang-8.com, have popped up in the last few years, as well. So Busuu isn’t doing anything new, and it has a lot of competition. Perhaps the highlight of Busuu is its proprietary video chat application, which you can use to talk to “native speakers” in other countries.
Verdict: I like this site. It’s well-designed and easy to use. But the e-learning market isn’t so big that it can support the many sites that already exist. I did a Google search for “I want to learn Spanish” and Busuu finally showed up on page eleven of the search results, after ten pages full of competing sites. Is Busuu’s approach sufficiently different (and eye-catching) that it can emerge from the crowd in 2009? Answer: I’m not seeing it.
I included Tripit as one of my picks as a site that will matter in 2009, which may have prompted a note from a reader suggesting NileGuide. Like Tripit, NileGuide is a trip planner: it provides tools for booking flights (a widget that searches for flights at sites like Orbitz, Priceline, and Kayak), and for building a customized itinerary to use on your trip. Like PlanetEye and Lonely Planet, NileGuide claims to go a bit further, using recommendations by clued-in “local experts” to suggest cool things for you to do on your trip.
To test it, I punched in San Francisco, where I live, and where NileGuide is located. I found many of the recommendations to be standard tourist fare (Palace of Fine Arts, Fisherman’s Wharf), along with some pretty expensive ($70) Segway tours of places like San Francisco’s famously crooked Lombard Street and (again) Fisherman’s Wharf. I got better results when searching for local eateries; NileGuide’s local experts had unearthed some of SF’s better and lesser-known attractions, like Bernal Heights’ Blowfish Sushi and Potrero Hill’s Slo Club. When you find something you want to do, you select it; NileGuide then adds the item to your personalized trip plan. You do the same thing with your travel and lodging arrangements.
After you’ve made all of your selections, you can view everything on a customized itinerary–in list, calendar, or map mode. You can print out a hard copy of it, too, or view it online.
Verdict: Though I had mixed feelings about the food and things-to-do recommendations at NileGuide, I was impressed with the utility of the itinerary builder, and the breadth of information it handles. If the operators of this site promote it well, Nile Guide could emerge as a strong competitor to sites like Tripit, PlanetEye, and Lonely Planet.
So that’s about it. This was a fun story to write; I truly enjoyed taking a close look at some of the sites PC World readers are discovering. Keep ’em coming!