By Michael Calore 12.30.08
Every year, we see scores of innovations trickle onto the web —
everything from new browser features to cool web apps to entire
programming languages. Some of these concepts just make us smile, then
we move on. Some completely blow our minds with their utility and
ingenuity — and become must-haves.
For this list, we’ve compiled the most truly life-altering nuggets
of brilliance to hit center stage in 2008: the ideas, products and
enhancements to the web experience so huge that they make us wonder how
we got along without them.
Nitpickers will notice that a couple of these technologies arrived
two or three years ago. Others aren’t even fully baked yet. But each
innovation on our list reached a level of maturity, hit the point of
critical mass, or stepped in to fill a burning need during 2008 that
resulted in it significantly changing the landscape of the web.
Here’s to the technologies currently making the web a better place than it was 12 months ago.
Few things carry more value than your digital identity, and yet most
web users have only a tenuous grasp of it. That’s because on the social
web, identity is no longer just who you are. It’s who you know, how you
know them and how much you want them to know about you. On the web,
your identity is explicitly tied to your relationships, both with your
friends and with the websites you visit.
These ID systems all offer a way to take control of your social
capital, that cache of “friend data” you carry with you as you sign up
for and use different web services. They also all offer a more tangible
advantage — an easy way to log in to any website using one set of
credentials. You get one virtual ID card that gives you access to
hundreds of websites. As a bonus, you don’t have to go through the
painful process of filling out a profile and adding or approving
friends on every new blog, community or social network you want to join.
The end of 2008 saw a flurry of activity around identity. Facebook
Connect, which currently lets you log in to a few dozen high-profile
websites using your Facebook ID, went live
the first week of December. Google’s Friend Connect and MySpace’s
MySpaceID, similar systems that aren’t yet as widely adopted, launched soon after it.
There’s a hitch, though. Facebook Connect, while elegant and easy to
use, is built on proprietary code and isn’t compatible with the
offerings from Google and MySpace, which are built using OpenID and
other open source standards.
We should expect this battle for your personal data play out over
the next year, maybe longer. But 2008 will be remembered as the year
that identity stepped into the spotlight.
One of the most important technologies on this list doesn’t fully
exist yet — HTML 5 — but in 2008, key features started to trickle out.
will eventually replace HTML 4.01, the dominant programming language
currently used to build web pages. But the governing bodies in charge
of the web are still drafting the details, and nobody expects HTML 5 to
fully emerge as the new standard for at least a few more years.
But HTML 5 is no vaporware. Many of the changes to the way the web
operates as outlined in early versions of the new specification are already being implemented
in the latest browsers, and some of the web’s more adventurous site
builders are already incorporating HTML 5’s magic into their pages.
HTML 5 will be great step forward, standardizing things like
dragging and dropping elements on web pages, in-line editing of text
and images on sites and new ways of drawing animations. There’s also
support for audio and video playback without plug-ins, a boon
for usability and a worrisome sign for Adobe’s Flash, Microsoft’s
Silverlight and Apple’s QuickTime. The language will also give a boost
to web apps, as there are new controls for storing web data offline on
your local machine.
Want Gmail on your desktop? HTML 5 makes it possible. Alas, the blink tag isn’t invited to the party.
A new breed of social app has arisen to help us manage the mess of information overload — the lifestream.
Not long ago, keeping track of your friends on the internet was
pretty easy. Everyone belonged to Friendster or MySpace and that was
it. Now, the web is littered with thousands of social sites, each with
its own special purpose — Flickr for photos, Last.fm for music, Twitter
for tweeting. Even the most rudimentary services are tied to the social
web. Renting a movie, buying a book or writing a blog post? Let all
your friends on Netflix, Amazon and Blogger know about it.
Keeping tabs on your friends now is all too easy and all too much, all at once.
Sites like FriendFeed, Plaxo Pulse and Digsby
serve as social-network-activity aggregators. They’re like virtual
funnels. Dump in all the notifications, feeds and updates from your
various networks, and the services will bring it all into one master
stream, relieving you of the responsibility of visiting a dozen or more
sites to learn what your friends are up to, what they’re listening to,
who they’re snogging and so on. Controls let you dial back the flow by
sorting and filtering the flow, pruning it down to only what matters
Many such services have emerged, but FriendFeed, an elegant and simple site designed by a crew of ex-Googlers, is our favorite.
Oh, and don’t expect to be able to add Facebook to your lifestream.
The network lets all sorts of data in, but precious little out.