Every December I list out my top technology products. This tradition dates back to 2004, when I began posting these lists onto ReadWrite (the tech blog I founded). This year I did it a bit differently, by posting one pick per day onto my Facebook, Google+ and Twitter accounts. I’m now posting the full list here on my personal blog, RicMac.
My top tech product of 2013 is Evernote, my “external brain.” This is the third year in a row that Evernote, the all-purpose note taking app, has been my top product. It was my #1 in 2012 and 2011. I also had it in my unranked top 10 of 2010, the first year that I did a personal list.
I love Evernote so much because it’s where I organize all of my work life and much of my personal life too. This year Evernote has been home for my research and notes for the book I’ve been writing. That includes planning, creating the book’s structure, storing interview notes, saving webpages as background research, organizing chapters, and much more. I can access this information – and add to it – across all my Internet devices. I often review it on my iPhone while having a coffee, for example.
If you’re interested in more background about Evernote, check out this two-part interview I did with Evernote CEO Phil Libin a few years ago: part 1 and part 2. Perhaps it’s my fascination with the power of technology to augment humanity, but this quote from Phil was irresistible to me: “The basic idea was really simple. We figured that no one is really fully satisfied with our normal brains, with our normal memory. Everyone wants a better brain. And a few years ago, it looked like technology was finally at a point where it would be viable to try to build a service to be your secondary brain – your external brain.”
While writing my book about consumer health technology this year, I’ve come to know and love a number of health tech products. Five of them made it into my top 10 products of 2013. My top health pick is MyFitnessPal, a smartphone app that enables you to track the food you eat. MyFitnessPal has actually been around since 2005, when it launched as an online calorie counter. But it only began to ramp up after the launch of its iPhone app in December 2009. Since then MyFitnessPal has become the dominant “calorie counter” app, with 40 million users.
The best thing about MyFitnessPal is its comprehensive food database, which means that most of the time you won’t need to manually enter nutrition data. It breaks down the nutrition content by carbohydrate, fat and protein – I found that very useful when I started a low-carb diet in March. You can also get data about sugar, salt, vitamins and more. As with Fitbit, I don’t use MyFitnessPal all the time. But when I do want to watch what I eat, this little app is incredibly handy.
Two of my top 10 tech products of the year are from startups that took advantage of Google’s infamous “spring clean” (a.k.a. shutting products it no longer deemed necessary – never mind the fact that millions of people had come to rely on them). Mention, my #10, was an excellent replacement for Google Alerts. Likewise, Feedly came up with the goods in the RSS Reader category, after Google closed its very popular Google Reader.
Many people – myself included – complained bitterly when we heard the news in March that Google would close its Reader. Especially since Google had extinguished most of the competition, so there was little innovation in the RSS Reader market at that time. However, after Google reader was “powered down” (Google’s term) at the beginning of July, thankfully innovation began to happen again. Startups jostled to replace Google Reader, which was good news for us consumers. Feedly was my personal pick to replace Reader and it hasn’t disappointed. Its user interface is fresher and its mobile apps far superior to what Google had offered. Best of all, there is a lot of innovation happening! You only need to look at the highly active Feedly blog to see that this company cares (as a comparison, Google Reader’s closure announcement in March was the first time its blog had been updated since October 2011!).
Well done Feedly for not only saving the RSS Reader for millions of us, but improving it too. I should mention that other startups deserve praise too for stepping up – Digg, Newsblur, The Old Reader, and others. But Feedly got my premium subscription and was the choice of many other RSS fans too.
This year I’ve been writing a book about consumer health technology. The Fitbit activity tracker is the subject of one of the chapters and it ended up being my second-favorite health tech product of 2013. I didn’t wear it all the time, by any means. But for the few months that I did track my activity, I found the clip-on Fitbit One a useful device. At first, it showed me how little activity I did during the day, being a desk-bound writer. That motivated me to do more walking, such as down to my local cafe after lunch or on the foreshore in the evening. I kept tracking until I found the right balance between my daily activity, my food intake, my work, and so on.
I’ll return to activity tracking again soon, to check how I’m doing or if I make a big change to my lifestyle (for example change my diet). When that time comes, I may give Fitbit’s latest device – the Flex wristband – a go. Finally, a thumbs up to Fitbit’s website, which has excellent graphing functionality and the ability for premium users to export their data.
To misquote Lou Reed: Despite Thom Yorke’s computations, you could dance to the Spotify stations… Because from a consumer point of view, Spotify is the best thing to happen to music in a long time. You can explore the back catalogue of great artists, discover new music via apps like ‘Any Decent Music?’ and the Pitchfork app, listen to your favourite music at a 320 kbps bitrate (more than enough to hear the subtleties, with a pair of slick headphones), and much more. In a word, Spotify rocks.
On the down side, Radiohead’s frontman (amongst others) is angsty with Spotify about how little musicians get paid from it. I certainly want musicians to get paid and I must admit to buying less albums these days due to Spotify. So hopefully 2014 sees solid progress on the business side. But in 2013, Spotify delivered for music fans at least.
Withings is an Internet-connected scale that uploads your weight readings to the Web, where you can graph them, analyze the data, and so on. The top of the line Withings scale is grandly named the “Smart Body Analyzer.” It not only measures weight, but heart rate and (rather incredibly) air quality!
I must confess that I don’t actually own a Withings scale, as I have the competing Fitbit Aria scale. I use the Fitbit activity tracker, so I’d been hooked into Fitbit’s ecosystem (tech companies are clever like that). However, one of the characters in my upcoming book uses a Withings scale and she swears by it. The Withings scale was the original Internet scale on the market, beating the Aria by nearly 3 years. Feature-wise, the Withings scale is more impressive than the Aria too. So when it comes time to upgrade my scale, Withings will be my pick.
If it had executed better in 2013, 23andMe would be much further up my top tech list. Personal genomics is a really important technology and 23andMe practically has a monopoly on it. But the Silicon Valley company has done a poor job of making the results of its tests useful and usable. To top it all off, in late November we discovered that it’s been stalling the FDA and got served with a warning letter as a result.
Despite these issues, 23andMe is still one of my favourite technology companies. It’s the only direct-to-consumer DNA test left, after its main competition was acquired and shut down. So ultimately, I’m very glad I have my DNA results through 23andMe – even if I have struggled to make sense of them. I do hope that 23andMe is in my top 3 tech at the end of next year, because society needs the kind of healthcare insights that only genetics can provide.
I wanted to have at least one blogging or writing tool in my best tech products of the year. There was no shortage of innovation in this market in 2013; Medium, Byword, and a smartphone app called Drafts were just a few that impressed me. But the one I chose helped me the most as a writer this year. It’s not just for long-form writing either; this product can be used for blogging, notetaking, organizing projects, presentations, and more. It’s called Fargo and was created by blogging pioneer, Dave Winer.
Fargo is an “outliner,” an online text editor that organizes information in a hierarchy. I used Fargo this year to help me structure the chapters in my book – i.e. deciding what went where. Dave Winer himself uses Fargo to write his long-running blog, Scripting.com. It’s a free tool, so check it out if you’re looking for some structure in your life!
As I’ve been writing a book about self-tracking this year, I kept a close eye on smartwatch news in 2013. However this market hasn’t been fully realized yet and my guess is that it won’t be until Apple launches its rumored iWatch. In the meantime, the crowdfunded Pebble Smartwatch is the pick of the bunch.
I got a Pebble in May and played with its early apps. I didn’t find it compelling enough – functionally or visually – to wear for very long. If it had been more appealing out of the box, for example better apps, then I’d put the Pebble further up my year-end list. Nevertheless, for being the first decent smartwatch on the scene and for encouraging a third party platform of apps, the Pebble deserves a place on my top 10.
When Google axed its RSS feeds for Google Alerts in July, like many geeks I was pissed off. Google Alerts was by far the best way to track topics on the Web. For example, if you wanted to keep up with the latest news about diabetes cures (which I did/do), then you set up a search for that in Google Alerts and you got a steady stream of updates in your RSS Reader. OK, Google Alerts was probably most used for ego searches… Anyway, when Google decided to remove the RSS feeds and just provide email notifications, it essentially crippled the product. Who uses email to track anything these days? [Note: Google Alerts quietly added back RSS feeds in September, but by then I’d moved on.]
Enter the French startup Mention, a “media monitoring” service which enabled Google Alerts users to import their alerts. With a snazzy user interface and – most importantly – RSS notifications, Mention has become the go-to product for topic trackers now. It has a limited free offering, before asking you to stump up money. But it’s a startup and needs revenue, so all power to them.
There you have it, my top 10 tech products of the year. Happy Christmas everyone and here’s to an innovative, exciting 2014!