3 Apps That Made My Life Better in 2012

Lots of apps over-promise, under-deliver, and then fade into oblivion. Inc.com columnist Minda Zetlin highlights three with staying power.

I'll admit it, I like technology. I'm often happy to try out a new app or device. It's always fun, but of course the purpose of most new technology is more than that. It's supposed to make our lives or our work easier or better in some way.

How often does that actually happen? Not often, at least in my world. The hot new technology works, but it's glitchy so I can't depend on it. Or it doesn't work well with the technology I already use. Or it's handy but doesn't make a big difference. Then, once in a while, I encounter something that truly makes things easier, or lets me do something I couldn't do before. Enough to make a real, lasting difference.

It only happens rarely, few enough times to count on one hand in a typical year. When it does, it feels a lot like falling in love.

Here are three (not necessarily new) applications that made a difference for me in 2012:

1. Buffer

If you're an entrepreneur (such as a freelance writer) you ignore social media at your peril. Heaven knows I've written enough about it to know this. But actually using social media consistently is tough for me--my natural tendency is a flurry of activity followed by lengthy periods of silence while I'm absorbed in other projects.

Then someone told me about Buffer. Buffer allows you to schedule posts and tweets, and by default will publish them at times its algorithms find they'll have the most impact. But that's the least of its benefits. It has Windows, Android, and iOS versions. (With desktop and laptop Windows computers, an Android tablet and an iPhone, I need all three.) Each of these allows me to easily add a Web page from my browser to my Twitter stream, Facebook timeline, or both at once. It sends me gentle email reminders when my queue of tweets (or "buffer") is empty.

But what really has me hooked on Buffer is its analytics, which give me a handy list of my tweets and Facebook posts and shows me the impact they had. For instance, it shows that when I tweeted recently about the proposal that news organizations share reporting with each other to avoid overwhelming Newtown residents, 989 people clicked on the link.

Buffer's combination of convenience and positive reinforcement finally helped me get my social media act together. At least most of the time. When multiple deadlines strike at once, I still go silent occasionally.

2. Google Maps

When iOS 6 came out last summer, I wrote that I was sticking with iOS 5 for my iPhone in order to hang onto Google Maps. I've never been happier with a decision. I've used Google Maps for years (so have you, I'm sure) to create back-up driving directions for the GPS in my car, calculate how long it will take to get from one place to another, look for local businesses and so on. But, thanks to the GPS, I'd never used it to actually get around.

Then in November, I found myself on a trip to Berkeley, San Francisco, and points in Silicon Valley. Knowing that parking during part of the trip would be a challenge due to local events, I decided against renting a car. I was resigned to swallowing some hefty cab fares instead. Then I discovered Google Maps' amazing ability to tell me how to get from point A to point B on public transportation--and even exactly when the next bus would arrive and how long the trip would take. Using BART, the bus system, and even one trolley (I just couldn't resist) to get where I was going was inexpensive and fun and probably quicker than calling and then waiting for taxi transport. And I could never have done it using Apple Maps.

Apparently Apple got the message because a month after my trip, Google Maps finally became available on iOS 6 devices--and upgrades suddenly spiked. Guess I wasn't the only skeptic.

3. Gesture typing on Jelly Bean

While on my California trip, I happened to drop my 7-inch Android tablet on the tile floor of a French bistro (recommended by my Inc.com editor, incidentally). In a perhaps related event, the thing stopped working completely a day or two after I got home--three weeks past the end of its warranty. I didn't entirely mind though: I wanted to try out the Google Nexus 7 which is a first in several ways: The first hardware product branded Google (though made by Asus); The first tablet to carry Google's most-favored Nexus name, and the first device with the Jelly Bean (Android 4.1) operating system. Google made much of its "Project Butter"--giving Android a smooth operating feel, and indeed the experience is pleasantly... buttery. But the real magic for me is gesture typing, Jelly Bean's new ability to let a user write by sliding a finger around the keyboard from one letter to another.

I've always loved the 7-inch tablet size: I don't want to hold up or carry around a 10-inch tablet and the original iPad seemed to me better suited as an assault weapon than a "mobile" device. The bugaboo has always been text entry. Typing on a touch screen, especially a 7-inch one, is awkward. I'm not comfortable speaking sentences and punctuation and since I often use my tablet while hanging around with my husband I'd be likely to drive him crazy with speech-to-text. External keyboards, Bluetooth or otherwise, add a layer of complication and bulk and... the whole point of a tablet is to avoid that. Plus, you have to rest them on a table or desk, another thing the tablet would otherwise avoid. By default, my standard practice was to answer emails on my tablet when I could do it in a sentence or two, and save the rest for a longer reply when at my desk.

Then came Jelly Bean and gesture typing and, well, I'm in love. Swooping my finger around the screen and letting Google uncannily guess what word I have in mind turns out to be effortless and even kind of fun. I found myself writing longer emails. I'd been about to order a case/keyboard combo for the Nexus 7, but I'm not sure I need it. I even drafted my recent post about a pink toolbox entirely on my tablet while riding a commuter train from upstate New York to and from New York City for a holiday party--time I might otherwise have spent napping or playing a video game. Now that's making my life better!

How about you? What technologies made the biggest difference to your life this past year?

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