Writer’s Block: My Favorite Apps

What are your favorite web or mobile apps? Which ones do you use everyday?

Live Journals Writer’s Block

Web applications are things that can either be awesome or truly disappointing, most fall some where in between for one reason or another. In particular, there support for sane web browsing ;).

From the apps I use every day, I would have to say that my favourite is Google Web Search, if that actually counts :-P. The reason being, Google uses a nice AJAX system for suggesting search terms—which can be helpful when you’re not sure exactly what you’re gonna type next. On top of that, the search results are often excellent (in proportion to your query terms). unlike some sites hosting web search engines, Google doesn’t try to be an all in one portal — it’s just a search engine! With lovely tabs to other resources ;). Microsoft/Bing has even gone this wrote as well. For those that want a more portal like page, you can build your own with iGoogle personalised pages instead of relying on a generalised one (Ala MSN classic).

In terms of web apps, in the more modern rich user experience sense, I’m not sure if I really do have a favourite. Every day, I use Googles Mail, Groups, and Talk (XMMP) systems; several flavour of phpBB and vBulletin forum; not to mention extensive utilisation of Wikimedia and Reference.com (from ask.com) services. Perhaps, Google Mail, Docs, and Reader are the modern web apps that I favour the most. I like them, because Google takes a more minimalist yet distinctive approach to developing their apps, yet they are often fully featured. Google Reader for example, the only areas for improvement I can see, is support for themes and even more optimization for speed; nether of which are required to enjoy the experience.

Lately, I’ve been using rtm, which is arguably the best designed web app created to date! It combines all the attractiveness of a good web app, into an easy to use — self documenting package. Complete with keyboard shortcuts! The ability to integrate both GTalk and RTM into GMail with ease, is a massive perk.

To few web apps these days realise that the old school design rules still ring on home. Revised, I would say these are what most people forget:

  1. Users have more to do in their lives, then just run your stupid app
  2. It’s shouldn’t (strictly) be necessary to visit the website to use it
  3. If it looks like an app, it should act like an app not something alien
  4. It shouldn’t matter what browser is, as long as it follows the standard

Point 1 is something the folks at RealPlayer and PlayXpert should really take to heart, seriously now!

While point 2, is best exemplified by software such as RTM and GMail—both integrate quite well into other websites, and in Googles case, to most desktop software.

The third point being, if it looks like a program, it should act like one: the fact that it’s running inside a web browser that is using a desktop widget toolkit, instead of running stand alone in a desktop widget toolkit, shouldn’t matter very much—learn about the principle of least astonishment, and take it to heart!

Fourth, brings to mind a time that I stopped by a Yahoo! video page when responding through a thread in forums.pcbsd.org. The result was humorous: Yahoo told me that my Operating System (FreeBSD) and Web browser (Firefox) were upsupported, suggested that I download a supported browser like IE or Firefox, then went on to proclaim that I was missing Windows Media Player and Adobe Flash plugins, never mind the fact that my web browser is configured to use the MPlayer plugin to handle Windows Media 8=). I assume their website has changed for the better in the years following: but it shows an important lesson. Don’t blacklist usability, smartlist accessibility. If it’s unsupported, downgrade intelligently and warn the user unobtrusively that their setup is missing XYZ functionality, don’t just send them to /dev/null because they don’t meet your expectations of Joe & Jane user.

If people did that in a desktop program, like Microsoft Office, a company might go out of business or lose market share to wiser competitors ^_^. Sheesh, I wonder how many ignorant webmonkies have used user agent detection or faulty CSS files when wiser work arounds were (and are) available.

One reason that I often favour Googles web applications, they tend to work well and stay the hell out of my way. I’ve yet to see any of them do anything truly stupid or grandiosely insulting.