From A Geek's Geek: Daniel Raffel's Favorite New Projects, Products and Features of 2009

When Daniel Raffel emailed and asked if we’d be interested in publishing his list of favorite stuff from 2009 we quickly agreed. He has worked on some of the more interesting projects in Silicon Valley over the last couple of years, and has his finger on the pulse of new technology. His post is below.

As the year winds down, I thought it would be fun to take a look back at my favorite tech launches this year. As I started assembling my list and bouncing them off friends I started to group them into the following categories: New Projects, New Products and Services, Feature Updates, and iPhone Apps. This list is an admittedly subjective batch. For instance, you’ll notice I am clearly interested in these trends: games, geo services, HTML5, identity, mobile, music, social updates, and web development. I’d love to hear what you think were exciting developments this year!

New Projects

Dive into HTML5
There are so many reasons to be excited about HTML5. Mark Pilgrim’s book illuminates many of them. When it’s finally published on paper in early 2010 it is likely going to be one of the most beautiful computer text books ever.

Music Hack Day
Get a bunch of passionate, competent technologists in a room and inspire them to hack on music projects all day, cool! While I didn’t get to personally attend the Boston event I was inspired by my friend Brian’s wrapup and Anthony’s too. Both posts contain great tips for anyone running a good, hackfest. Hope to see these events continue and look forward to attending one myself.

OAuth WRAP (Web Resource Authorization Protocol)
For a variety of situations where a developer simply wants to integrate with an API via POST the OAuth dance can a bit of a headache. OAuth WRAP is not much different than OAuth except that a client only has to pass the Access Token in the HTTP Authorization header, so it completely eliminates the need for signatures. All server-to-server WRAP calls happen via SSL. An additional benefit of eliminating signatures is that one can curl OAuth-WRAP requests without requiring any special libraries. There is an active working group fleshing out a spec and I expect to see widespread adoption of this in 2010 coming via products from the major service providers (specifically Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo!).

Started by Richard Jones, Playdar is “designed to solve one problem: given the name of a track, find me a way to listen to it right now.” While it’s definitely not ready for the general public I am very excited by the progress it has been making. And, I am looking very forward to the types of projects it is likely to enable in 2010. In the meantime, if you’re super curious checkout a few demos to see where things are starting to head.

PubSubHubbub and Simple Update Protocol
Polling feeds is no fun, it’s costly and too slow. These protocols are exciting to me because they offer novel solutions so that products depending on realtime updates can more efficiently, and quickly, aggregate update notifications.

Webfinger is an emerging standard that is being designed to return metadata for a given email address over HTTP. It could be used to publish metadata about an email address such as a URL to the user’s Profile, a link to a user’s Calendar, etc. This is strategically important for OpenID because it can be used to determine if an email address is OpenID-enabled and if so kick off the OpenID authentication flow.

New Products and Services

With more businesses moving their infrastructure to the cloud there will be a need for new tools that help businesses manage their ops. Cloudkick provides a hosted service for managing infrastructure on multiple cloud platforms. They are already managing over a hundred thousand servers. As they build in support for more and more platforms it’s a natural assumption that they will attempt to support functionality that will allow users to migrate from service to service. As an early user I have been impressed with the teams response time to issues I have encountered. While Cloudkick isn’t ready to compete head to head with Ganglia, Nagios and other popular ops projects I’m looking forward to continuing to use the service.
Technically, not launched yet, but I’ve been playing with it for a little bit. Think of it as a simple vanity site for people with either no web development chops or little interest in investing time building/hosting their own website. The default templates are very aesthetic and can be easily customized. Since there is little functionality on the site other than creating a simple, web based, business card, it’s a bit unclear how much juice they have. That said, I like how easy it is to create a public profile and share your identity with the public.

There’s a competitive aspect to Foursquare that makes it both satisfying and addictive. After using it for a few months earlier in the year I decided to abandon it because I didn’t see the point of using the service. A compulsive urge sucked me back in and I have to admit that it has led to some wonderful, serendipitous moments. I’ve taken a look at a few other competitors and frankly there isn’t a huge difference (for instance, Gowalla is prettier but I have far fewer friends on it, and it has terribly obnoxious Facebook integration). The LBS space is getting crowded with FSQ wannabe’s so I’m eager to see how they continue to evolve and add user value. It will also be interesting to see if any of these apps can build a sustainable business around them, at the moment FSQ seems best positioned with their Mayor deals/etc.

Google Chrome Browser
Ever since the beta launched for OS X I’ve been spending more and more time in this browser. It’s elegant and very fast. There are definitely missing features but honestly 85% of the time its current feature set suffices. If Firefox and Safari mated this would definitely be its more evolved offspring. I’ve had mixed luck with Chromium and installing extensions but then I have no business running nightly builds. In fact, I’m impressed with how hard they make it to find the link to nightlies, smart. I’m looking forward to bookmark syncing and non-buggy extension support in 2010. In the meantime, I’m happy with the beta – it’s great to see so much attention to detail, you don’t get there packing on every single feature you can think up.

C|Net has to be a bit worried because GDGT feels like the new place where folks are talking about tech products and figuring out what they wanna buy. There are significantly more reviews, I can quickly qualify the reputation of the contributor(s), there’s a community to ping for advice and suggestions, and there are significantly more useful stats to help me make a purchasing decision. For someone interested in making informed decisions about the gadgets they buy this is a great new resource. For those who are passionate about the gadgets they already own this is a great place to evangelize and discuss hacks/etc.

I have a tendency to enjoy making well-researched, informed decisions. So it seems natural to share what I’ve learned once I’ve invested the time and found the perfect water bottle or picked out a portable digital audio recorder. Hunch provides simple tools that make it easy to roleplay through scenarios that have already been explored by others. One might choose to think of it as a wikipedia for decisions.

It’s exciting to see a platform that enables makers to raise the funding they need to do their thing. It’s also inspiring to see so many successful projects that have already launched. There are all sorts of ways to pursue the things you’re most passionate about and Kickstarter is one more toolkit in your arsenal. BTW it also feels great to fund someone with a creative idea.

New Super Mario Bros. Wii
I probably hadn’t turned on my Wii in over a year until this game came out. The gameplay is essentially a 2D scroller that’s very similar to the original Super Mario Bros for the NES. The characters have a few new moves and the levels are significantly more creative than earlier franchises in the series. I never got tired of the original game and this version feels like it has a lot to keep me coming back for more. The multiplayer version is also very entertaining.

It’s hard to remember the last time I paid for something and had a delightful point of sale purchasing experience, but that’s exactly how I feel everytime I pay by credit card at Sightglass Coffee. The software that a customer interacts with at a Square vendor is just lovely. But, it’s the business plan (and hardware approach) that’s brilliant – Square is reducing the barrier for small businesses to setup a merchant account and providing inexpensive hardware that enables them to offer credit card services for next to nothing. I’m sold as a consumer and a small business owner. I’m very excited to see this running on more devices and in more types of sales environments in the near future. I also hope to see them explore premium readers with more advanced industrial designs, such as the Incase reader that Apple stores are already using.

Feature Updates

Android 2.0
While Android is still a bit too rough for me to consider ditching my iPhone (and 3rd party apps) for the 2.0 software update demonstrates that it’s quickly catching up to the iPhone OS. If you use multiple Google services the integration is all the more compelling. At this continued pace, 2010 is going to be a massive year for the Android ecosystem.

Apple iPhone OS 3.0
It’s rare to get excited again about a phone that you’ve had for years but the Apple iPhone OS 3.0 update included many great new features that brought my 1st gen iPhone back to life . It also rubbed in how much faster my new iPhone 3GS really was. The features I most appreciated were: cut/copy/paste, ability to create meetings via Exchange using ActiveSync, and wider use of landscape mode in a variety of apps. I’ll spare you the internet tethering gripe.

Apple Snow Leopard
I’m a big fan of doing less stuff better so I was very supportive of seeing Apple focus the majority of this release on under the hood performance enhancements. Their investments show too, I have a few older Macs around the house and upgrading to Snow Leopard freed up on average around 10gb of disk space, required less operating RAM during most common tasks, and caused all of my macs to feel a lot more responsive (fewer spinning wheels of death.) While there were basically no new features that got me excited the speed enhancements were well worth the minor upgrade costs.

Boxee Beta
While I haven’t logged significant time playing with the latest beta of Boxee the user interface changes are very promising. This is on my list of things to further investigate. It’s exciting to see innovation in both the 10-foot experience and internet TV space.

Facebook launched a number of impressive new things this year, the things that stand out the most to me are: an awesome new iPhone app, the Facebook Connect for iPhone SDK, a live streaming box for 3rd party sites, the Facebook Desktop Notifications app, and what felt like a few re-designs. It’s inspiring to see a company stay true to its original objectives and still manage to innovate.

Flickr Photo People Tagging
One of the most compelling Facebook features is the ability to tag a friend in a photo, doing so creates a viral thread that triggers a lot of clickthru’s and engagement. It was safe to assume that Flickr would eventually add similar functionality and this year they did. I was pleased to discover that people tagging on Flickr was designed with additional sensitivity around a users privacy. You can explicitly define which contacts of yours can people tag you in a photo. And, Flickr explicitly spells out what happens if you remove a photo tagged with your identity (nobody else can add it back). There’s nothing wrong with borrowing a feature a competitor has but this is an excellent example of how to add your own flavor to it.

Google Voice
GrandCentral was shutdown this year and logically rebranded as Google Voice. After being ported to the Google platform and re-launched users were given a slew of awesome new features. While I’ll admit I’m still holding out for a number portability feature I’m a fan of how disruptive they are attempting to be. And, I’m a fan of numerous enhancements they’ve shipped this year alone, some of my favorite include: voicemail to text transcription (needs more tuning), free web based text messaging, the ability to change your number, and easy steps to allow you to forward your mobile voicemail to Google.

Kindle Software Update 2.3
There’s nothing like a little competition in the ebook market to cause Amazon to add basic features to the Kindle 2 that it could (and should) have supported all along. Regardless, thanks to this software update it’s nice that my Kindle 2 now natively supports PDFs.

Firefox and Webkit Support for Geolocation APIs in HTML5
It’s very satisfying to see my browser starting to have a clue regarding where I am. While very few services are actively using this functionality today the fact that browsers now support it is wonderful!

Firefox Support for the HTML5 File API
It’s unfortunate that most webservices have to use Flash to support decent file uploading experiences. Now that Javascript can read the contents of local files web developers will have the opportunity to create more refined file sharing experiences for both online and offline applications. I’m not sure if this is currently available in Webkit but beta’s of Firefox 3.6 support it.

For the past 2 years I’ve been using Spotify as my default streaming music player and it just keeps getting better. This year I was impressed by two specific features: their massive increase in library size and their approach to the mobile experience. If you depend on the cloud for your tunes the size of the library matters. Spotify has spent the past year aggressively growing their library by tens of thousands of tracks per week. That’s much easier said than done, particularly when you’re trying to add compelling media that people actually want to listen to. I am consistently impressed when I search for something random and find they have it. While Spotify will never have absolutely everything under the sun their library consistently satisfies my very demanding appetite for both the latest releases and older classics. This year Spotify also released mobile applications that allow you to locally cache media on your phone so that you can listen to your favorite music whether or not you have a internet connection. In the year ahead I look forward to seeing how they innovate around discovery, sharing and library resolution (ie building up a list of stuff they know I already have in my local iTunes Library.)

Twitter Lists
Twitter has long had a discovery problem. Finding and surfacing what you want to follow isn’t easy. The lists feature still requires you to invest time if you want to make one but it also gives you the opportunity to track things that others have put the time into assembling (such as food carts in San Francisco or Great Chefs.) For me, the nicest part is your main feed isn’t polluted so you can casually and passively track things without adding a lot of noise.

YQL is a developer tool that treats the internet as a giant source of data. The team was on a tear this year, amongst other things they launched the execute element to enable arbitrary server-side code to run inside tables, open data tables to enable anyone to create their own API bindings for YQL, hosted storage tables to build on top of Yahoos cloud store (sherpa), and “query aliases” that let developers name their YQL queries using meaningful short names.

iPhone Apps

My data, backed up, and now available on my iPhone too. Brilliant.

A very creative puzzle game that will quickly get you addicted.

An addictive game that sets the bar very high: creative use of multitouch capabilities, beautiful graphics, innovative gameplay, and great music. Overall, an inspiring piece of work on multiple levels.

The Evernote iPhone app got a series of major updates this year that makes it an even more useful productivity tool for note taking and backup/sync.

I particularly enjoy games that you can drop into for a few minutes. This game has great graphics and a simple concept that turns out to be rather complex to master.

Tweetie 2
Super attractive Twitter client for the iPhone, lots of nice little touches.

Ever checked out a new neighborhood and wondered what property there might cost? This application is extremely interesting to launch and drive/walk around with.