The tech press and gadget blogosphere obsess over new products, new Web sites, new technologies and new ideas. We all love the shock of the new.
But the truth is, the very best products in this industry are new versions of old products. 1.0 releases often take bold stabs at solving existing problems. But only after a few really smart tweaks do they become ultra compelling and, in some cases, indispensable.
The most obvious example of this phenomenon is the iPhone. Apple’s original shot at smart phone greatness two years ago grabbed more attention than just about any product ever. Never mind that it lacked basic functionality nearly universal in the industry, such as copy and paste, a decent camera and third-party applications. This month’s iPhone 3GS version was probably the least hyped iPhone. But it’s orders of magnitude better and more useful than the original.
There seems to be some kind of inverse relationship between the hype a product gets and its quality. When people stop talking about something, you know it’s truly great. That’s why I’m writing this column. Some of the greatest software and services in the industry have shipped in the last few days, and others will become available in the coming weeks and months, and they’re not getting the attention they deserve.
Of course, most products get better in subsequent versions. But some get so good that they can actually enhance your career, your relationships — and your life. Here are the 6 old products perfected by brand-new improvements.
My favorite communications app of all time is Disgby. The free desktop software channels Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, LinkedIn, MSN, AIM, ICQ and Google Talk messages into its IM-style pop-up-and-chat format.
A brand-new version of Digsby hit this week, which cuts the software’s CPU usage by half. And now it supports Web search. Just hit Ctrl+F, and you get a search for buddies. But below the selected buddies are options for Google, iTunes, Wikipedia and a bunch of other sites you can search on.
Digsby actually solves the problem of having to visit a gazillion sites to check in on your peeps. Their messages come to you, and all in one place, which is nice.
Best of all, the brand-new version has been updated, optimized and tweaked to perfection.
2. Google Voice
One upon a time there was a startup called GrandCentral. The idea was a single phone number that you could print on your business cards and share with friends and family. But behind the scenes, on a Web-based app, you could change the phone actually reached via that number, either on a schedule, or on the fly. So during business hours, your single phone number called your office landline. Nights and weekends it called your cell phone. On vacation, it dialed your hotel room in Cabo.
In addition, the service promised Web-based voicemail management and transcription, SMS notification and even the ability to listen in as people left voice-mail messages with the option of jumping in and saying hi.
Well, Google bought GrandCentral two years ago, and stopped taking new customers. Behind the scenes, Google has been secretly improving and perfecting the service in anticipation of a public re-launch, which should happen any day now.
Once launched, Google Voice, as it will be called, will solve a long list of real problems. For example, you’ll be able to block phone numbers, send and receive SMS online, switch phones during a call and a lot of other useful things.
Google Voice will be a must-have service. But I’m guessing that the number of accounts will be limited, so get on the invite list now.
3. Windows 7
Windows Vista was a train wreck, but the now-finished version of Vista, called Windows 7, will be the best Windows ever when it ships in October.
Vista was a pig. But Windows 7 has been streamlined and performance-optimized. Rather than requiring more hardware power than its predecessor, it needs less. Windows 7 boots faster; is much more stable; is more customizable; has a powerful, multi-purpose search box on the Start menu; and it has a host of features that make everything faster.
Security, networking and other common chores are all much easier in Windows 7.
Best of all, surprisingly well-designed user interface enhancements will make it fun to use. These include a new Taskbar; something called Aero Snap for easily optimizing window layouts; and a whole new way for icons to appear, function and provide user feedback.
Windows 7 will be the most boring, the least talked about, and by far the best version of Windows ever. Don’t even think about not upgrading.
Evernoteis a free application and service that lets you capture everything — photos, web pages, articles, notes, sound files and more — and have them stored, sorted and indexed for search. The service is usable on the Evernote site, and also via desktop and cell phone applications.
The best new thing about this now-old service is its new Palm Pre and iPhone apps. The best trick these phone apps perform is that they let you use the camera in your phone to snap a picture from the application, which is uploaded and indexed. That means you can take pictures of signs, menus, magazines, Web sites or anything else with words in it, and Evernote will index the words inside the picture. Later, when you search Evernote, your picture will come up.
Evernote also “geotags” items, so the place where you uploaded them from is included in the meta data.
And finally, you can simply record voice notes, and Evernote will file them away with whatever project they’re associated with.
Best of all, Evernote for phones has been performance tweaked, and optimized.
Like Evernote, reQallis part Web service, part cell phone application. It’s also something you can use via a telephone even without the app. Here’s how it works in a nutshell. You set up an account. Afterwards add any information by typing it in, or speaking into your cell phone handset. If you speak, it will transcribe your words into text as if you typed it in.
What’s great about reQall, though, is that there is intelligence on the other side. For example, if you say, “call Steve Friday at 10am,” it will remind you at the time you specified. (I’ve been using this feature for months, and it has never made a mistake.) If you say, buy a loaf of bread, it will automatically add “a loaf of bread” to your reQall shopping list, which you can retrieve as a list also via voice command.
You can choose to take advantage of reQalls hooks into Microsoft Outlook, Google Calendar, Firefox and more, which make reQall even more knowing, functional and easier to use.
The cell phone applications for reQall are fantastic. But what’s really exciting is that the company will be releasing a brand new version any day now that will take reQall to a whole new level. Because it’s under a press embargo, I can’t give you details. But I can express my tentative recommendation based on my experience with the current version and my understanding of what the new version will add to that.
The combination of Evernote and reQall transform your cell phone into a second brain – and one starkly more reliable and organized than your first one.
6. Amazon Kindle (and Kindle on iPhone)
If you own an iPhone, then you own an Amazon Kindle. If you don’t own an iPhone, then you should buy an Amazon Kindle.
Thanks to the recently upgraded Kindle for iPhoneapp, you can now buy the Kindle versions of books directly from the app (before you had to use a Web browser). Also, it lets you read books in landscape mode.
Two years ago, everyone argued about whether electronic book readers were appealing enough to use, or whether books were actually readable on a cell phone. Thanks to the newest versions of the Kindle and the Kindle for iPhone, those conversations are no longer meaningful. Reading books on the free Kindle app is a joy, and at least as easy for most people as doing so on one of the Kindle devices.
Like the actual Kindle hardware, the new Kindle for iPhone app fades into the background when you’re reading, becoming invisible — the mark of a truly great and mature tech product.
These are the six old products that have been perfected to the point of indispensability by brand-new or soon-to-be-released enhancements. Make sure you try each and every one of them.