Every year, we see scores of innovations trickle onto the web - everything from new browser features to cool web apps to entire programming languages. Some of these concepts just make us smile, then we move on. Some completely blow our minds with their utility and ingenuity - and become must-haves.
For this list, we've compiled the most truly life-altering nuggets of brilliance to hit center stage in 2008: the ideas, products and enhancements to the web experience so huge that they make us wonder how we got along without them.
Nitpickers will notice that a couple of these technologies arrived two or three years ago. Others aren't even fully baked yet. But each innovation on our list reached a level of maturity, hit the point of critical mass, or stepped in to fill a burning need during 2008 that resulted in it significantly changing the landscape of the web.
Here's to the technologies currently making the web a better place than it was 12 months ago.
Few things carry more value than your digital identity, and yet most web users have only a tenuous grasp of it. That's because on the social web, identity is no longer just who you are. It's who you know, how you know them and how much you want them to know about you. On the web, your identity is explicitly tied to your relationships, both with your friends and with the websites you visit.
Three great technologies came to fruition this year to help you manage these complex interdependencies: OpenID, Google Friend Connect and Facebook Connect.
These ID systems all offer a way to take control of your social capital, that cache of "friend data" you carry with you as you sign up for and use different web services. They also all offer a more tangible advantage - an easy way to log in to any website using one set of credentials. You get one virtual ID card that gives you access to hundreds of websites. As a bonus, you don't have to go through the painful process of filling out a profile and adding or approving friends on every new blog, community or social network you want to join.
The end of 2008 saw a flurry of activity around identity. Facebook Connect, which currently lets you log in to a few dozen high-profile websites using your Facebook ID, went live the first week of December. Google's Friend Connect and MySpace's MySpaceID, similar systems that aren't yet as widely adopted, launched soon after it.
There's a hitch, though. Facebook Connect, while elegant and easy to use, is built on proprietary code and isn't compatible with the offerings from Google and MySpace, which are built using OpenID and other open source standards.
We should expect this battle for your personal data play out over the next year, maybe longer. But 2008 will be remembered as the year that identity stepped into the spotlight.
One of the most important technologies on this list doesn't fully exist yet - HTML 5 - but in 2008, key features started to trickle out.
HTML 5 will eventually replace HTML 4.01, the dominant programming language currently used to build web pages. But the governing bodies in charge of the web are still drafting the details, and nobody expects HTML 5 to fully emerge as the new standard for at least a few more years.
But HTML 5 is no vaporware. Many of the changes to the way the web operates as outlined in early versions of the new specification are already being implemented in the latest browsers, and some of the web's more adventurous site builders are already incorporating HTML 5's magic into their pages.
HTML 5 will be great step forward, standardizing things like dragging and dropping elements on web pages, in-line editing of text and images on sites and new ways of drawing animations. There's also support for audio and video playback without plug-ins, a boon for usability and a worrisome sign for Adobe's Flash, Microsoft's Silverlight and Apple's QuickTime. The language will also give a boost to web apps, as there are new controls for storing web data offline on your local machine.
Want Gmail on your desktop? HTML 5 makes it possible. Alas, the blink tag isn't invited to the party.
A new breed of social app has arisen to help us manage the mess of information overload - the lifestream.
Not long ago, keeping track of your friends on the internet was pretty easy. Everyone belonged to Friendster or MySpace and that was it. Now, the web is littered with thousands of social sites, each with its own special purpose - Flickr for photos, Last.fm for music, Twitter for tweeting. Even the most rudimentary services are tied to the social web. Renting a movie, buying a book or writing a blog post? Let all your friends on Netflix, Amazon and Blogger know about it.
Keeping tabs on your friends now is all too easy and all too much, all at once.
Sites like FriendFeed, Plaxo Pulse and Digsby serve as social-network-activity aggregators. They're like virtual funnels. Dump in all the notifications, feeds and updates from your various networks, and the services will bring it all into one master stream, relieving you of the responsibility of visiting a dozen or more sites to learn what your friends are up to, what they're listening to, who they're snogging and so on. Controls let you dial back the flow by sorting and filtering the flow, pruning it down to only what matters most.
Many such services have emerged, but FriendFeed, an elegant and simple site designed by a crew of ex-Googlers, is our favorite.
Oh, and don't expect to be able to add Facebook to your lifestream. The network lets all sorts of data in, but precious little out.
Firefox has been around since 2004, but when version 3 of Mozilla's browser arrived in June 2008, it got everything right. Mozilla's browser is faster and more secure than ever before, and it's open source, so you get the feel-good factor, too.
One of the most highly anticipated software releases of the year, more than 8 million people downloaded Firefox 3 on the first day. Third time's a charm, indeed.
The genius bit of engineering was bringing search front and center - just type what you're looking for in the location bar, and FF3 searches your history, bookmarks and the web to bring you the page you want, lightning fast.
Performance enhancements made it one of the web's fastest browsers - especially for surfing the recent swell of web apps - and improved security features made it one of the safest.
Mozilla continues to build upon the concept with its Ubiquity add-on for Firefox, which lets you search and interact with any number of web services by typing text commands into the browser.
It's still the second-most-popular browser after Microsoft Internet Explorer by a wide margin, but Firefox 3 is the feisty favorite of the web's elite.
Its debut release in September was not expected, nor was it greeted with as much fanfare as the arrival of Firefox 3 a few months prior. But Google's browser was instantly recognized as a potential game-changer, both among browser-makers and within the world of web apps.
Chrome is a browser built to empower web applications.
Its killer feature is a new approach to page rendering that isolates web applications inside each of the browser's tabs - a crashing web app might cause a single tab to go south, but that won't affect anything outside that tab. The rest of the browser remains stable.
When you're doing mission-critical work in a web app and the browser crashes, it isn't an annoyance, it's a deal breaker. E-mails are lost, documents have to be rewritten, web forms need to be filled out again. Chrome's ability to sidestep a full crash strengthens Google's bid to replace desktop apps with its own web-based alternatives.
Chrome reached official 1.0 status in December. It's Windows-only for now, but we should expect official versions for Mac and Linux soon. It's also still very young. Future releases will have support for add-ons, offline syncing of web data through Google Desktop and - knowing Google - probably a few other bells and whistles nobody's thought of yet.
In 2008, location-based information ceased being a fancy add-on and instead became a requirement of any serious, successful web service.
Hit a button on your laptop or phone to tell a web service where you are, and it tells you what restaurants are close by, where the new Bond movie is playing (and when, and if there are tickets left), and which of your friends are within shouting distance if you need a date.
The tipping point arguably came when a wave of GPS-equipped mobile web devices hit the market. The iPhone 3G, the T-Mobile G1 and the latest Nokia N-series devices all have GPS built in. They also all have real web browsers and the tools necessary for access to web APIs, opening the door to more-relevant search and localized mobile services.
On the iPhone, you can use Yelp's app to get a list of nearby venues, restaurants and hangouts with the touch of a button. Or, in the case of Google's local-search app, you can simply speak your request and get local results. An app like Say Where queries multiple search sites.
The benefits aren't limited to mobiles, either. Social networking sites and desktop search apps can take advantage of new technologies like Yahoo's FireEagle, where users can update and store their location data, or browser plug-ins like Google Gears or Firefox's Geode, which users can set up to report their location automatically.
Whether they're using a desktop browser or an iPhone, users now demand the high levels of relevance and convenience on the web that location awareness affords.
The World Wide Web Consortium, the web's governing body, has stepped up and formed a think tank to develop a set of standards for handling users' geodata that ensures privacy and interoperability. The W3C Geolocation Working Group hopes to have its first recommendation filed by the end of 2009.
For more details, visit http://www.wired.com:80/software/webservices/news/2008/12/YE8_web?currentPage=all
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