Here are 11 applications that mattered in 2012 -- and a hint at what's to come. Each underscores meaningful software trends.
7. Google Maps for iOS
Apple's PR boilerplate declares that the company "reinvented the mobile phone with its revolutionary iPhone and App Store, and is defining the future of mobile media and computing devices with iPad." But its track record with software applications and cloud services has been less impressive lately. Its home-grown Maps app for iOS, which dropped Google as a data supplier, has been an embarrassment. When Google launched its own Maps app in December, some 10 million iOS users downloaded the app in only two days. Google Maps for iOS matters because it demonstrates that data quality trumps platform control. It offers hope that today's tech giants will continue to compete on the basis of product quality rather than platform advantage.
8. Firefox OS
While Apple struggles to maintain its leadership in the smartphone market, Mozilla is planning to join the fray with a smartphone operating system of its own, Firefox OS. Through it won't have much of an impact in terms of U.S. sales in 2013 -- the target market is low-end phones outside the U.S. -- Firefox OS is hugely important to the smartphone market as a hedge against proprietary temptations. With Google and Microsoft pursuing vertical integration strategies in the mobile market similar to Apple's, there's a risk that the smartphone leaders will limit innovations from outsiders like Mozilla. So Mozilla needs a platform of its own, one that's based on open Web technologies. And Internet users need this platform too, if only to keep the established players honest.
9. AdBlock Plus for Android
Advertising is wonderful because it pays for all manner of online content. Advertising is awful because it consumes bandwidth, presents a security risk, degrades performance, demands attention, and generally gets in the way. Advertising companies may not want you to block their ads, but they force users to defend themselves through their bad behavior and unethical data grabs. When marketers demand too much -- as Instagram did when it claimed the right to monetize user photos -- users have an obligation to assert their right to privacy and to not be fleeced for data. The availability of ad-blocking software for Android ensures that ad-supported business models are not the only option for mobile devices. It ensures that some mobile services will need to attract paying clients rather than relying on ads and data obtained without real user content. And paying customers can expect and demand more respect.
Brackets is an open source code editor for the Web. It matters because it shows that Adobe can still produce relevant, innovative software -- the commercial version of Brackets is known as Adobe Edge Code -- and because the Web as a platform needs better tools. Apple, Google, and Microsoft all express enthusiasm for the Web, but each has shown more interest recently in native code for their mobile platforms. Adobe, left without a chair when the Flash fanfare stopped, has had to reinvent itself as an enterprise marketing company and to transition its shrink-wrapped software business into the cloud. Its continued survival keeps the Web healthy too -- Mozilla may carry the torch for the open Web, but it needs all the allies it can find.
11. Silent Circle
Many governments, including the U.S. government, would prefer to be able to monitor all communications all the time, ostensibly as a matter of security. In practice, most governments have something close to this ability, but too often they abuse their powers. The ability to communicate securely is a matter of personal security, privacy and business necessity. Silent Circle provides technology to make secure communication possible, in the form of an iOS app. The security business runs on snake oil much of the time, but Silent Circle appears to be different. It's run by people with a proven commitment to secure communication, like PGP creator Phil Zimmermann, Mike Janke and John Callas.
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