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11 Amazing Apps Of 2012

Here are 11 applications that mattered in 2012 -- and a hint at what's to come. Each underscores meaningful software trends.

 12 Best iPhone, iPad Apps Of 2012
12 Best iPhone, iPad Apps Of 2012
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Looking back over 2012, there was a lot of software released -- more than any one person could evaluate. So picking eleven applications -- including everything from mobile apps to complete operating systems -- and arguing that they're more important than any other applications this year is largely an exercise in vanity.

Yet these eleven represent something significant, although there are justifications for other choices. Among the many important apps released in 2012, this group deserves attention. In some cases, they're a sign of things to come; in other cases, they're holdovers from the past. But they're all worthy bits of code that underscore meaningful trends.

1. Mozilla Popcorn Maker
Mozilla is best known for its Firefox Web browser, but its most compelling release of 2012 was Popcorn Maker, a tool for altering, enhancing and adding interactivity to Web video. It's important because it further democratizes video as a means of communication. It's open source. Services like YouTube, Vimeo, and the like have lowered the bar for video distribution, but editing and altering existing video has remained a somewhat demanding task. Popcorn Maker makes altering existing video, particularly as a means of comment and critique, much easier. It should help enrich the visual vocabulary of those who aren't yet video professionals.

2. Google Now
Introduced as part of Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean), Google Now represents a working example of the intelligent agents that computer scientists have been predicting for decades. The software surfaces relevant information to the user based on his or her activities and location. Think of it as a cross between search suggestions and Siri. It can, for example, tell you when to leave your current location based on known traffic and the distance to your destination. It's far from perfect, but it works well enough to make the notion of smart agent software a bit less laughable. And with Google having just hired futurist Ray Kurzweil, you can be sure there will be more machine learning and artificial intelligence in the company's upcoming software.

[ Google's Nexus 10 tablet does not disappoint. For more, see Google Nexus 10: My First Month. ]

3. Apple iTunes 11
An aesthetic improvement over previous versions, Apple's app for managing and selling content on its devices remains a source of contention. Some users hate it; others like it fine, but there's no doubt it's a holdover from the desktop era. It poses as an app that empowers users by helping them manage their content across Mac OS computers and connected iOS devices. But it's a gatekeeper that limits how many times you can burn music playlists to CDs and controls app installations. With iCloud, it has become redundant. Apple should either separate the e-commerce and file management functions of iTunes into two distinct apps -- the Mac App Store app doesn't duplicate Finder functions -- or it should provide an e-commerce API that allows any online store to create a plugin for in-app content purchasing (this applies to iPhoto too).

4. Windows 8
Microsoft's future depends largely on the fate of Windows 8 and on how its operating system software fares on mobile devices. Initial adoption appears to be slower than anticipated, but Microsoft's business customers tend to wait before upgrading and consumers appear to be daunted by the estimated two-week learning curve. Sooner or later, they'll warm to Windows 8. Apple and Google will make small gains, but Microsoft can count on a long half-life as its desktop hegemony decays. Most computers still run Windows in some form or another and they will probably continue to do so in most cases. It will just take a while for Microsoft's Windows juggernaut to get up to speed.

5. Incredipede
More games are released every year than anyone could possibly play. But wonderful, thought-provoking games are few and far between. Incredipede is one such game. Like other noteworthy indie games such as Braid, Super Meat Boy, and the World of Goo, Incredipede exists at the intersection of entertainment and art. In contrast to the soulless commercialism of social games and websites, Incredipede is authentic, quirky fun.

6. Kinect for Windows
Microsoft's motion-capture and control system for Windows computers consists of both hardware and software. It's intended for developers at the moment, but it provides a clue to where computing is headed. Along with soon-to-be released peripherals like the Leap Motion sensor, Kinect for Windows is helping to define device interaction beyond the mouse-dominated desktop.

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.

10. Brackets
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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