Opinion: The 25 most innovative products of the year

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18. In Rainbows online album by Radiohead

Innovation: Band allows its fans to pay whatever amount they want for this new album, starting at zilch.

Benefit: Approach calls the bluff of illegal downloaders, who say they're happy to pay artists but not music studios.

The recording industry is desperate for new ideas about how to sell music. Radiohead's pay-what-you-want approach may not work for all acts -- and the band has remained mum on reports that 62% of early downloaders paid nothing for its new album -- but the strategy certainly does one thing that most music companies seem loath to do: It respects fans. And all of the voluntary fees go directly to Radiohead, not to a publisher.

19. IOGear's wireless USB hub and adapter

Innovation: USB-speed connections without cable spaghetti.

Benefit: Presents none of the flakiness and proprietary technology that hobbled previous wireless USB products.

IOGear's hub and adapter are based on an industry standard that should soon be built into laptops and other devices. Setting up IOGear's wireless USB hub and adapter ($160) was tricky, but once we had everything arranged, our data flew, thanks to its streaming, HD-capable, 250Mbit/sec. throughput. Wireless USB will become more versatile once it's built into devices.

20. Mint.com financial site

Innovation: Mint Software Inc.'s Web site aggregates your financial account transaction data, alerting you to any unusual activity or to a rapidly dwindling balance.

Benefit: Takes most of the work out of keeping on top of your money.

Signing up for Mint requires a leap of faith -- you must give the site the numbers and passwords for your bank and credit card accounts. But once you do, it acts as your personal finance lackey. Mint downloads your latest transactions for all accounts and does its best to categorize them. You decide when you want to receive an alert, such as for when a bill is due, a big purchase appears on your credit card, or you just got a nice, fat deposit.

21. Microsoft's Popfly for Web mashups

Innovation: Lets you use Microsoft Corp.'s Silverlight to create Web mashups.

Benefits: Though Popfly is still in early beta, its operation is clearer and its display is more attractive than that of the similar Yahoo Pipes tool.

If you ever played with Lego blocks as a kid, then you should be able to assemble a Web mashup in Microsoft's Popfly. No coding know-how needed -- using Popfly is as simple as choosing content sources (such as pictures, video or news feeds from various online sources) and connecting them to a display model (such as a video player, a dynamic box for text or a game of whack-a-mole that pops up pictures, for instance). Voila, you have your mashup. You can embed the resulting creation in a blog entry or Web page, or just share its URL so others can admire your work.

22. Sprint's Airave for at-home cell reception

Innovation: Delivers cheap, unlimited Internet-based calling at home through any Sprint Code Division Multiple Access handset.

Benefit: You can use your cell phone (and all of the contacts you have stored in it) as a universal phone, with better reception, while at home.

T-Mobile was first to enhance at-home cell calling with the debut of its Hotspot at Home service, but that offering requires use of one of the company's few dual-mode Wi-Fi/cellular handsets. Sprint Nextel Corp.'s device, made by Samsung ($50 with Sprint service), creates a mini-cell tower in your home to which your phone can roam. As a result, you can enjoy more convenience and even bigger savings than what you get from voice-over-IP providers such as Vonage Holdings Corp.

23. Ask.com search site

Innovation: Melds comprehensive search results more coherently than competing universal searches do.

Benefits: Proves that not every site needs to mimic Google and that a venerable search-engine company can do cool new stuff.

Ask.com, a compete redesign of the former Ask Jeeves site, asks very little but gives a lot via its thoughtfully designed interface, including search suggestions as you type. With one query, you can retrieve traditional search results as well as news, images, blogs, video and more. Once you've searched, you can filter the results with useful suggestions to home in on just what you were looking for. The site is visually minimalist, but you can skin it for a new look. If privacy is a concern, AskEraser wipes away private data that search engines typically store.

24. The eXpresso spreadsheet tool

Innovation: Allows Excel users to share their spreadsheets, online or off.

Benefit: Melds the best of traditional office software and Web-based services.

The eXpresso tool ($80 per seat per year) adds a new twist to Web applications, offering both Web-based sharing in a standard format and tight integration with the most familiar spreadsheet application, Microsoft's Excel. Users can share spreadsheets in real time using eXpresso Corp.'s service, which also allows you to restrict some users' access to certain segments of a master spreadsheet. In a nutshell, eXpresso is delivering today what Microsoft has promised that its Office suite will do in the future.

25. Kodak EasyShare all-in-one printers

Innovation: The printers are slightly more expensive, but their ink is priced more like the no-name stuff advertised around the Web.

Benefit:You can print cheaply without worrying that the cartridge will burst all over your printer.

Eastman Kodak Co.'s midlevel EasyShare printers (from $150) may seem a bit pricier at first. But when you combine one with the company's paper-and-ink packs, you can print photos for as little as 10 cents each, according to Kodak -- about half the industry average. The printer's pigment-ink system uses one black-ink cartridge and one five-ink tank; replacing them with non-photo-specific inks directly from Kodak costs just $10 and $15, respectively. We think most people will appreciate the benefit of having one source for affordable, reliable replacement ink cartridges.

Last year's innovations: The keepers and the flops

Sometimes the public embraces a product breakthrough like a long-lost friend. Other times, being innovative just isn't enough. (Remember the Apple Newton?) Maybe the company just can't find the right way to sell its idea. Or perhaps the public simply isn't ready for a new technology. With that in mind, we look back at the winners and losers among our Innovation Award picks from last year.

Keepers

Intel Core 2 Duo: Intel Corp.'s Core 2 Duo line of CPUs pumped up processing while reducing power consumption -- no mean feat. The company's launch in late 2007 of its 45-nanometer Penryn chips looks likely to extend its current lead over rival Advanced Micro Devices Inc.

Nintendo Wii: The wee, $250 Wii broke new ground with its innovative motion-sensing controller. Since then, the appeal of this still-hard-to-find console to casual gamers has helped it outsell the more powerful PlayStation 3.

Parallels Desktop for Mac: Apple's dual-boot software, Boot Camp, is now in Leopard -- great. But who wants to reboot every time they need to switch operating systems? Parallels Version 3 ($80) adds Windows gaming prowess.

Flops

Sony PlayStation 3: The long-delayed introduction of the PlayStation 3 landed it in the eighth spot in our "Top 21 Tech Screwups of 2006," and the console might be the poster child for engineering overkill: Even though the original 60GB model cost $599, analysts speculated that Sony was still losing $200 on each living-room "supercomputer." The new $399 entry-level PS3 model should make the console more popular with buyers, at least.

Sony Reader: Last year, we were wowed by this svelte e-book reader's electronic-paper display, which delivers long battery life and exhibits no flicker. The company later improved the screen with its $300 PRS-505, but the Reader has failed to become an "iPod for books."

This story, "Opinion: The 25 most innovative products of the year" was originally published by PCWorld.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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