5 Digital Technologies That Improved My Life in 2008

by on November 22, 2008 · 16 comments

When people ask me why I do what I do for a living — and, more specifically, why I focus all my attention on digital media and technology policy — I often respond by showing them the new gadgets or software I am playing with at any given time.  I just love digital technology.  I am swimming in a sea of digital gadgets, consumer electronics, online applications, computing software, video games, and all sorts of cyber-stuff.

Anyway, even though this is a technology policy blog, I sometimes highlight new digital toys or applications that have changed my life for the better. As the year winds down, therefore, I thought I would share with you five technologies that improved my life and productivity in 2008. I’d also love to hear from all of you about the technologies that you fell in love with this year in case I might have missed them. Here’s my list:

#1) Naturally Speaking 10:

Nat Speak boxThanks to Nate Anderson’s outstanding review over at Ars Technica, I finally made the plunge and bought Dragon Naturally Speaking 10 earlier this month.  Wow, what a life-changer. I had played around with an earlier version of this market-leading speech recognition technology and found it somewhat clunky and unreliable. But Ver. 10, has ironed out almost all the old problems and become an incredibly sophisticated piece of software in the process. I love the way I can use simple voice commands to navigate menus in Microsoft Word and in Firefox. Perhaps best of all, I can dictate random rants into a pocket recording device and then upload them to Naturally Speaking (via a USB connection) and have them instantly transcribed. I’m even composing blog entries like this using it! Only problem is inserting HTML code; that’s still a hassle. Also, I find that switching from one input device to another definitely affects the quality of the transcription. Once you “train” Naturally Speaking using one device, it makes sense to stick with it. It’s not just the quality of the microphone; it’s also the proximity to your mouth that makes a difference. Regardless, this is one great product and, best of all, it’s should help save my rapidly-aging hands from becoming prematurely arthritic! All those years of video games and keyboards have taken their toll.

#2) Scribd:

ScribdLike many other policy wonks and academics, I’ve long been housing my papers and studies on SSRN to give them more widespread visibility or share them with others. But SSRN’s format is clunky and its functionality is extremely limited. Worst of all, it didn’t provide any embeddable code such that documents could be hosted directly within a blog post. Scribd solves all those problems for me. It’s a slick document-hosting service that is also highly searchable. It also offers up relevant documents as you are viewing others (the same way YouTube does for video). Very cool feature. Better yet, Scribd let’s you create groups for your organization or interests to collect related documents in one place. (For example, check out the PFF group page here.) Why couldn’t SSRN be more like this?!

#3) Ubiquity for Firefox:

Ubiquity“CTRL-SPACE BAR.” Thanks to Ubiquity, that keyboard shortcut has forever changed the way I use the Firefox web browser. I know this won’t seem like a big deal to some people, but for an old geek like me, I still prefer navigating some applications with keyboard shortcuts instead of using my mouse and drop-down menus. Ubiquity lets me do so in a browser environment. Basically, anytime I see something in my browser that I’d like more info about, I just run my cursor over that term, hit CTRL/SPACE and up pops a command prompt box that lets me run an inquiry of my choice. Once that box pops up, I can run a quick search about the term by just typing Google, MSN, or Yahoo and then hitting enter. Or I can map it instantly by typing “map.” Or search for an image or video related to it by typing “Flickr” or “YouTube.” Or “eBay” it. Or “Wiki” it. Or “Digg” it. And so on, and so on. Here’s lists of the command prompts at your disposal (1, 2, 3).

#4) HTC Touch (Verizon Wireless XV6900):

6900Screw the iPhone. This is little beauty can do everything the iPhone can do and do it in more compact package. This thing sits in my front shirt pocket and I often forget its there. It also has a stylus. Don’t understand how you iPhone zombies get along without one. It also has none of the silly restrictions that encumber the iPhone. I’ve downloaded more mods and apps to this thing than I know what to do with. While you iPhoners are salivating over the slim pickings at the iPhone apps store, I’m sitting on 10,000 choices to decide from over at Handango (and that doesn’t even begin to scratch the market for homebrew hacks). HTC’s TouchFlo navigation is very cool and works effortlessly with the flick of your thumb. The touchscreen keyboard wasn’t so hot, but who cares when dozens of aftermarket ones are available (I went with Resco). Same goes for the IE mobile browser, which is the weak spot of any Windows Mobile equipped device. But I solved that problem with my next choice…

#5) Skyfire mobile web browser:

skyfireThe mobile version of Internet Explorer has just never cut it, and Skyfire capitalized on that fact to produce a very slick touchscreen browser for Windows Mobile smartphones. The early beta version had some bugs, but they’ve been working those out and producing a great product in the process. Is the iPhone Safari mobile browser better? Yes, it still is. Even an Apple-hater like me will admit it.  But Skyfire is catching up quickly.

Honorable mentions

LinkedIn: Yes, I know LinkedIn has been around a couple of years, but it really took off in 2008 and made impressive improvements to become more than just the “Facebook for Old Farts” I once thought it was. I am a huge fan of the new applications they have worked into the site, especially the WordPress blog app and the Amazon books app.

Google Chrome: Although it won’t be displacing Firefox in my heart any time soon, I have come to really appreciate Chrome’s speed compared to my Firefox experience, which is now bogged down with waaaaaay too many add-ons. (So much so that it takes me well over a minute to even get Firefox to boot up!) So, I pull up Chrome and run it alongside Firefox to surf script-heavy or graphically-intensive sites (like ESPN.com) or to just keep my eMail accounts and LinkedIn page active on another screen.

  • tim

    “Don’t understand how you iPhone zombies get along without one.”

    It does not help your argument any when you insist on insulting users of another device. You arguments come off as irrational …

    Also – “stylus”?!? – what is this 1994? Its what I always hated about palm devices and thankfully touch screen technology will assign them to the discount bin. I and millions get buy without them

  • http://pobox.com/~adamm Adam Marcus

    My top 5:

    1. AutoHotKey – This is a simple yet powerful macro scripting program for Windows. I created a simple one-line script (MButton::Media_Play_Pause) so that whenever I click the scroll wheel button on my mouse (which I never used), it instead is interpreted as the pause button on multimedia keyboards (which is already understood by most media applications). Since I already have my hand on the mouse most of the time, it allows me to pause my music near-instantly whenever someone comes into my office or the phone rings. And when I'm browsing the Web and come across a page with audio or video, I can pause my background music while I listen to what's on the page, and then un-pause the background music when its done. There's lots more that AutoHotKey can do, but I just compiled my little “MouseMiddleButtonMediaPause” script into a 200kb executable that runs automatically when Windows starts and I don't think any more about it. The truly excellent tools are the ones you forget about. Other than the icon in the system tray, you'd think that was always what the scroll wheel button was for.

    2. Digsby – This is an integrated IM and social networking client that supports AIM, Yahoo, Google Talk, MSN Messenger, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and MySpace. It also alerts me when I get new email on my Gmail account so I don't have to constantly check it manually.

    3. Motorola MOTOROKR S9 Bluetooth stereo headphones – I've been using my phone (see below for more on the phone) as my mobile music player, and the addition of these headphones makes the experience that much more enjoyable. I don't have to worry about snagging the cord or breaking the jack on my phone, and I can also adjust the volume and skip and pause tracks without having to get my phone out of my pocket.

    4. HTC Apache (AKA Sprint PPC-6700 and Verizon VX-6700) – With the addition of some third party software, this phone is an amazingly useful device. It's my portable media player, email client, calendar, notepad, camera, flashlight, portable flash drive, and more. Here are just two especially noteworthy examples of what I've used it for in the past year.

    Updated a website – For a while I worked at a place that really locked down its computers. I received an urgent email with a website update I needed to make ASAP, and at first I thought I'd have to run home over my lunch break to do it. But then I realized what I could do with my phone. I downloaded the update (sent as an email attachment) to the phone, used a FTP client for the phone to download the webpage I needed to update, connected the phone to my office computer using an application that makes the phone appear as a flash memory device, moved the text from the saved email attachment into the downloaded webpage in Notepad on the office computer, transferred the updated file back to the phone, and then FTPed it to the website straight from the phone. I could have done everything on the phone itself, but it was just a bit easier to use the full-size keyboard and full-resolution screen of my work computer.

    Got directions – One time I went to get a Zipcar I had reserved but it wasn't there. I called the company to find that because of the Marine Corps Marathon, the car had been parked a few blocks away. They gave me the address, and using Google Maps I figured out how to get to the car. When I don't have an adddress already, I often use Microsoft Live Search to get it. Microsoft Live Search will also map the results.

    5. Coinstar – I hate pocket change. When I get change, it goes in my pocket (or in a compartment in my messenger bag) and there it sits until I get home, at which time I dump it all into a small jar on my nightstand. When the jar starts to get full, I just take it to a grocery store that a Coinstar machine. In 10 minutes, I have an empty jar and a voucher for the online merchant of my choice. Counting and rolling change is a complete waste of time that I'd happily pay to have someone else do for me. Coinstar is happy to charge you a fee if you want to turn your coins into cash, but the service is completely free if you opt instead for the voucher. And who can't find a use for a voucher to Amazon.com?

  • http://www.techliberation.com Adam Thierer

    Dude, I'm just joking with you Applebees. Chill.

    And yes, the stylus is soooo 1994. But some things from the past are worth preserving.

  • http://www.techliberation.com Adam Thierer

    I see that Coinstar now also offers vouchers for Starbucks or iTunes. How do you redeem the voucher with Starbucks? Do they give you a Starbucks card? Regardless, I've got a lot of coffee coming my way once I get this figured out. I've got buckets of change sitting all over my house.

  • http://pobox.com/~adamm Adam Marcus

    The CoinStar machines used to spit out actual plastic gift cards, but the last time I used one it just printed a paper receipt with a special code on it. That was for Amazon. I don't know if it does the same for Starbucks.

  • http://pobox.com/~adamm Adam Marcus

    The CoinStar machines used to spit out actual plastic gift cards, but the last time I used one it just printed a paper receipt with a special code on it. That was for Amazon. I don't know if it does the same for Starbucks.

  • http://pobox.com/~adamm Adam Marcus

    The CoinStar machines used to spit out actual plastic gift cards, but the last time I used one it just printed a paper receipt with a special code on it. That was for Amazon. I don't know if it does the same for Starbucks.

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