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Technology: Web 2.0 Gets Less Stupid

There are plenty of Web-based applications out there that are, frankly, of dubious utility to normal people. Sure, Twitter has proven itself a life-saver, but that leaves a lot of other stupid sites and software with something to prove. But they may never get the chance, thanks to a new crop of Web 2.0 apps that combine once-silly software into practical, usable products.

There are plenty of Web-based applications out there that are, frankly, of dubious utility to normal people. Sure, Twitter has proven itself a life-saver, but that leaves a lot of other stupid sites and software with something to prove. But they may never get the chance, thanks to a new crop of Web 2.0 apps that combine once-silly software into practical, usable products. Think of it: voice recognition software with a purpose; project management software that employees actually use; mobile phone-based social networking that actually facilitates a better social life. Impossible, you say? Read on, dear skeptic, read on.

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First case in point: SpinVox, which converts your speech into text that can be sent via SMS, posted to a blog, or emailed. We’ve seen speech recognition before, in the form of word processing software that mistook “sorely” for “orgy” and required a stupid headset. It hasn’t gotten a whole lot of traction amongst mobile phone users, either; one late-night voice-dial that mistakes “Pam” for “Mom” is enough to discourage anybody.

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But SpinVox’s technology actually works surprisingly well, nailing even proper nouns. All you have to do is call their 1-800 number and leave their system a voicemail, choose how you want it sent and to whom, and you’re done. No more texting while driving, or texting while eating a burrito. Hallelujah.

Another great example: a software service called Clarizen, a project management software that is entirely Web-based. Before you start snoring, I’ll admit: software services are somewhat of a novelty (and so is project management software, for that matter). But Clarizen’s purpose is rather profound: make a PM software that employees will not hate. Sounds simple, right? It’s not.

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Getting employees to adopt new technology is one of the great hurdles to any business’s initiative for improvement. In the past, it was probably easier for Joe Employee to just get up and talk to the dude down the hall, collaborate over email, or write himself a post-it note, than it was to try to learn the woefully clunky software his manager provided him with. But Clarizen approaches this problem smartly, incorporating a wiki-like feature that allows a community of workers to easily edit and advance the same project, with various levels of privileges, and observe their progress on a cool graphical timeline. You can even email the system to make changes, just like you’d email your intern to pawn off some work. It doesn’t get any more economical than that.

Since we’re talking about the difference between making a useful service and making a stupid service, I’d be remiss not to discuss Whrrl. Whrrl allows you to use your cell phone’s GPS functionality to tag locations and mini-blog about them, allowing your friends to, say, see the painstaking course of your date the night before — complete with gossip and coordinates. This makes good on the promise of one cell phone service that I personally love to hate: Dodgeball. Why do I need to track my friends like targets? Isn’t it good enough that they text me the name of the bar they’re at, instead of me sketchily mapping out their latitude and longitude like some pseudo-stalker or SWAT team? Did we learn nothing from any Harrison Ford movie ever made? That technology is for the bad guys.

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What isn’t for the bad guys is telling a human narrative with a little bit of backdrop thrown in. Where were my friends last night, when I was studying? What museums did my cousin see when she was visiting New York? Whrrl takes the oft-useless circumstantial descriptions of any experience (“we were at that place with the big swordfish on the wall…”) and informs them, helping you get to know your metropolitan area (and your friends) a little better.

If I sound cynical about so-called “useless” Web apps, then allow me a disclaimer: useless sites and services can be a lot of fun. But not only that; they clearly provide the fodder for more useful projects and enhancements that might not otherwise have been possible. In short: I may not like rhubarb by itself, but I’m grateful that somebody figured out the recipe for strawberry-rhubarb pie.

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About the author

I've written about innovation, design, and technology for Fast Company since 2007. I was the co-founding editor of FastCoLabs

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