Companies such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple wield disproportionate power in the tech industry (and the business world in general). But they still don’t have a monopoly on smart ideas.
Some of the smartest ideas in tech aren’t the kinds of ideas that will change the world, but rather little things that make you wonder why no one thought of them sooner. We’ve had a tradition of celebrating such clever innovations, and this year, we’re going to spotlight ones that didn’t come from the very biggest behemoths of tech.
Putting multiple Macs to use
When Apple announced a new macOS feature called Sidecar, which extends the display of any Mac onto a nearby iPad, it certainly looked like doom for the existing apps that did much the same thing.
But Astro HQ, the makers of Luna Display, didn’t flinch. Instead, it built upon their wireless display adapter by adding Mac-to-Mac mode, letting any combination of MacBooks and iMacs provide two screens for a single machine. It’s a great way to get some more use out of an old Mac that might otherwise be gathering dust.
Literally a bookshelf speaker
The phrase “bookshelf speaker” usually refers to a speaker that’s small enough to fit on a bookshelf. But Ikea went a step further with its Symfonisk Wi-Fi speaker by allowing it to double as an actual bookshelf. Mount it onto a wall, and it can hold up to 6.5 pounds’ worth of your books or assorted tchotchkes. Still needed, though: a clever way to elegantly hide the power cord.
Tune in with a tap
Like other wireless earbuds, Sony’s WF-1000XM3 buds are sure to be overshadowed by Apple’s best-selling AirPods. Still, Sony did get a jump on Apple with a feature called Quick Attention, which turns down the music and lets in more ambient sound when you press and hold the left earbud’s touchpad. It’s an idea that Sony brought over from its over-ear headphones that launched in 2018, and one that Apple eventually latched onto for the “Transparency” mode in the AirPods Pro, which got lots of attention even though Sony did it first.
A slot for your stylus
Tablet and PC makers have tried all kinds of ways to store their styluses. We’ve seen magnetic clasps, elastic loops, and little holsters that can only accommodate the tiniest of writing implements. In the end, Dell had the best idea of them all, building a magnetic stylus nook into the hinge on its Inspiron 15 7000 Black Edition laptop. It’s large enough to fit a full-sized pen, and it keeps the stylus secure when the laptop is closed. The laptop itself is just okay, proving that even ho-hum products can include strokes of brilliance.
(Samsung’s Galaxy S6 tablet, whose keyboard cover includes both a fold-out stylus hatch and a kickstand, gets an honorable mention as well.)
Just the deep cuts, please
Is your internet radio station sounding too mainstream? Pandora’s “Modes” feature, which launched this year, fixes that by letting you fine-tune the song selection. You can play the hits, focus on deep cuts, or emphasize discovering similar artists, and with a Pandora Premium subscription, you can limit stations to a single artist as well. It’s not an entirely new idea—the oft-forgotten Slacker Radio has offered fine-tuning for years—but it’s one that should be available on every music service.
Smarter podcast sharing
Want to recommend a podcast to friends? Instead of just telling them about it, use Overcast’s “Share Clip” feature, which lets you trim down an audio snippet from a podcast and generate a web page for sharing it. Other folks can then listen to the clip on the spot or open the full episode in their podcast app of choice. Think of it as the podcast boom’s equivalent of screenshots.
Home control at a glance
HomeRun has carved out a nice niche for itself as the most efficient way for Apple Watch users to control HomeKit smart home devices, either through the app itself or with one tap through “complications” on the main watch face. This year, HomeRun added complications that change based on the time of day, so you can have a single button that executes your morning, midday, and evening smart home routines. It’s the kind of idea that Apple could conceivably Sherlock over time.
If you splurge on a fancy 4K TV or streaming device, it’s often hard to tell exactly what you’re paying for. Most content, after all, isn’t available in 4K, and even when it is, the difference from regular old HD isn’t always obvious. The Nvidia Shield TV streaming box, however, is happy to point out its visual fidelity. The device includes an AI-enhanced upscaling feature that makes HD video look sharper on 4K displays, and it also lets you press a button to view the regular and upscaled picture side-by-side. Run a comparison on pretty much any YouTube video, and it’s clear you’re getting your money’s worth.
A game DVR for NES
The best perk in Nintendo’s Switch Online subscription service is its growing lineup of classic Nintendo and Super Nintendo games. But in case you forgot how punishing those games could be, Nintendo has added a “rewind” feature that lets you go back in time to fix your mistakes. It’s not the only version of this idea—we’ve seen racing games like the Forza series employ a rewind button, and the indie game Braid was built entirely around time manipulation—but it’s never felt more appropriate.
The iPod, emulated
Okay, sure, an iPhone music player that mimics the behavior of an iPod Classic is cheap nostalgia. Still, both the idea and the implementation of Rewound are pretty clever. Because an iPod-style music player would probably violate Apple’s rule against apps that incorporate Apple intellectual property, developer Louis Anslow devised a workaround in which users download virtual control “skins,” one of which just happens to be a scroll wheel that responds to circular swipe gestures. Anslow’ s gambit failed: His creation was available only briefly before Apple removed it from the App Store. But he has plans to revive it as a web-based player outside Apple’s control.
Automatic aspect ratio
Instead of debating between vertical and horizontal videos, why not have both? The short-form video app Firework employs a neat gimmick called “Reveal Video,” which lets users get a wider view by twisting their phones into landscape mode. The best videos use this trick to reveal a hidden element, such as backup dancers or supporting vocalists in a music routine. Firework’s underlying social network might be a long shot against the likes of Instagram and TikTok, but its core idea deserves a wider audience.
What about the tech giants?
None of this is to say that the biggest tech companies were bereft of clever ideas this year. Here are a handful of favorites:
- Apple has tested an attention correction feature for FaceTime, making your eyes look like they’re looking at the camera on your device’s edge even if you’re gazing at your friend’s face on the screen.
- Amazon’s Alexa now has a mode for multilingual homes, so the voice assistant will automatically answer in whatever language it hears.
- For G Suite users, Google can show a warning when you’re about to email or message a colleague who’s out of the office. More passive-aggressive ways to encourage mindful tech use, please.
- It’s not confirmed, but Google is reportedly testing a Maps feature that highlights well-lit streets for walking safely at night.
- The idea of watching TV and video chatting with faraway friends through the television is pretty clever, if you can get over the fact that Facebook is the one doing it.