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Designing the Future: One Tiny App at a Time

In an ironic twist in the always topsy-turvy tale of software evolution, The Next Big Thing appears to be a series of many small things.
A few months back, I met with the Microsoft Office team to discuss the future of productivity applications. They cited some internal research they’ve done, showing that it is extremely difficult to find computer-based workers who regularly use more than five applications during the average day.

This, without a doubt, is a travesty, because there is a knock down, drag ‘em out renaissance going on involving guerrilla apps, widgets, and many other software offerings that don’t happen to come from Microsoft or other gorilla-sized providers.

There is now an army of cottage-industry coders who are skilled at creating highly specialized, targeted applications and distributing them online—often for free. In many cases, some of the most interesting applications coming out are targeted at emerging platforms. Steve Jobs, for example, already said at Apple’s WWDC 2007 that developers would be able to write applications for the iPhone that will integrate with iPhone services.

Are you peeved that the iPhone won’t let you send to multiple SMS recipients at once? That’s exactly the kind of pesky problem that will be solved quickly by skilled coders, in the same way free, small, useful applications have proliferated for platforms like Palm’s. Even Nintendo’s Wii console has become a fruitful platform for unexpected uses and workarounds, including applications for watching online streaming video on televisions rather than computers (using the Opera browser).

Boosted by increased use of mobile devices and other trends, non-mainstream software titles are already taking on increasing importance in software usage and development. As we wrote earlier,

In the past, we had a few platforms for lone coders who had financial limitations to scale their businesses. No more: we have many more platforms, and ultra cheap resources for lone coders (or two) to scale their operations, thanks to Amazon’s web services efforts.

Broadband’s role in the emergence of tiny apps is often overlooked. Thanks to high speed connections, we don’t think twice about downloading a 10 megabit application, just to try it out, in a matter of seconds. In the dial-up days, it would take hours to download an application. Similarly, there has been an explosion in open source tools for software development.

In an ironic twist in the always topsy-turvy tale of software evolution, The Next Big Thing appears to be a series of many small things. The good news is that you can catch this wave right now, by discovering the software gems–almost all of them free–at the best sites that aggregate them. Let’s take a sneak peek, outside the radar range of the shrink-wrapping juggernauts:

TinyApps.Org: Here is my favorite of all guerrilla software sites: TinyApps.Org. Even the stark interface rings of no intrusion from commercially-driven shrink wrappers. Almost all the titles you will find here are free to download and keep. Under the Graphics link on the left, I highly recommend IrfanView for graphics viewing and editing, XnView for converting between hundreds of graphics formats, and MWSnap for screen captures (it has a cool ruler that makes it easy to size your images for, say, a blog).

Other cool titles at TinyApps.Org include ListMaster Pro, for mailing list management, and several of the e-mail clients that you will find under the Internet link. And don’t feel left out if you’re a Mac user. Under TinyApp.Org’s OS X link, you’ll find many cool tools. In particular, iStumbler is a great app for sniffing out available Wi-Fi networks, AirPort networks, and Bluetooth devices.

Widgets: Apple popularized widgets—mini-applications that anyone can create, which often reside right on the desktop—but Yahoo!’s purchase of Konfabulator, Google’s participation in the space, and other trends have really stoked the fire. Take a gander at the free offerings for the Macintosh, from Yahoo!, and and from Google. Note that, in keeping with its policy of doing nothing the normal way, Google dubs them Gadgets.

Big Media, Small Apps. In your quest to extend out beyond the pet applications you’re used to, don’t forget that the large technology media companies have been compiling freeware and near-freeware for many years, and they are often privy to the best titles from amateur and professional developers. PC Magazine’s Software Download Center is particularly good for ferreting out useful software utilities.

To name just one of them that might save your butt big time, check out Exhume It–an absolutely brilliant, easy-to-use way to recover files that you thought were deleted. It’s free if you subscribe to the Download Center, as are many of the other utilities. Likewise, CNet’s Download.com site offers tons of free, useful applications and utilities.

Of course, many of the best guerrilla apps out there are one-shot offerings that exist outside the application aggregation sites. I particularly like Easy Thumbnails–a very cool utility for scaling images up and down in size, especially if you need to put a lot of thumbnail images on a Web page. You can even create your thumbnails in batches.

So if you’re stuck in the five-app rut, remember that it’s in your future, and in everyone’s future, to branch out into smaller applications coming from the many gifted developers out there who offer them for free. In a future installment, I’ll look at some of the best guerilla apps out there for mobile devices, although you’ll find quite a few of them at the aggregation sites mentioned above.

9 Responses to “Designing the Future: One Tiny App at a Time”

  1. Have you stopped to ponder the flipside of your statement “This, without a doubt, is a travesty” – how about the thought that maybe, just maybe, those are all the applications that they need?

    Or, there is another option, that by using the 5 “large” applications, they get massive time and efficiency scaling over potentially using 10,20, or 30 “tiny apps” to do the same thing.

    I don’t think that you or the M$ team are giving people enough credit – we’re inherently lazy and will naturally optimize our time by making life as easy as possible. If one of these “tiny apps” will make my life faster/easier/any other adjective – then I’ll use it. If it doesn’t – then let the app meet up with the Amiga in the dustbin of “things that were supposed to be better/faster/easier but never really lived up to the promise for a variety of reasons”.

  2. Being with a guerrilla-sized company that dedicated to build baby applications from web to mobile, your article speaks our mind. Our mobile service lets cell phone users do click-to-call, text-message shoutouts up to 8 recipients, and quick lists with fast searches and lookups, all driven by made-for-mobile-sync online address book and calendar widgets. While building various baby apps for everyday use, our next milestone will let users access any app from one single icon on their cell phones.

  3. Great article, enjoyable and thought provoking.

    That being said, I can’t help wondering whether the actual new killer tiny apps will be -by your own definition- well under your radar.

    If that were the case, we’re facing the paradox of having a total accurate perception of where the industry is going, yet failing to identify the actual companies and products that will strive in it.

  4. I guess we’re in the middle – our app allows creation of eBay listings with up to 6 photos from a mobile.
    It isn’t a trivial app and we self funded the development, the PR the whole thing before getting other investors involved. I guess small is beautiful but the need for apps that do real work, especially on the coming ‘open garden’ of cell access (yes I am a believer) is there.

  5. This surge in software development is reminiscent of the surge in software development on the arrival of the ‘personal’ computer. Apple, Commodore, etc. produced a great surge of programming by individuals and small companies. After 20 years the desktop has boiled down to a few giants. Now the web produces a surge. Perhaps in another 20 years it will be down to a few giants. I am sure the giants would like that.

    We should enjoy this surge in near-amateur enthusiasm while it lasts.

  6. Yes, it will boil down to lots of small things. I had made this unofficial googletoolbar for Opera some time ago, it’s quite popular it appears. Opera makes a great widget platform.

    People are some what confused about the browser but what I like most about it is that it starts up in a blink of an eye exactly where you left off the last time.

    FireFox takes an hour to load 100 tabs (if it even works) so I always end up with much smaller sessions using ff. Saving the tabs as 100 bookmarks isn’t exactly useful if I cant open all of them at the same time. It’s like the browser has amnesia. lol It does great for the pages coded specially for the fox.

    Anyway, great article. I will now have to visit the links in it. ;-)