Manjoo: These Are the Eight Best Technologies of 2012

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Dec. 20 2012 5:39 AM

The Eight Best Technologies of 2012

In praise of the iPhone 5 (with Google Maps), Workflowy, snap-your-credit-card apps, and more.

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One more thing on Apple: I debated adding the Retina MacBook to this list. Apple’s high-definition laptop is one of the best PCs I’ve ever used. But I found both the 13- and 15-inch models were still too heavy and expensive ($1,699 and $2,199) to best the MacBook Air, my go-to laptop. If Apple adds a high-definition display to the Air, that will make my day.

Google Now.
Google Now

Screenshot courtesy Google.

In the summer, Google unveiled Now, an Android feature that automatically alerts you to relevant information about where you are and what you’re supposed to be doing. It’s like a mind-reading personal assistant: If you’re going on a trip, it tells you about traffic on the way to the airport, gives you your boarding pass, shows you the weather at your destination, tells you how to get to your appointment, and shows you the best restaurants near your hotel.

All this might sound unexciting—you already look up this information on your phone using your calendar, email, and the Web. But Now has it all in one place, and it usually shows you this stuff without your explicit request. By monitoring your email, location, and search habits, and by crunching all that data, Now predicts what info you’ll need next and serves it up for you. (Do you find this creepy? I don’t; one man’s creepy is another man’s very handy. That’s why it’s opt in.)

Google Voice Search.
Google Voice Search

Screenshot courtesy Google.

Voice Search, which has long been available on Android and was added to Google’s iOS app this year, is similarly great. Unlike Apple’s useless voice assistant, Siri, Google’s is good enough to make me change my habits—now, I sometimes speak instead of typing my queries. And it keeps getting better. Google’s voice-recognition prowess is built upon a mountain of search data, meaning that as long as Google remains the best search engine, its capacity for speech will continue to expand.

Yes, I do recognize the incongruity of praising two Android features—three if you count Google Maps—while simultaneously lavishing acclaim on the iPad and iPhone. But that’s the world we live in. Apple is making the best mobile devices and Google is making the best mobile services. They’re better together.

I discovered this free outlining app this summer, and it’s since become my main tool for organizing everything I do. I use it to jot down most of my notes, to keep my lists (story ideas, to-dos, groceries) and for anything else I want to remember. I’d be lost without it.

Card.io and Jumio’s snap-your-credit-card feature.

Jumio.
Jumio

Screenshot courtesy Jumio.

These firms offer a brilliant feature that solves the biggest hassle of signing up to a commercial service using a smartphone—entering in your credit card information. Now, all you have to do is aim your phone’s camera at your card, and it quickly scans your credit card info. Because these companies license their system to developers, you’ll find the feature in many great mobile apps.

I first spotted it in Uber, the ride-hailing app, but you’ll also see it in apps from PayPal and Task Rabbit. Apple also recently added a way to redeem iTunes gift cards with your Mac’s camera. I hope other companies follow suit.

Square.
Square

Screenshot courtesy Square.

In September, I called Jack Dorsey’s payments startup Silicon Valley’s next great company. The firm won me over by providing the best payment experience for both consumers and businesses. Square lets you pay just by saying your name—as long as you have your phone on your person, you don’t have to bother with swiping a card or waving it against a paypad. It lets businesses accept credit cards for fees as low as 1.3 percent per transaction.

This year Starbucks announced that it would use Square for its payments, giving lots of people a reason to sign up for the service for the first time—which, in turn, will spur other businesses to sign up in order to attract all those customers. Square also launched a gifting service that allows all Square businesses to accept gift cards. Both these additions will grow its network of payers and businesses—and, let’s hope, will soon make cash a thing of the past.

Same-day delivery (from many retailers and startups).

Amazon's distribution centre in Leipzig, 2009.
Ab Amazon distribution center in Leipzig, Germany

Photo by Sebastian Willnow/AFP/Getty Images.

Thank Amazon for this. This year Jeff Bezos dropped his long-standing opposition to collecting sales tax from customers. He’s now moved on to building shipping centers in metro areas around the nation in an effort to dramatically speed up shipping times. Though the company has been cagey about its plans, I argued in July that Amazon seems to be aiming to make next-day shipping its default and same­-day shipping a cheap add-on in many different places. At the moment, it offers same-day service in 10 cities, including New York, Chicago, Boston, Washington, and Seattle.

Amazon’s move has spurred many of its rivals—including Wal-Mart—to launch same-day service. And it has also fueled a boom in same-day startups. Among those is Postmates, whose Get It Now app lets you get anything in your city delivered for a small fee.

You might notice a theme in these last few technologies: Square and Card.io help companies accept payments. Postmates and Amazon let them deliver their goods locally. All these firms are building a new, digital, mobile infrastructure for commerce, one that could prove especially useful to small businesses. For the firms that will benefit from these advances, 2012 may well have been a very good year.

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