Arguably, 2008 was the year of Twitter, Facebook, and Hulu. Come January of next year, I wonder what Web sites we'll agree were the ones that really mattered in 2009. In fact I'll do more than wonder: I'm going to stick my neck out and try to make a few educated predictions. And I'll choose them from among the sea of new or up-and-coming sites you may not even have heard of yet.
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While most are flying below the radar today, these ten Web sites and services have a good shot at emerging as the fastest growing and most buzz-worthy of 2009.
Back in May 2008, we predicted Hulu's rise to prominence, and it has fulfilled our expectations. This was a huge tactical win for NBC Universal, which owns part of Hulu (along with News Corporation). CBS is not taking this lying down. In its takeover last year of the tech Web site operator CNET, it bought the rights to the TV.com URL and has now added a good amount of full-length prime-time shows and movies (not just clips) to the site from major content partners like Sony (a wealth of great premium content), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and PBS. Content from CBS-owned Showtime is available there too.
TV.com relaunched with full-length programs (movies and prime-time TV shows) early this month. Before that, the site offered only promo clips, cast profiles, interviews, and discussions--yet it had 16.5 million viewers per month even then. That number should begin climbing steadily over the course of 2009 with all the new video content.
Still, TV.com is no Hulu. Why? The video quality, even the HD stuff, just can't match the surprising clarity of Hulu's offerings. That will have to improve if CBS wants to dethrone Hulu as "Web video central" this year. (http://www.tv.com/)
Qik provides a platform where you can easily stream and share live video from your mobile or cell phone camera. When visiting the site, it's easy to find live video streams being shot by Qik members from around the world. This is great for family stuff, like Grandma in America watching her baby grandson in Italy in real time, for example.
After you are finished streaming your video live over Qik, the video is automatically archived at the site. And, if you set it up to do so, Qik sends the videos to YouTube, your blog, or to your page on Facebook. Using Qik does not require a fancy smart phone--an inexpensive Java-based cell phone will do. Qik has found a niche and is exploiting it well. I'm predicting that many more video enthusiasts will flock to Qik this year because of its simple, straight-forward design and ease of use. (http://www.qik.com/)
With the Internet video landscape becoming large and more scattered, many of us would welcome a well-designed tool to help us make sense of it all. Boxee gathers video from all over the Web (Hulu, YouTube, CNN.com, and many others) and puts it in a very neat and easy-to-use interface that can be accessed on your PC or on the TV in the living room. This creates something like a programming guide for Internet video, such that you don't have to surf around to different video sites--all your favorite Web video is right in front of you. Boxee also accesses and organizes the video, images, and music that you have on your hard drive.
As Web video destinations become more numerous and diverse, they all must effectively answer the user's basic problem--"What do I watch when I don't know what I want to watch?"--in order to keep the eyeballs. Boxee's main means of doing this is letting you get viewing suggestions from perhaps the best source you have--your friends. You form friend groups with other Boxee users, and you can see what they've been watching or they can proactively suggest stuff to you.
The current version of Boxee runs on Intel-based Macs, Apple TV, and Linux machines (it works particularly easily on Ubuntu distributions). A Windows version should be ready soon, Boxee says. (http://www.boxee.tv/)
Blackberry Application Storefront
Research in Motion had a big year in 2008, releasing smart phone after smart phone in a valiant effort to keep all those "CrackBerry" addicts from jumping ship and buying iPhones. The devices and the software that runs on them have become sexier-looking more entertainment-oriented; RIM has added an element of fun to a device that's traditionally been a business tool.
RIM is also taking a page from the iPhone playbook by opening up a store for independently developed BlackBerry apps, called the BlackBerry Application Storefront. Current BlackBerry users (and prospective ones) will no doubt be eager to see what those new apps look like; and it's a safe bet that the site where they are displayed and sold will be a popular place on the Web in 2009.
However, the Storefront isn't open yet. Keep an eye on PCWorld.com or the BlackBerry signup page on the Storefront for updates.
A major theme in mobile applications now and in the coming months is the ability to detect the location of the user, and to use that information in useful and compelling ways. Loopt fits this bill perhaps better than any other mobile app out there now, mainly because of the way it mixes location awareness with social networking.
Loopt shows you a map, and your position on it, and also the positions of your mobile friends who are in the vicinity. Now you need something to do--somewhere to get together. Loopt detects businesses in the area and makes suggestions based on your interests or specific queries ("beer, pizza, bowling"). You can read what any of your friends have said about prospective meeting places, or read reviews from Yelp to help you decide.
When you've found an agreeable destination, you can then invite your friends, and access directions for getting there, as can your friends. You can also search out new friends by looking for other Loopt users who have similar interests (favorite bars, say) to yours. (http://www.loopt.com/)
I'm not the first to make this comparison, but Blip.fm really is like Twitter for music. What you see at the site is a scrolling list of people's song choices with their short comments about them. These are called Blips. You can listen to the "blipped" songs as they come up, or skip up and down the list to songs you like. If you like a particular user (called DJs here), you can give them "props" for the songs they play, or you can choose to "follow" that DJ. After you have found a decent number of DJs to follow, you can switch to a mode where you see only that group's blips.
If you think of a song you want to blip, you just search for it (you can find almost anything), make your selection from the search results, write a little comment about it, hit send, and then your blip is added to the stream of other blips. The site then shows you the other members who have also blipped that artist. It's surprisingly engaging and fun, especially if you find good DJs to follow, or if your own real-world friends sign up and participate. (http://www.blip.fm/)
There aren't many sites with 5 million users that we haven't heard of, but Power.com is just that, and it's a name you might be hearing a lot more of this year. The "social inter-networking" site, as the company calls it, operates on the premise that many of us now belong to several social networking sites and that it's a hassle to log into and post to each one separately.
Power.com lets you log in once, then view (and post to) any of a long list of social networking sites that you sync the service up with--all from one place. You can see the posts, status changes, and so on, of your friends on multiple social networks, and simultaneously send new messages or updates to all of those sites (similar to Ping.fm). You can also automatically log into, and instant message using MSN from within Power.com--cool.
Actually, Power.com worked a little too well for Facebook's comfort. In late 2008 Facebook started complaining about Power's ability to store Facebook users' passwords and access Facebook users' content. After all, Facebook has its own scheme for connecting to multiple networks at once, called Facebook Connect. Facebook eventually filed suit when talks with Power.com failed to yield an agreement. Power.com says the two companies are now working out their differences. It's likely that Power will still support Facebook, but will have to use Facebook Connect to connect. Without a workable agreement with Facebook, Power.com's utility would be seriously limited. (http://www.power.com/)
Twitter proved itself during 2008 and will keep growing in 2009. Millions of people around the world are adding content (in short dispatches called "tweets") to the Twitter stream every day. Some of this content is worth reading--serious discussions, not just idle chatter.
Tweetag is a sort of search engine for "tweets." It allows you to look for trends in what is being publicly discussed on Twitter, and, more importantly, find discussions of things that matter to you.
On Tweetag's front page you can see a tag cloud showing the most discussed topics on Twitter right now (as I write this, the biggest tag is "Inauguration"). You can search for Twitter messages containing a particular keyword. Once you've done that, Tweetag suggests other keywords to help you narrow down your results. Using tabs, Tweetag organizes the tweets in your search results based on whether they are "re-tweets" (another Twitterer seconding an idea), or replies to tweets, or if they contain questions or links. (http://www.tweetag.com/)
Believe it or not, Hi5 is the third largest social network in the world. Yet it's virtually unheard of in the United States. That could change. Hi5 typically has 60 million unique visitors every month, most of them from abroad (40 percent comes from Spanish-speaking countries). Word has it that more and more people in the U.S. are discovering the site, a trend line that will likely keep bending upward in the next 12 months.
The site's music and video applications rival those of other, more popular social networks, and Hi5's mobile app (pictured) is first rate. Hi5 won't be bigger than Facebook in the U.S. by the end of the year, but it will have grown significantly, and it will have given many of us an attractive alternative to try out. (http://www.hi5.com/)
Tripit's goal in life is to be your personal, full-service travel assistant. For me, a typical trip (business or pleasure) involves a number of modes of travel--planes, trains, taxis, and so on--and things like restaurants and hotels. It adds up to a lot of details to keep track of. My usual method is to make a hard copy of all my reservations, staple them together, and carry the whole bundle with me.
Tripit aggregates all those details, and throws in some handy tools like maps, local attractions, dinner reservations, and weather reports, and wraps it up in an easy-to-use master itinerary. For me, much of the stress of travel can be cured by having the right information at the right times, and that, in a nutshell, is what Tripit does. I think a lot of new users will arrive at this conclusion in 2009. (http://www.tripit.com/)
So there you go. I hope you've enjoyed my predictions of the biggest sites of 2009. Of course, some of them will miss the mark, while others will live up to the hype. I hope you'll go check some of them out today, rather than waiting for your friends to nag you into it later, when the sites start getting popular. And if you do, please let me know your impressions in our Forums, or sign in to enter a comment.
This story, "10 Web Sites That Will Matter in 2009" was originally published by PCWorld.