The world of computer tools used to be so simple. A couple of small installs on the desktop, maybe a few assorted plugins, and off you go.
Then the "cloud" rolled in, and suddenly staying on top of new apps is like trying to keep track of celebrities on Twitter.
The biggest challenge is finding the time to give them all a real trial. And sometimes, I'll come back to a tool months after my maiden voyage, as both the tool and my needs have changed over time.
One key point about these tools I'm reviewing is that context is everything. Your job title, your company, your location, and your work habits -- all are key factors in determining which tools will work best for you.
Some context for me: I run an interactive agency and serve as creative director. I use a Mac with Firefox. Because I use multiple computers, and don't like having to try and sync files across all of them, I'm a big fan of web-hosted services in virtually every area of what I do, from email to presentations.
Also, in this review, I'm also going to bypass some of the heavyweight tools that have been around a while and with which most people are familiar. They include Basecamp, Compete, Google Docs, and Google Reader, all of which I use frequently.
So given that, here are some of the more recent apps that are showing me some love.
I was recently introduced to Skitch, and it's already something I use regularly for marking up designs. Skitch lets you quickly take a snapshot of anything on your screen, and then add various notes about the design. The style of the notes, while not pretty (by design), stand apart from the work you're commenting on. At least hopefully it does.
You can also upload the image to your Skitch account, and then share it from there in various ways, including direct links to the image, embed code, and a URL for forum posting.
This app epitomizes the "a picture is worth 1,000 words" adage, and can greatly reduce confusion around even the simplest instructions. It's also very light and fast. Just open the app, click once to get a screen grab, and you're ready to start marking up.
Another convenient feature is your own online account -- a history of all docs you've marked up, which you can reference at any time.
If you find yourself marking up anything more graphic than Word docs, give Skitch a test drive. If you're like me, you'll be wondering how you got along without it. Oh, and it's free.
Another installed app I use is OmniGraffle, who's tagline is "diagramming worth a thousand words." OmniGraffle is great for diagrams ranging from site maps, wireframes, org charts, street maps, electronics, iPhone apps, or seemingly anything else.
There's also a large quantity of stencils for all those tasks, as well as a site where third parties can upload and share stencils. If you're an OmniGraffle user, check out Graffletopia.com for a list of great stencils.
You can export your work in a number of different formats, including an entire site's worth of wireframes in a single PDF. It's a feature-rich app that's well-worth the $99 if you do any diagramming at all.
As a follow up to OmniGraffle, iPlotz is a good example of how things are migrating from installed apps to web apps. A Flash-based app, it's essentially an online version of OmniGraffle. Not as feature rich nor as fast, but if you use multiple computers, this can still be a time-saver over constantly uploading and downloading your source files. That single source can also eliminate version control issues -- a real problem when using multiple computers.
Web apps like iPlotz are not only popping up across the app spectrum, but are also getting much more robust with features. And because of its online location, sharing features like embed code are quickly accessible, requiring no additional uploading or storing. The content is already online. I also find web apps easier to learn because they aren't bloated with rarely used features. If you've used Google Docs, as opposed to the MS Office Suite, you know the deal.
As of now, iPlotz docs won't look as slick as OmniGraffle's, and at $15 per month or $99 per year, the cost is actually more expensive over a two-year period. But if you like the mobility of web apps and don't mind the slightly slower interface (think Gmail vs. Outlook or Apple Mail), then it's a great alternative. (I should also mention that there is an installed version, but I haven't used it personally.)
Adobe Browser Lab
This is a tool that, fortunately, I don't have to use very frequently. There are people between myself and the coders who are more likely to use this on client projects. But of course, if you work in marketing these days, you likely have a blog. And blogs occasionally require a little code tweaking to add the latest widgets, embedded feeds, APIs, etc. Of course, anyone who isn't a PHP ace but has gone under the hood of a blog has probably experienced a few times when, after changing the code, the site didn't look quite the way it did before you tweaked it. And while you can see it on your primary browser, you'll also want to make sure it looks good on any browser. That's when I head over to the Adobe Browser Lab.
The tool itself is extremely simple. Enter a URL, and it runs that web page through all the major browsers to see how it looks. You can display them two-up, for a side-by-side comparison. (Mac heads will be pleased to compare IE 7 on Windows XP to Safari 3.0 on OS X.)
This is a branding tool for Adobe, so it's free.
Kuler is a community built around color palettes. I know -- but hang with me here. Not only is it a fairly active community (Compete says 70,000 monthly uniques), but it also receives several hundred palette uploads each day. You can search by all the expected parameters, including tags. It's also a well-designed tool for creating your own color palettes, which can then be saved, shared, or even downloaded as an Adobe Swatch Exchange file.
The site also serves as a resource for all things color, with a forum, various apps developed from the open API, and links off to other color sites from companies like Pantone.
But my favorite feature is the photo color palette generator. Upload any photo, and Kuler will generate a color palette based on the colors in that photo.
I don't reach for Kuler throughout the week the way I do Skitch and iPlotz, but when I need some creative inspiration, it's a fun activity to explore.
And it's free.
This is a Firefox extension. A simple tool that I probably use more than I realize. It resides down in the status bar, and you just click on the icon to activate it. Then simply drag over a given area.
Unlike k-size, which has for many sites become a non-issue, browser and content sizings are something we'll be dealing with for a while. Not convinced? Just consider the onset of smartphones, taking the issue in the other direction.
When you're done, just click the icon again, and it's all back to normal.
While we're down there in the Firefox status bar, my second favorite extension is Color Picker. Another quick-to-launch tool that gives you results in a few seconds. This one has enabled me to prove my sanity more than once when looking at different colors and debating with a designer whether they're the same or not.
Like MeasureIt, you just click on it and then roll over any place on the screen where you want to check the hue. It shows you the RGB number, Hex number, x/y coordinates, and even the section of the page you're on, code-wise.
Like MeasureIt, a second click on the icon takes you back to normal browsing.
If you spend any amount of time on Twitter, you'll soon find that you need something more than Twitter. My favorite of these is Hootsuite. It's web-based, so my settings are there on any computer. And it gives you stats in various configurations, lists, sorting, and an easy way to preview users the people you're following have referenced. My favorite feature is the creation of lists of people you follow into multiple columns -- all easily previewed in a single view.
Mobile is coming on strong. And the variations in user setups is far broader than the web. Sure, most apps and sites you read about are being designed for smartphones. But some marketers will realize that there's gold in building for the lowest common denominator user. When that happens, and because you work in interactive marketing, don't forget that there are still people out there with numeric (non-QWERTY) mobile keypads.
This is the equivalent to 10 years ago when we had to remember that half the people visiting a website had 56k modems and 640x480 computer screens. And the big challenge this time is the number of keystrokes it takes to enter a given mobile site URL.
That's what Mobile Domainatron does. Enter a URL, and it will tell you how many keystrokes it will take to punch in that address on a numeric keypad. It even takes you through the process of seeing which keypads the user has to hit to get to the right domain name. Tedious, check. Reality, check.
Those are some web tools that have been making my life easier. As I mentioned at the beginning, everyone's needs are different. And this list is merely a drop in a large bucket. If you have an app or tool recommendation, add it in the comments section. I'd love to know what everyone else is using.