Two years ago most Britons didn't have broadband and Web 2.0 was barely a twinkle in a developer's eye. Things have changed - as our cream of the crop for 2006 shows
In 2004, the internet was a different place: there was, for example, no YouTube, and most Britons online didn't have broadband. That's changed dramatically: now, more than 75% of users have broadband, and the arrival of Web 2.0 has brought sites where the interaction is as fast as if it were on your machine. So we've revisited the "cream of the crop" that we brought you two years ago.
Some of the crop is brand new; some has stood the test of time. As before, we have 100 sites in 20 categories. That of course means that your favourite might not be here (even if you suggested it on our blog). Email us with your suggestions for the ones we should have included.
Many of the categories here are new since the last crop. Many of the sites from that time still exist, of course - and are still hugely useful.
One category that's missing is mobiles, where data speeds haven't kept up with broadband.
Maybe in 2007?
Contributors: Charles Arthur, Kate Bulkley, Michael Cross, Bobbie Johnson, Vic Keegan, Jack Schofield, Keith Stuart
Why have an application to run in your browser? Because for tasks shared between people at different locations, it makes sense to access password-protected sets of work. 37 signals offers Backpack (note the domain is backpackit) for simple tasks and the bigger Basecamp for grown-up projects. Tadalist is simpler, being just to-dos (but isn't that what it's about?), while Google's Documents & Spreadsheets requires a Google account (they're free) and doesn't try to compete with Microsoft Office. Wikicalc is a free online spreadsheet, and developing smartly.
There are millions of blogs out there; you need to pick the best. Step forward RSS (aka web feeds) and blog search engines to simplify things. Technorati is occasionally flaky, but generally a reliable indicator of what's being blogged about. Icerocket runs it close. And you'll need an online aggregator to keep abreast of the feeds you're most interested in: Newsgator and Google Reader are good choices. Bloglines is an excellent alternative feed reader.
To do it rather than read it, you need a good set of tools. The open-source and free software project Wordpress has risen to prominence, elbowing aside many rivals with its blog creation, management and (importantly) spam-beating tools. Wordpress.org is the free software; wordpress.com offers paid-for, managed versions of the free package. Blogger is the best of the rest; Vox is neat, easy and free, and plugs into lots of social applications. Statcounter counts, well, statistics for your site; the free Google Analytics (if you can get an account) is good too.
Google's Gmail has become the web-based email system of choice for those who can get access.
Its main drawback is that it's still an invitation-only system in the UK. However, Yahoo's free email service is a decent competitor, and Microsoft has Live Mail. Unlike Microsoft's old Hotmail service, none will delete all your old emails if you fail to log on every 30 days. Among the dozens of free alternatives, Bluebottle is a decent option for its focus on spam filtering. The free version offers 250MB of storage and supports the POP3 and SMTP standards, so you can use a proper email program as well as web access. There's also TempInbox, which provides free, temporary, throwaway email accounts with no registration.
There are far too many videogame news sites on the internet today; you need an aggregator like Gametab to filter through to the best. Pocketgamer specialises in handheld games, while Gamasutra is absolutely unmissable. Gamesfaqs has FAQs and walkthroughs (plus cheats, reviews and previews) for loads of games. And the ESRB lets you search by age rating.
Maps matter, but once you're past Google's maps and satellite detail, everyone's thrown back on the Ordnance Survey's data, which means there's little to choose between them. Ordnance Survey has improved its site, and can at least now tell you which map to buy for an area; its placename search is nifty. Meanwhile, the New Popular Edition site shows how the country looked in the 1940s. Delightful.
The BBC marches on, adding more media forms while also letting users add their comments. The New York Times site is vast (though it has shut off some of its content behind a "paywall"). Both sites' (short) RSS feeds can be read on a mobile at bbcriver.com and nytimesriver.com. Google News extends its reach, though the top headline is still whichever site last updated rather than the one which is most accurate. Nowpublic is a US rival to OhMyNews and claims 52,000 (and counting) "mojos" - amateur journalists with mobile phones whose location can be figured out from GPS or phone triangulation.
One thing that Web 2.0 is really good at is letting lots of people vote on things. It can be (and is) abused, but generally the system works. That's seen the rise of sites which let people vote stories up, or which news stories (and how) bloggers are talking about (at memoerandum).The biggest is Digg, which overtook Slashdot earlier this year. Reddit was recently bought by Wired magazine. Findory is slightly different, learning what you like the more you use it.
Snopes checks out unbelievable tales, scams and urban legends and debunks (or confirms) them. Slightly less useful is the 100-strong webring of Unusual Museums of the Internet. These include the Virtual Toilet Paper Museum, the Old Calculators Web Museum and Signalfan's museum of traffic control signals. You can find links to lots of other offbeat sites via the Weird Site's Other Weird Links page. The Onion is the web's leading satire magazine, though with an American bias. Otherwise, for five minutes of fun, try browsing B3ta. This UK site sends out a weekly newsletter of cool links and runs a message board where people post amusingly manipulated pictures. But be warned: it's often offensive - that's part of the point - and most definitely rated NSFW (Not Safe For Work).
The MySociety team remains unbeatable for turning Hansard inside out with Theyworkforyou and Publicwhip, but bloggers have begun to expose the unwritten workings of politicians to greater public scrutiny too. Guido Fawkes' blog has the inside gossip from Westminster, while NO2ID agitates on arguably the most important political and technological issue around, while NHS 23 is a wiki outlining the problems with the political, technological and medical drama of the NHS computer- isation programme.
Now, it's time to bug someone in power. The idea that the web can make a difference is growing; politicians are on the web and there's an online petition site at No.10. Pledgebank and HearfromyourMP are both part of the excellent MySociety (mysociety.org) family of sites enabling citizens to connect to decision-makers - and, one would hope, vice versa. Netaction includes The Virtual Activist, a manual for anyone looking to build and promote a cause online. Those interested in helping out in their area might try Timebank, which finds organisations to which to donate spare time.
Radio now travels over wires, at least to our homes. The BBC dominates here, but there are thousands of stations to choose from. AOL's Shoutcast is interesting: find whatever's on right now (you can tune in via iTunes or any internet radio-enabled player.) Radio-locator and Live-radio list broadcasters worldwide, so you can find something new to listen to. Reciva does the same, but if you buy its internet radio you can add your own favourites online and they show on the gadget; or just listen online.
Another new category: being able to find stuff that's similar to music you like is increasingly important, both to listeners and to record companies trying to profit from niches. Last.fm requires an application that runs on your machine, and shows what other people with the same music like. Pandora says you need a US postcode; so give it one, then enjoy its expert-chosen stations. Liveplasma can search relationships in films as well as music. Tuneglue is a relatively new venture between last.fm and EMI, using data from Amazon and last.fm. Goombah requires a small download and only works on music in an iTunes library, but has been at it for some time.
Wikipedia now dominates the reference side of the web, partly because its pages are ranked so highly in Google. User-written, it's not always reliable, but is usually a good place to start. It competes with the Encyclopedia Britannica, which isn't free. However, another traditional alternative is the HighBeam Encyclopedia, which searches more than 57,000 articles from the Columbia Encyclopedia. Otherwise Jim Martindale's Reference Desk, started in 1994, provides an astonishing collection of links to reference sources. For words, try Onelook, which indexes more than 7.5m words in 931 dictionaries. It also has a reverse lookup to find words from their meanings. Finally, Teldir (on the infobel site) has links to the world's online phone books.
Alphagalileo gives a view of public-facing science in Europe and is a counterpart to eurekalert, the American Association for the Advancement of Science's press announcements forum. Space.com remains fascinating for all things spacey. Nasa contains a wealth of information. The growing importance of climate change makes the RealClimate blog written by climate change scientists important.
Google continues to tighten its grip on our hunt for information (it now gets half of all searches) but that doesn't necessarily mean it's the best. Search can now encompass your hard drive, blogs (a separate category - see above), images, peer-to-peer and even what used to be out there. Blinkx remains unique with its focus on video, while Ask (now without Jeeves) has made great strides recently, though it only gets a tiny portion of searches.
The browser has grown up: now it's the path to meeting people of similar interests and creating your own personal space online in a shared area. Social networks have become a cliche, but that hasn't stopped MySpace becoming the biggest site online. Bebo is popular, Habbo is more tuned to the kids, while Friendster and LinkedIn will appeal to the older user.
The crowds are all over at YouTube, the poster child of online video (a category too niche to merit mention two years ago; YouTube was founded in February 2005). But it's not the only place to find video. Revver offers a revenue-sharing system (people pay to watch your video, you get some cash). You can also start your own TV station at brightcove and currenttv. And Videojug has demonstrations of how to do lots of possibly useful tasks.
The key distinction from social sites like MySpace is that virtual worlds give you an avatar - your representation of yourself in the online world. The advent of broadband allied to faster machines has made them usable. When the BBC held a concert in Second Life, it seemed like an anomaly; then IBM's chief executive got an avatar, and suddenly everyone's there. Habbo Hotel is booming with teens. World of Warcraft has millions of users; Everquest, its own culture. Or you can play the Sims online. Whether an influx of new users will make these worlds more antisocial remains open.
It's what everyone's talking about. Some of these sites appear above because they're the places to go to find out what the webworld is thinking. Watch them whizz by, but don't forget to breathe. YouTube is the moving picture of the web; Flickr the static one. Google Trends shows what the world's looking for; Digg, what it's found. And Technorati shows what it's writing about. youtube.com, flickr.com, google.com/trends, digg.com, technorati.com
VideoJug (videojug.com). Videos on how to do everyday stuff such as tying a tie etc.
Slideshare (slideshare.net) . For sharing presentations;
Best Tech Videos (bestechvideos.com). Very techie tutorial videos;
TechXtra (techxtra.ac.uk). Has a long enough 'tail' to answer real queries.
Online apps and desktops: Zoho (zoho.com);
Online video editing: jumpcut.com.
Reevoo (reevoo.com) is a very handy site for people looking for honest feedback on products, as it only publishes reviews known to come from customers.