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No, Android faithful, we haven't forgotten about you. Two weeks ago we named the best iPhone and iPad apps of 2012, and now it's Android's turn. It's not easy, of course, to choose the top 10 apps from more than 700,000 selections, and the process is admittedly subjective. As with our iOS picks, we've tried to avoid the most obvious candidates -- Facebook, Instagram, Pandora, Angry Birds and so on -- and focus on new and less obvious apps that InformationWeek readers might find useful at work, home and on the road. Our picks may lean toward the pragmatic side of things, but they're not all dullsville utilities and the like. Some are actually fun.
Nobody's Top 10 list is the same, naturally, and your picks may differ from ours. But there should be little argument that Android as a mobile platform is booming. In a December 10 interview with Bloomberg News, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt boasted that Android grabbed a commanding 72% of the global mobile OS market in the third quarter, and compared today's Android-iOS battle with the Windows-Macintosh desktop donnybrook of years past.
"This is a huge platform change; this is of the scale of 20 years ago -- Microsoft versus Apple," Schmidt told Bloomberg. "We're winning that war pretty clearly now."
OK, enough with the bragging, already. Sure, Android's domination is apparent -- 2nd place iOS has a relatively paltry 14% of the global market -- and Google's mobile platform has reached parity with Apple in the apps arms race. (Both are north of 700,000.) But Android is plagued by fragmentation, with a dizzying array of devices running various incarnations of the OS. For instance, just over 50% of Android devices still run Gingerbread (Android 2.3x), which first debuted two years ago -- yep, several eternities in the mobile market.
Things are improving, albeit slowly. Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0x) runs on 27.5% of Android devices, and the newer Jelly Bean (Android 4.1 and 4.2) runs on 6.7%.
Why does fragmentation matter so much? Because the newest, coolest Android tools -- including one from Google that we spotlight in the slideshow below -- require the latest version(s) of the OS.
One important point about our Android picks: Like their iOS counterparts, they didn't necessarily have to debut in 2012, but rather had to fulfill a particularly need and do it well.
So here they are: The Top 10 Android Apps of 2012. Disagree with our choices? Let us know below.
Google's latest mobile helper is an extension of Android's Google Search app. Google Now expands the personal assistant concept popularized by Apple's Siri by anticipating your needs and providing useful information at the right time. It does so by automatically displaying "cards" that contain location- and time-relevant details. When you're at the airport, for instance, Google Now will find your boarding pass in an email and post it on your smartphone's screen. (As of mid-December, this feature works with only a limited number of airlines.) Google Now debuted in June 2012 at Google I/O, and is currently limited to Android 4.1 and up. It shows great potential to make mobile devices much more intelligent and useful.
Google Drive isn't new, of course, but its recent upgrade allows you to edit Google Sheets (spreadsheets) on your Android phone or tablet. The Drive app now boasts additional desktop-like functionality as well; you can create a new spreadsheet, edit an existing one, and see other people's edits in real time -- handy for working collaboratively when you're on the go. You can resize columns, change fonts, sort data and so on. Another nice touch is the ability to add a home screen shortcut to any file in Drive. The smartphone may never be the go-to device for spreadsheet jockeys, but Google Drive's upgrades certainly make it more useful for number-crunchers.
Flipboard left the exclusive confines of iOS and came to Android in 2012. A free aggregation app for your favorite news services and social sites, it retrieves articles from online publications and popular social services such as Facebook and Twitter. The beauty of Flipboard is its swipe-friendly magazine-style UI -- simply "flip" through the pages with a swipe of the finger to move to the next page of articles. Flipboard displays posts and photos shared by your Facebook friends too. One bummer: the Android app is optimized for smartphones, not tablets, although a tablet-specific version will likely emerge as Android slates gain ground.
Everybody takes notes a little differently, and most of us have more than one way to record our brilliant thoughts. Catch Notes gets this and provides several ways to take notes. Its clever UI includes the capture wheel (see image), which lets you create voice, photo and text notes by tapping the appropriate icon.
The free version of Catch Notes, which includes 3 spaces (private or shared notebooks) and the ability to post 70 MB of content each month to Catch's cloud service, is fine for personal use. The paid version starts at $5/month for 50 spaces, 1 GB of new cloud content per month and the ability to attach documents to notes.
Hate Android's stock keyboard? SwiftKey 3 is a great alternative for $4. Version 3, which debuted in 2012, features smarter spelling correction and a larger space bar, and the UI is easier to use overall. SwiftKey's word-prediction skills are mostly spot-on. The app learns your writing style, and is very good at predicting which word you'll type next. It even predicts people's names and places you frequent. You can personalize SwiftKey by syncing it with your Gmail, Facebook, and Twitter accounts, and with blog posts.
Many Android phones come with the ubiquitous Swype app, which lets you spell words on a screen keyboard by sliding a finger from letter to letter. If SwiftKey 3 isn't your thing, check out the latest Swype beta here.
Microsoft's free Xbox SmartGlass app turns your mobile device into an Xbox console remote. When you start a game, movie or TV show, SmartGlass automatically retrieves additional content, such as movie trivia and photo galleries. It's a prime example of the burgeoning second screen phenomenon where TV viewers watch the big screen with a smaller screen (e.g., phone or tablet) by their side. SmartGlass's current capabilities are limited, but like similar apps from pay-TV providers such as Verizon FiOS, Xfinity and Time Warner Cable, it promises to drive a stake through the heart of the notoriously hard-to-use TV remote.
SMS text messaging has long been one of the cellular industry's biggest cash cows and most notorious rip-offs. But the death knell for SMS may sound soon, thanks to smartphone messenging apps like WhatsApp Messenger. A free messenger app that runs on all the major mobile platforms, WhatsApp works with your cellular number and integrates with a phone's address book. It supports video, image and voice messages, and allows free messaging to fellow WhatsApp users across the globe.
There's plenty of competition in this space, of course, most notably Facebook Messenger, which doesn't require a Facebook account to send/receive messages. (Like WhatsApp, a simple phone number and user name will suffice.) So if you're paying a wireless carrier to text, don't do it!
Planning a business trip is a hassle, particularly when it involves numerous cities, airports, hotels and meetings. TripIt Travel Organizer is handy way to keep your itinerary in order. Here's how it works: When you get a confirmation email from, say, an airline or hotel, you forward it to TripIt, which creates a "master itinerary" that you can view from any PC or mobile device. In addition to organizing trip details, TripIt pulls in helpful information, such as weather forecasts and maps of your destination. TripIt Pro ($49 per year) also alerts you if your flight is delayed, cancelled or has changed gates. It also finds alternative flights, and lets you input all of your frequent flyer info. If you travel often, check out TripIt.
A smartphone can do many things, but you probably didn't know it could measure distance, height, angles, direction and sound too. The jack-of-all-trades Smart Tools is a $2.50 toolkit for the handyman in all of us. Its 15 measurement tools are divided into 5 sets. Smart Ruler Pro, for instance, is handy for measuring the length of objects placed on a mobile device's screen. Smart Tools also includes a protractor that works with the phone's camera, as well as myriad other tools. Professional measuring tools may be more precise, of course, but Smart Tools does well in a pinch. Besides, it's easier to carry than a real toolkit.
Nothing good on the hotel TV? Your mobile device becomes a TV screen with Sling Media's SlingPlayer, which has separate Android phone and tablet versions (each $15). Working in conjunction with a Slingbox device ($100 to $300) back at your house, SlingPlayer lets you take control of your home TV or DVR and watch your favorite shows from far, far away.