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The Best Apps of 2010

Social magazines, Victorian tablets, and what 100-year-old educational traditions have to do with analog photography.

After spotlighting the year’s best books in in Business, Life & Mind, Art, Design & Photography and the top children’s literature, we’re back with the 10 most interesting, innovative and plain useful apps launched in 2010.


Yes, Steve Jobs named it the best app of the year. Yes, TIME picked it as one of the 50 best inventions of 2010. And, yes, we happen to be a featured stream on it. But mainstream acclaim and ego flattery aside, Flipboard is, quite simply, absolutely brilliant. The sleek iPad app turns your social streams — content your Facebook friends and Twitter follows are sharing — into a beautiful visually-driven magazine, padded with extra interesting content from curated channels around your passion points.

Oh, and it’s free.


From British artist Tom Phillips comes A Humument, combining 367 stunning full-color illustrations from Phillips’ artist book, based on and a contraction of the title of the Victorian novel A Human Document, with an ingenious interactive oracle function that will cast two pages to be read in tandem using a chosen date and a randomly generated number. A Find wheel lets you navigate the pages visually. You can share oracle readings with friends via email and post individual images to Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr.

Design Observer called it “one of the most successful artist’s books ever published” and we won’t disagree — it does for the iPad what Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes does for the bound book.

A Humument was first published as a private press edition in 1973, with several subsequent print editions and spinoffs. But the iPad app is the pinnacle of it all, weaving an immersive, non-linear narrative and featuring 39 new, original pages not available elsewhere. It’s the epitome of harnessing the full potential of a new publishing platform to engage in a different, more compelling way, rather than merely repurposing the print experience to a tablet screen.

A Humument is available for $7.99 which, given it’s more a book and art project in one than it is an app per se, is an absolute steal.


Rapportive is your personal social media detective. The clever Gmail extension pulls a rich profile of the sender to the right of each email — everything from social media presence to location to job titles past and present.

Rapportive is free and available for Firefox, Safari, Chrome and Mailplane.


Sure, Instapaper, the ingeniously simple app for saving web pages to read them later, has been around since 2008 as an iPhone app. But the Instapaper iPad app, launched in March, completely changes the relationship between the reader and the digital page. With its stripped-down, minimalist aesthetic sprawled gloriously on the wide iPad screen, the app turns your favorite online reads, sans the annoying ads and the distracting meta-links, into the perfect companion for everything from your train commute to your cardio workout at the gym.

Instapaper is the brainchild of Tumblr cofounder Marco Arment. The iPad app is available for $4.99 and triple-worth every penny.


It’s no secret we’re big TED fans here, so the October launch of TED’s free iPad app was an absolute treat. It tailors TED’s familiar brilliance — powerful punches of inspiration by some of the world’s most remarkable thinkers and doers — to the touchscreen experience, offering some nifty iPad-exclusive features. An “Inspire Me” button lets you find the perfect dose of inspiration based on the amount of time you have to watch; curated playlists offer thematic insight on topics like “How We Learn” and “The Power of Cities”; smart tags break down the 800+ TEDTalks into 250 easily navigable categories.

The app was developed by a former Apple developer who worked on the first iPhone SDK — and it shows.


With real-time translation as the next frontier of the web and augmented reality as easily the most buzzed about mobile technology this year, it’s no surprise that the marriage of the two would be a win. WordLens is a new real-time translation app that turns your iPhone into “the dictionary of the future,” using optical character recognition and augmented reality to translate text captured with the phone’s camera. From t-shirt slogans to street signage, its applications for globe-trotters are astounding and its implications for the future of language learning and cross-cultural communication remarkable.

The app itself is free, with various language pairs available for in-app purchase. The first pair released is Spanish-English, with more coming soon.


Design Observer is the world’s premiere online design journal and their new iPhone app puts today’s most important conversations about design in your pocket. From photography to architecture to to urbanism to sustainability and beyond, the sleek app lets you browse the entire spectrum of visual culture and social innovation by channel, topic or author. A special Mondrian view allows you to scan articles visually by thumbnails of key images.

The app is free and highly recommended.


Visual lifestreaming is one of the most rapidly growing branches of new media storytelling. Instagram takes your hum-drum iPhone photos, runs them through some retrotastic filters, and churns out gorgeous images oozing Lomo charisma and vintage goodness. What makes the app interesting is that it comes with a built-in mobile-only social network: You get to follow friends and interesting users on Instagram, much like you would on Twitter, with the option of liking or commenting on images, but there’s no web version whatsoever — you can only engage with your stream within the app. (Though you can, of course, share links to individual images on Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere.)

The app is free and one of our most recent (now full-blown) obsessions.


Navigating the torrents of marketing hype, nutrition labels, overwhelming ingredient lists and questionable health claims can take the joy out of food shopping. Fooducate is a smart app that helps you see behind the veil of healthspeak and make better choices at the store. The app, developed by a team of dietitians, uses the iPhone’s camera to scan barcodes and pull up product highlights, both good and bad — including stuff manufacturers don’t want you to see, like excessive sugar, hidden trans fats, additives and preservatives, artificial coloring and more. It currently features a databse of 160,000 products, growing daily.

Fooducate is free and a solid investment in your health.


The Montessori method is easily the best-known system of self-directed learning in formal education. This year, Montessorium put the 100-year-old educational tradition at the fingertips of today’s children with two simple yet brilliantly executed mobile apps that let kids learn the basics of language and mathematics. Minimalist yet engaging, the sleekly designed app makes self-directed learning what it should be: Fun, simple, yet effective.

Montessorium comes in three varieties — math, letters and writing — each available for $4.99. The folks at Montessorium have kindly offered 10 free downloads of the brand new writing app to Brain Pickings readers, so if you’d like to try it out, say so in the comments below and we’ll email the first 10 a promo code. [UPDATE 12/27/10: All 10 invitations have been claimed!]

Published December 27, 2010




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