Apps stole more than their fair share of headlines in 2013: Facebook bought Instagram for a mind-melting $1 billion; Twitter turned to video with Vine; Tinder ruined the moral fiber of the universe. Beyond these big stories, however, there were some other significant trends. America Tonight identified a few of the most interesting and innovative -- some good, some bad and some creepy.
The year of the 'smartphoto'
Every new smartphone released this year touted new camera features as a main selling point. Many people used this high resolution technology to take photos of their own faces. The Oxford English Dictionary even declared 2013 as the year of the "selfie." Apps proliferated for people who wanted to play with photos of their faces, and send them to others. But photo apps, as a whole, saw a boom. They've become so sophisticated that what took an expert several hours a few years ago now takes a few flicks of a thumb, and entirely new forms of messaging and art are emerging. This is why we've christened 2013 the year of the "smartphoto."
Photoshop on the fly
Instagram already allowed people to look more attractive with filters, but a slate of new apps allow people to look more attractive in a lot more detail. Advancements in facial recognition technology enabled more parts of the face to be massaged in natural ways, like getting rid of undereye bags or tweaking awkward smirks into million-dollar smiles.
Perhaps the most popular free app in this space, Perfect365, produced by digital imaging company ArcSoft, allows users to eradicate face flaws, whiten teeth, and add garish eye shadow and sultry lip shade. It's more tech-heavy cousin Facetune, at $2.99, went from no. 283 in the App Store to no. 2 in just five days, and topped the paid app charts in 40 countries. Beyond your basic de-blemishing, Facetune lets you completely transform the bone structure of your face.
In 2012, the GIF was king. While 2013 didn’t have a replacement, it at least found a successor in the cinemagraph. If the GIF is Andy Warhol, with winking repetition, than the cinemagraph is Mark Rothko, acting as poetry for the eyes. With Flixel, you can easily highlight the element of the image you want to rustle, ripple or twirl. The result is straight out of Harry Potter’s wizarding world. Though media outlets have only just begun to experiment with the form, the "living photo" has already received a double thumbs up from high fashion. Tyra Banks invested in Flixel last summer, and pledged to promote it heavily on her show, America's Next Top Model.
Snapchat won 2013. It didn't win the year in terms of dollars, of which it made zero. But it won the year for flip-reversing the zeitgeist. It had appeared that young people liked to take lots of photos of themselves, and then share them with everybody forever online with little consideration for how idiotic or unemployable they may seem. Snapchat proved the opposite. People love the whimsy, intimacy and security of a self-destructing photo along with a message. As it turns out, they like it a lot. As of October, one in almost every 10 cell phones in America had Snapchat, according to Pew Research Center.
At first, the app was best known as a way to share risqué photos with less likelihood of them being circulated widely, but it quickly grew into a photo messaging app that forced other apps to adapt. In June, Vine introduced its own messaging service. And earlier this month, after Facebook reportedly failed to acquire Snapchat, it introduced a messaging service to Instagram instead, which it owns.
This year also saw a continuing surge in apps that make us better people. Not better in the kind, moral sense, but in the well-oiled machine sense. On the hardcore edge of this trend, there was the Quantified Self movement, with self-dubbed “QSers” tracking almost every element of their lives with technology. But by the end of this year, a sizeable number of Americans discovered the go-getting, compulsive QSer inside of them.
The wearable electronics market -- smartwatches, fitness trackers, heart-rate monitors and the like -- is in a period of dizzying growth. Futuresource Consulting estimates the sector to be worth more than $8 billion by year’s end. And everyone wants in on the game. More than 18 million people log their exercise with a Nike FuelBand, SportWatch or the Nike+ fitness app. Fitbit has raised $63 million and Jawbone more than $150 million. Apple’s much-rumored “iWatch” has been dubbed the company’s “most anticipated new product since the iPad.” We will never look at our wrists the same way again.
There are plenty of apps to manage your money. While they may make it easier to settle debts, they don’t make it less awkward. Then, there’s Venmo. Connect the app to your bank account or debit card (everything is thickly encrypted), and your Facebook friends and email contacts. Whenever someone owes you money -- your roommate for the gas bill, your buddy for the round of beers, your sister for those self-warming socks for mom -- you can ping them and get paid back through the app. Expenses are then shared in a Facebook-like stream. Even PayPal has acknowledged the app’s simplicity and hipness, and has been sniffing around to potentially bid on the company that bought it.
While there's a high volume of language-learning apps, many of them miss an important fact of language-learning: After the initial honeymoon period of tossing foreign phrases into your everyday speech, learning a language can be frustrating, boring and hard. But Duolingo gets it. With the app, you set yourself goals each day, and the lessons are designed like mini-games. Duolingo makes learning a language kind of addictive, which is likely why it scooped the title of Apple’s app of the year. It’s also free. It’s motto: “Free language education for the world.” Currently, the app only offers courses in Spanish, English, French, German, Portuguese and Italian.
"Unplugging" became a 2013 buzzword, thanks, in no small part, to The New York Times' evangelism on the subject. Later, a host of apps sprouted up to technologically assist you in your technological abstinence. With the app Freedom, available to download for $10, users can select the number of minutes -- up to eight hours -- that they want to be completely banned from the Internet. AntiSocial, a $15 app, allows users pick the guilty pleasures they want to deny themselves. For a gentler approach, RescueTime provides a daily readout of your online activities, nudging you away from the Wikipedia wormholes.
More than dating
Much attention has been paid to mobile dating, from the geo-convenience hook-up app Grindr to the hot face-based matchmaking of Tinder. But dating is so much more than finding a date. In the past year, a range of apps rose to prominence for exploring less-tapped aspects of romance, like gossiping about hook-ups and stoking the flames of long-distance love.
Like Yelp but for human men, Lulu may be the most controversial app of 2013. Ladies (and only ladies) anonymously rate their dates and hook-ups on their personality, ambition, looks and performance in bed, annotating them with pre-cooked hashtags like #ManChild, #OpensDoors, #LoserFriends and #PornEducated. The reviews are then visible to all of that guy's female Facebook friends. Despite a loud chorus of disgust from many corners, 180 million guys were rated on Lulu within the first eight months. The app now estimates that it reaches one in four college girls in the U.S., reported New York Magazine.
The world thought video dating profiles had died with the Betamax, replaced by the carefully-angled photograph and declared love for travel. But 2013 saw their triumphant return. MeetMe, formerly MyYearbook, launched the app Charm, which is like Tinder but with video, under the motto: "You're so much more than your profile pic."
The Love At First Sight app was the creation of "The Bachelor" host Chris Harrison and series creator Mike Fleiss. In the app, hopeful singles are prompted by certain questons and commands, like "What is the scariest thing you've ever been through or done?" and "Record yourself dancing to your favorite song!" The crux of the idea is that personality shines brighter in videos, and it's a whole lot harder to lie.
There are so many apps to help you find a mate, but very few to help you and your chosen mate's love thrive. With Avocado (because "avocados grow in pairs"), you can squeeze your phone to send your partner a virtual hug and peck the screen to give him or her a kiss. You can also write lists together ("Springtime adventure ideas," "Movies we want to watch but always forget the moment we want to watch a movie"), share a calendar, make delightful love sketches and generally play out an indie movie romance on the app. But the best thing about it? It'll tell you when your partner's phone battery is running low.