30 Things You Didn't Know You Could Do on the InternetThe Web is learning new tricks every day. These surprising sites and services will help you solve problems and save time--and one might even make you a star.
Contributing Editor Dan Tynan is the author of Computer Privacy Annoyances (O'Reilly Media, 2005). He also writes PC World's Gadget Freak column.
Illustration by Doug Ross
So you think you have the Web all figured out? Well, think again.
Did you know that you could charter a private jet online, star in your own reality TV show, or download songs as you drive your car? That's just the beginning. You can tell your boss a few unpleasant truths without revealing your identity and sniff out trends before your oh-so-hip friends get wind of them. Using the right sites, you can give Google a face-lift, promote your products or bloviate about your blog, publish a novel, write a business plan, scan your PC for spies, and get free tech help. You can even use the Web to uncover government secrets and to predict your own demise. (Those last two activities will be unrelated, we hope.) Best of all, most of these sites won't charge you a dime.
Here are some of the more surprising things the Web can do for you.
Trend Buzz, Reality TV, and more...
Go Back in Time
Take a trip down memory lane with the Wayback Machine. Here's the PCWorld.com site circa 1998.
Wonder what Yahoo looked like during the dot-com boom? Dial up the Wayback Machine, and you can view cached copies of popular Web sites dating back to 1996. For quick nostalgia trips, add a Wayback bookmarklet to your Firefox or Opera toolbar or Internet Explorer favorites; clicking the button will call up the archive of the site you're viewing.
Give Google a Face-Lift
GoogleX provides easy access to Google's many search projects.
Google offers more than a dozen services, but most are hidden. The GoogleX interface makes all of Google's goodies--such as Gmail, Froogle, Maps, and more--accessible via a nifty Mac OS X-like toolbar. Originally designed by a Google researcher, the toolbar disappeared shortly after being posted on the Google Labs site (most likely due to objections by Apple), but not before some plucky Netizens saved a copy for your use.
Catch the Early Buzz on Trends
Want to find out what the bloggers are talking about before it hits the mainstream? Just sign up for PubSub and plug in your search terms. This site crawls more than 9 million blogs, public relations newswires, and SEC filings for relevant entries, and then e-mails you the results. You can also install a sidebar applet inside IE or Firefox and view the results interactively.
Back Up and Share Music and Videos
Using Streamload, you can upload gigabytes of music and video files (as well as Word docs, Web pages, presentations, and more) and share them with any other Streamload user you choose (provided you have the legal right to use the material, of course). You or your friends can stream or download media files to any computer, so you can watch your home videos even when you are far from home. A free Streamload account comes with 10GB of storage and 100MB of downloads per month; accounts with unlimited storage and from 1GB to 60GB of downloads range from $5 to $40 per month.
Check Your Inbox From Anywhere
You say your ISP doesn't offer a Web interface for your e-mail inbox? Don't fret. With Mail2Web you can access any POP3 or IMAP4 account, read and respond to messages, and attach up to 10MB of files from any Web-connected computer. And don't worry, your mail will still be there ready to download when you get back to the office.
Find Uncle Sam's Hidden Files
Hear that big sucking sound? It's thousands of documents disappearing from government Web pages--some removed due to national security concerns, and others for political reasons. But at sites like the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy, The Memory Hole, and Cryptome, you can find some of these missing files, along with other declassified but hard-to-find documents.
Create Your Own Reality TV Show
Why should Paris Hilton and Donald Trump get all the glory? On ManiaTV you can submit your own 5-minute video clip; if it's picked, the site will devote an hour of programming to a video of your life. You can also send in clips from your mobile phone, or program an hour-long "mixtape" of your favorite video clips for broadcast online. This self-styled MTV (without the TV) claims 1 million unique visitors a month.
Travel by Kayak
That's "Kayak" as in Kayak.com--a cool metasearch site that works like an in-house travel agency. A Google-like home page searches for flights, hotels, and cars from more than 100 different travel sites. Unique slider bars let you filter flights by time or price range; you can view all available airlines, airports, and hotel chains, or winnow down to just your favorites.
Tell the Truth in Secret
Maybe your boss has bad breath, or a close friend is in serious need of an ego trim. You can slip them a word in secret using Sharpmail's anonymous e-mailer. You can send your message in plain text or HTML, or you can send an SMS message to someone's cell phone. (But don't even think about sending abusive or spammish mail, or Sharpmail will pull your free account.) Who knows? Maybe you'll receive an anonymous message taking you to task for your passive-aggressive e-mail tendencies.
Blog at Light Speed
Bubbler makes blogging easy, with a helpful desktop that handles file uploads.
When you have something to say right away, let Bubbler be your mouthpiece. This convenient blogging tool resides on your desktop, enabling you to post entries, publish images, and share files with just a few mouse clicks--no wading through multiple log-on windows or dealing with kludgy posting tools. Bubbler will host a simple text blog with 1MB of storage for free; paid options that allow you more storage space range from 10MB ($5 a month) to 4GB ($100 a month).
Free Tech Help, Parenting Skills, and more...
Get Tech Help for Free
If Windows is having another bad hair day, but you're unwilling to spend $35 to be aggravated by Microsoft support, the Tech Support Guy can help. Post your question to the site's two dozen forums or search more than 300,000 threads to find an answer. It's not as fast as a call to tech support, but it can be more fruitful and less frustrating.
Hone Your Parenting Skills
Are your children driving you up the wall? For $30 a month, About My Kids provides unlimited access to a personal parenting coach to answer your questions. You can talk with a coach via phone, e-mail, or live chat about your kids, whether they're toddlers or teens. So the next time your 15-year-old comes home with a scary piercing--or a scarier date--you'll know whom to call.
Increase Your Web Site's IQ
You tackle some meaty topics on your Web site. Now how are you going to explain all those arcane terms for the newbies? Answers.com provides a way to add definitions for any term. For example, to define the acronym "XML," add the link www.answers.com/xml whenever "XML" appears on your page. Simple, easy, and free.
Become an E-Marketing Mogul
For as little as $15 a month, Constant Contact makes it a snap to create HTML-formatted e-mail newsletters, sign up visitors to your Web site, manage subscriber lists, find out who reads what you're sending out, and identify your most successful marketing campaigns. But don't even consider using it to send spam--Constant Contact monitors outgoing messages and will terminate your account at the first sign that you're abusing the service.
Never Take Another Boring Business Trip
Why take your dog-and-pony show on the road when you can hold it on the Web? At GoToMeeting you can display your slides, host live demos, or collaborate on documents while gabbing on the phone. GoToMeeting costs $50 a month for unlimited meetings of up to ten participants--a fraction of the cost of other online conferencing services, and a lot cheaper than a cross-country plane ticket. An even cheaper option is Microsoft's free (if ancient) NetMeeting client, which lets you collaborate with other NetMeeting users. It's not installed in XP by default, so you'll have to search for "netmeeting" in XP's Help and Support and run a wizard to install it.
Compare Cell Plans
WireFly makes it easy to compare the service plans cell phone carriers offer in your area.
Are you tied up in knots trying to unravel dozens of mobile phone plans? WireFly can untangle the mess. Just type in your zip code to search by carrier, phone, or plan. You can then sort your options by price, minutes, and type of coverage, and compare the plans in a side-by-side view. Charts include J.D. Power ratings for customer care and service plans, as well as WireFly's own rating of each carrier's market coverage.
Follow Your Money
If you've ever wondered where all your money goes, now you can find out. Where's George literally tracks your dollars using the serial numbers on each bill. Whoever receives your greenbacks will have to log on to the site for you to track the dough, so you might want to write the URL on your bucks before you fork them over.
Unmask Spoofed Web Sites
That Web site may look just like your bank's, but is it really? Find out by downloading Corestreet's free Spoofstick applet. It displays the real domain of the site in your browser toolbar, regardless of what the address window says--an invaluable tool for fighting phishers. The toolbar is available for both IE 6.x and Firefox 1.x.
Disinfect Your PC
Is your antivirus software on the fritz? Don't despair, just stop by Panda Software's site for a free system scan. You'll have to download an applet, surrender your e-mail address, and use Internet Explorer (the scanner requires ActiveX). Panda detects and disinfects most forms of malware, and will alert you to (but won't fix) spyware infestations.
Design Your Own Business Cards
Forget about schlepping down to Kinko's to order business cards. At IPrint you just choose a card template and start filling in text. You can pick fonts, colors, graphics, and paper, preview your work, and place an order with a few clicks. A box of 250 is $18 and up; you can also get matching letterhead, envelopes, labels, coffee mugs, and more.
Become a T-Shirt Titan
Want a quick and easy way to promote your business? CafePress will put your corporate logo on T-shirts, caps, coffee mugs, mouse pads, and more. You can give the items away to customers or sell them directly from a CafePress-powered page on your site. The site handles everything from production to payment, and then gives you a cut of each sale.
Charter Jet, Get Surreal, and more...
Charter a Private Jet
It doesn't come cheap, but you can charter your own private jet at Charterauction.com.
So you struck it rich selling Furbies on EBay and now you want to travel in style. At Charter Auction, you can rent a private jet starting at $2100 an hour. Plug in your departure and arrival information, and private jet owners will bid for your business. (You'll have to put $100,000 in an escrow account before you can book a flight.) A typical round trip from New York to San Francisco runs about $30,000. Pricey, but a great way to impress prospective clients.
Shop for the Best Advertising Venue
Advertising on the Web doesn't have to be complicated. Adbrite makes buying banner ads as easy as shopping at Amazon.com. Just pick a site where you want your ad to appear, and add it to your shopping cart. Prices range from 1 cent per click to $6000 for a week-long text ad campaign, depending on the site you're targeting. You can also sell ad space on your site to others; Adbrite takes 25 percent of the cut.
Hire a Nag
There was something I wanted to tell you...now, what was it again? Oh, yeah--it was about RemindMe.com. This nifty service pops up a window on your computer for those crucial events (birthdays, anniversaries, tee times) when relying on a personal organizer just isn't enough. The stand-alone package costs $25, but a free (ad-supported) e-mail version should be available by the time you read this.
Become a Blog Snob
Is your Web site a tad, well, dull? Ravenblack's random surrealism generator will spark it right up. Just copy the site's free HTML code to your home page template. Each time your page loads, it will display a different Dali-esque comment ("A saucepan a day keeps the banana away"). Words to live by.
Take Your Business to the Next Level
Your small business could be the next Amazon.com--if you don't get lost in the business jungle first. Let StartupNation be your guide. Budding entrepreneurs can find reams of free advice, success stories, online seminars, and more from radio hosts and small-business consultants Rich and Jeff Sloan. You can also buy business plan software, obtain insurance, and hire a branding consultant.
Make High School Cool
Do your teens need to take courses that their local school doesn't offer? Enroll them at either the Virtual High School or the Florida Virtual School. Your child can take a single course or a series of them across a wide range of topics. These fully accredited learning institutions educate thousands of students nationwide, but in order for your children to get class credit on their transcripts, they will need to sign up through their high school.
Clean Out Your Garage (and Fill It Back Up)
The barter system makes a comeback at SwapThing.com.
Got boxes of old LPs or baseball cards you don't know what to do with? Swap 'em for something you like better at SwapThing. You can swap items such as music, art, trading cards, and old schoolbooks, or offer them for sale. You can list items for free; the site charges each party a buck for every item swapped or sold. It's easier and cheaper than auctioning them on EBay.
Hire a Virtual Office Manager
Running a small business means having to know a little bit about everything. Need to whip up a marketing plan or write a human resources manual? SmartOnline provides the know-how and the tools. You can purchase a passel of bread-and-butter business services for $30 a month or order them à la carte. The site also offers a handful of free tools, such as an online calendar, address book, and currency converter.
Download Tunes While You Drive
You're in your car and a great song comes on the radio, but by the time you get home you've totally forgotten the band's name. With Music On Command you can buy the tune instantly. Just dial a toll-free number and punch in the station's call letters; the site sends an e-mail or SMS with a link to a store where you can download the song. At press time the service was still in beta testing, and songs were available through Buy.com for $1 apiece. The service covers more than 1200 radio stations in North America; support for Sirius and XM satellite radio is in the works.
Publish Your Masterpiece
So you've completed your 1000-page opus but can't find a publisher? Do it yourself on Lulu.com. Unlike most self-publishing sites, Lulu charges no up-front fees and requires no minimum orders. Just upload a word processing document and follow a wizard to choose the book's size, format, cover art, and price or commission. Lulu takes 20 percent of the cover price. You can sell your book via Lulu, Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, or your own Web site. If you order copies for yourself, you pay only binding and printing costs--around $8.50 for a standard 200-page paperback.
Find Out How Much Time You Have Left
We all have to go sometime--and the DeathClock purports to tell you precisely when. Just plug in your birth date, gender, height, and weight; the site predicts the day of your demise based on average life expectancy, and even displays a ticker that counts down to the big day in seconds.
Desktop Info: Webify Your Desktop
Illustration by Doug Ross
Why venture out on the Net when it can come to you? You can festoon your desktop with "widgets" that pull information from your favorite Web sites.
The best-known widget program is Pixoria's Konfabulator ($25). It comes with more than a dozen prefab widgets, which run the gamut from practical (clocks, stock tickers, battery and Wi-Fi monitors) to whimsical (a "werewolf" widget that displays the phases of the moon). But the real widget wonderland is Pixoria's site, where users contribute their own creations for free. Here you'll find traffic and surf cams, train schedules, radio and RSS tuners, meters that display the locations of the cheapest gas in your area, an English-to-Swedish translator, a haiku generator, a Shakespearean Insult Kit, and the unblinking red eye of the HAL 9000 computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey, complete with sound bites. And all that is just for starters.
Konfabulator's widgets can put all kinds of Web-based info on your desktop.
To add a new widget to your desktop, right-click the Konfabulator icon in your system tray and select Open Widget. To download more items from the site, select Get More Widgets. To view all your widgets at once, select Konspose. It doesn't get much simpler.
Stardock's DesktopX 3 ($15) features 23 widgets, including a language translator and an applet that can fetch the lyrics of virtually any song you might have a hankering to hear. The Standard ($25) and Professional ($70) versions come with tools that let you build your own widgets or overhaul your entire Windows desktop. Another place to find free stand-alone widgets, from clocks and calendars to abstract art generators, is at the Freeware Guide.
Web APIs: Make the Big Sites Work for You
Illustration by Doug Ross
Amazon and Google are more than just Web sites--they're gigantic collections of useful data. The application programming interfaces (APIs) that access that data have enabled developers to build other amazing sites, and you can too if you're willing to hack a little code.
Amazon.com has more than 80,000 developers who use its API to build online shopping malls, as well as sites like Live Plasma, where you can search on a musician and view a groovy map showing related artists.
"We invite developers to be creative and innovative," says Amazon Web services evangelist Jeff Barr, "to take our data and do fun things with it."
Together at last: Craigslist real estate postings cleverly plotted on a Google map.
It's not just Amazon. Dreamworks animator Paul Rademacher has combined data from Google Maps and Craigslist to create an interactive map that lets you find housing in markets across the country. FlickrPaper employs Flickr's API to let users build desktop wallpaper from Flickr's shared photo collection. First Floor Software used a Yahoo API to create an image search engine that displays results as a slide show. The Send to Smug Mug plug-in enables users of Smugmug.com to send pics directly to the digital photography site by right-clicking an image inside Windows Explorer. And that's just a tiny sample of what's available.
To take advantage of a site's API, you need some knowledge of common Web programming tools. Google's downloadable API kit contains a manual on how to use it, along with sample Java and.Net code. Flickr provides a wealth of APIs, as well as code samples. You'll find documentation and more for Amazon's APIs here; Yahoo's is here.
Even if you're not a code jockey, you can add Google or Amazon to your site. Simply copy a dozen lines of HTML code to add a Google search box to your home page. Selling Amazon products on your site for up to a 10 percent commission is nearly as easy. You'll have to sign up for the Amazon Associates program and copy some code to your home page. Then just wait for the money to roll in.
Be Your Own Shock Jock
Illustration by Doug Ross
You don't need a mellifluous voice or wild hair to become a cybermedia star. All you require are some podcasting tools.
To start, you need audio software, such as Audacity or IPodcast Producer ($150), that records MP3 files. (You can also use Windows Sound Recorder to record.wav files, and then convert them to MP3s using a program like Musicmatch Jukebox.) Once you've recorded your file, you'll have to enclose it in an RSS feed, and upload it to your blog or Web site.
Audioblog.com makes podcasting easy by handling both recording and posting.
But for my money, the easiest route to podcasting is Audioblog.com ($5 a month or $50 a year). Here you'll find everything you need in one easy bloglike interface. For example, to record a podcast, you just log in and click the Audio tab, and then Record New Audio Post. Click Allow to let the site access your microphone or camera, followed by Begin and then Record. When you're done, click Stop and enter a title and description for your recording; then click Save. On the next page, click Publish Audio, and then select the blog or RSS feed you want to publish it to. It's that simple.
In fact, you don't even need a computer to begin your podcasting career. You can dial a number, record entries via phone, and then automatically post them to your blog. And if you want the world to see as well as hear you, Audioblog can do the same thing for video files captured via Webcam. Stardom is just a click away.
Make $$ From Your Site
Illustration by Doug Ross
Just because you missed the dot-com boom doesn't mean the gravy train has passed you by completely. Here are a handful of ways you can make your Web site pay for itself and maybe bring in a little bit of extra cash as well.
Text ads: Programs like Google AdSense let you carry text ads relevant to your site's content. Every time a visitor views or clicks an ad, you'll earn a few pennies.
Affiliate programs: Many online merchants depend on networks of affiliate sites to move product. Affiliate aggregators like LinkShare or Commission Junction let you pick from hundreds of affiliate advertisers, some offering commissions as high as 40 percent.
Subscriptions: Is your Web content worth paying for? You could charge users for access. But be aware that subscription management services like VisionGate or MemberGate can cost from a few hundred to several thousand dollars a month, depending on the number of subscribers.
Self-publishing: Aaron Gleeman, editor in chief of the Hardball Times baseball site, used a more traditional method of generating income from his hobby. He published a couple of books, including The Hardball Times Baseball Annual, through Lulu Press. The royalties allow him to pay his writers a small stipend and to make a comfortable if not cushy living.