For the last few years, many everyday folks who've been asked in surveys, "What is a cloud application?" have either guessed wrong or said they don't know. Folks don't know what "the cloud" is, and for the most part, that's not their fault. Unlike the Internet, which truly is a single network of interconnected resources, "the cloud" is more of a concept, one which can be leveraged by marketing departments to mean just about anything.

For this year's ReadWriteWeb list of the most important and influential consumer-grade cloud computing apps of the year 2011, we focused our gaze on services that truly fit the formal definition: specifically, services that 1) utilize a remote resource of 2) variable capacity 3) which the user can provision for herself, 4) which is mostly or totally independent of programs installed on the user's devices or PCs, and 5) which is not just a Web site with a big server. You may have seen Facebook on some publications' Top Cloud lists already; by our definition, Facebook is not a cloud service. But we did look for providers that perform innovative, discrete functions built around their services.

Not every entry on our list is new this year, but they have all done something innovative within 2011. Keep in mind also, these are consumer cloud apps - things that an individual would use for her personal work or livelihood. We'll have a separate list later on for enterprise cloud innovations of the year. The functionality needs to be delivered from the cloud app, as opposed to installing an application on a PC or smartphone that just happens to borrow cloud storage.

Hosting services are not cloud apps for purposes of this list; and there are plenty of innovative hosts to consider (we gave serious thought to Wistia), but in the end we decided that a hosting service is not really an application unless it provides a discrete function that goes over and above simple storage or sharing. Analytics, which Wistia provides, is right on the edge, but it's really a measurement of a byproduct of using the service as opposed to a function that users actually perform. That's not saying Wistia isn't a great idea; it just belongs on another list.


10. CloudApp. The largest single category of cloud apps for consumers is storage and retrieval, which is understandable because it's a service that everyone needs to one degree or another. What's interesting is how certain services innovate on this theme, and especially whether they give themselves room to continue innovating.

CloudApp is for Mac OS and iOS users at the moment, and its innovation is that it's building a little ecosystem around itself. It utilizes your choice of quick-and-easy gestures for designating a file or object to send to CloudApp's storage, the most basic of which is dragging and dropping the object to CloudApp's icon in the taskbar. In exchange for this gesture, CloudApp produces a URI which is copied to the Clipboard. From there, you can paste it into an e-mail, a tweet, or an IM message; when your recipient receives the link, she has instant access to the object.

The way CloudApp innovates is by incrementally enhancing what can be easily uploaded, and how those objects can be utilized in their native context. One example is screenshots: You can designate a key for taking a screenshot and uploading it in one fell swoop; the recipient sees your link, clicks on it, and sees your screen. There's no exporting or importing necessary here.

But what hoisted CloudApp onto our Top 10 list this year is how well the company is promoting Raindrops. This is an extremely clever, self-promotional idea for enabling developers to build their own tools that utilize CloudApp in similarly contextual ways, with the help of CloudApp's own API. One example the company created at the time this feature was launched in April 2010 is for Adobe Photoshop; since then, the community has contributed a truckload more, including an intelligent link interpreter for Twitter and a stand-alone CloudApp client for iOS called Stratus.

Here's an example (above) of another add-on you can't even see (which is a good thing): The maker of SparrowMail used CloudApp's API to develop a way to do simple drag-and-drop of attachments into e-mail messages, bypassing Mac OS' sometimes convoluted series of steps.

Building a community around something as simple as an app is a difficult thing for a small company to achieve, especially when it's in competition with a plethora of other vendors in the same category. CloudApp is pulling this off brilliantly. (It's worth noting that the service is built on the open-source Heroku platform from Salesforce, thus answering RWW's question from last year on whether developers will trust Heroku: Yes.)


9. Waze. What would be nice is if someone hired a few thousand cars to drive around each town looking for traffic incidents, and report on them in real-time. Let's see, $25 bucks per hour salary times 1,000 reporters times 50 cities... I'll get back to you on that idea.

Or, what would be brilliant is if someone leveraged the platform that's already in existence to enable a few thousand folks to do this job passively and voluntarily. Waze is a system that utilizes the GPS information being pinged back from iPhone, Android, Windows Mobile, and Symbian devices. It's been in existence since 2006, but last October the 3.0 version of the service introduced a fabulous new feature (so far, just for the iPhone users) that integrates with Twitter. This way, people can tweet on what's happening in their neighborhoods (including the good things, like street fairs) from right where they're standing.

Okay, maybe there aren't a thousand Waze users in a city like mine (Indianapolis) just yet, but it's surprising what you can find. There's updates on traffic accidents and reported police sightings (which are rarer in some cities than others). What Waze demonstrates is that there are ways of making use of data that can be collected passively from a crowd of users, in ways that do not jeopardize privacy.


8. Box.net. This is one of the services that comes to most folks mind when they know what a cloud app is. What's kept Box.net in the news, including just this month - and what keeps Box.net on our list this year - is a constant stream of innovations. Customizable synchronization is one example from last fall; and earlier this month, a completely revamped iOS app that enables features like uploading photos and videos to discrete folders. This puts Box.net on a par with dedicated photo-sharing services that simply can't expand its features list to Box.net's size. And just this morning, the company launched an enterprise-grade option for unlimited storage.

7. Audiobox.fm. My wife and I are both Pandora fans, although last year I found it ironic that both of us had been working - albeit without admitting it to ourselves - to make Pandora play music we actually already owned. Yes, that sounds like a pathetic waste of precious seconds, but there it is.

Audiobox.fm, launched last year, is the streaming service that folks need anyway: one which enables them to store the music they own in the cloud ($3.99 for 11 GB is pretty fair) and also play that music from any device using the service's own media player. ITunes users who were a bit discouraged last year by Audiobox.fm's dedicated player were treated this year to the option of streaming their own M3U files from cloud storage, to their player of choice (with variable results, especially in the case of Winamp, but not for lack of trying).


6. Joukuu. We introduced you to this storage maintenance service last month, calling it a "cloud cloud." It's a Web-based console for displaying in a single list the contents of files stored to Google Docs, Box.net, and Dropbox (Microsoft SkyDrive support still forthcoming). When you work with many colleagues on a project, and they all subscribe to different services (often the case with independent contractors who happen to be paired together), Joukuu is a true timesaver. And the drag-and-drop functionality of its outside-the-browser app saves you about a thousand clicks per day.


5. Hojoki. (If you weren't looking carefully enough, with definitions of Joukuu and Hojoki, you'd think this would be a foreign language course.) Entire billion-dollar-plus industries are built around so-called "collaboration platforms" that enable sharing and versioning of documents among members of teams. And yet there are individual cloud apps (Beanstalk, Dropbox, Evernote, GitHub) that are involved with the individual tasks around collaboration, and which all have managed identity, but which are not linked together.

So it really took more clever observation than creative genius to create Hojoki, but the premise works just the same as if genius were involved from the beginning. Hojoki is a messaging system that looks an awful lot like something you'd see from Salesforce. It builds a stream of people with whom you're already sharing contacts, and lets you organize them into groups for collaborative projects. The activities that all of you share within that group are pipelined through the Hojoki stream to everyone in that group, so it becomes an automatic task progress monitor. The service is currently in beta, although it's already made significant inroads, and there will be a business model attached to a premium service once the beta cycle is complete.


4. Do.com. Nothing more thoroughly demonstrates the rapidly changing state of the applications market in general than the fact that Microsoft Outlook's greatest competition in over a decade comes from something that isn't really an e-mail client. Do.com from Salesforce includes the level and ease of functionality for file sharing and collaboration that enterprises may have already attached to Outlook by way of add-ons, but which aren't available for everyday Outlook users.

And by tying Do.com to Gmail as its primary messaging service, Salesforce is wedging itself beneath Outlook and threatening to uproot it from home users' and small business users' systems. Do.com may not be a threat yet to Exchange, though it may put a dent in Hosted Exchange services for smaller businesses. Nonetheless, it's demonstrating that even an e-mail client with "2010" in its name is looking more and more like "1980."

3. Spotify. The reason for the decline, if not yet outright collapse, of the global recording industry is that it is has not been meaningful or desirable for consumers to own music. The industry's principal delivery system for music, even to this date, remains a container that consumers no longer want; and the system that consumers prefer, and which a majority of them now actually use, is something that the industry has yet to truly embrace. Services like Last.fm and Pandora are more convenient than music ownership and, for more users today, more interesting than radio.

Spotify gambles with the notion that $9.99/month subscriptions to its premium mobile services (estimated last month at about 2.5 million) will be enough to pay down the royalties it undoubtedly owes for all its users, including those who use the free Spotify Radio desktop app to choose the music they want from Spotify's huge library. RWW's John Paul Titlow has been covering Spotify and Spotify Radio very thoroughly, in part 1 and part 2; and RWW's Jon Mitchell named Spotify #6 in his list of overall Top 10 Consumer Web Apps for 2011.

But what made Spotify qualify here again as a Top Cloud App is something it didn't have last year: an apps ecosystem of its very own. If you're thinking we've screwed up and posted a picture of Last.fm instead... well, it's no screw-up. Spotify's new desktop application, with music recommendation apps built-in, is so strong that it includes Last.fm as one of its recommendation providers, along with Rolling Stone magazine and TuneWiki.

When fully built out, the Spotify apps ecosystem will enable what the company is calling an "authentication layer" between record labels, app developers, and users. The technology that the record industry could not find it within itself to build for itself, may just end up being built for it. When that happens, it may have a certain deity to thank, followed immediately by Spotify.


2. iCloud. The establishment of Apple's stronghold in devices, and the services that support them, was deliberate, systematic, and in almost every aspect of its execution, brilliant. The exception was MobileMe, a service whose frequent slip-ups and uncharacteristically dramatic failures led Steve Jobs to openly declare its launch "not our finest hour."

Therefore iCloud could be noteworthy for having (at least thus far) not been a spectacular failure. But the brilliance of Apple's marketing has left many with the impression that iCloud has no direct competition with Android. What Android does lack, and what iCloud does provide, is a context of the service as an ever-present resource that's attached, albeit ethereally, to the iPhone, iPad, and Mac. Of course it's an Apple-only service, but haven't all Apple-produced disk drives since 1978 been Apple-only? From Apple's perspective, why must a virtual device, by definition, be more platform-agnostic than a physical one?

Because it's just another Apple device, it's programmable like an Apple device. Developers can build apps around it, and create new functions and methods that Apple Corp. hasn't even foreseen. For any other platform, this would be a great thing; from Apple's perspective, it could easily become perceived as an effort by independents to trim their way through Apple's carefully walled garden. Expect some "openness" issues to crop up around iCloud throughout 2012.


1. Evernote. Bill Gates was known to have overused the word "great" during his press appearances as the head of Microsoft, so there are probably thousands of sound bites of the phrase "great apps" just waiting to be compiled into the next great, annoying YouTube mash-up. Only a few apps get to be described as things of beauty.

At its core, Evernote does one thing, and does that very well. It collects clips of data from the Web sites you're reading or the applications you're using, and gathers them into categories that can be synced in the cloud and accessed from multiple devices. I noticed Evernote had pervaded the apps repertoires of many of the Syracuse University students we covered during last month's MLB.com Apps Challenge. Now that laptops, tablets, and in some universities, thin client desktops are the principal research tool of every scholar, Evernote has quickly risen to the level of ubiquitousness among this specific class of users - as invaluable to the work they do as Twitter.

Whether Evernote rises to the level of "beauty" depends on whether it raises its batting average of late. My friend and colleague Joe Brockmeier discovered the latest app in the Evernote ecosystem, called Hello, was perhaps a little less than half-baked. Nevertheless, the core of Evernote has joined Box.net, Dropbox, and Google Docs as the very definition of "cloud app" among users who know the cloud, and who truly do get it.