Best new Windows software of 2009

This past year wasn't the best for new software. There were no surprising game-changers like Google Chrome in 2008, no watershed moments--but that doesn't mean there weren't some cool releases.

This past year was not the best for new software developments. There were no surprising game-changers like Google Chrome in 2008, and no watershed moments. However, that doesn't mean there weren't some cool releases. I suspect that much of the best software of 2009 winds up becoming the foundation for innovations in 2010.

Obviously, the continuing development of Google Chrome was a major story, especially since it skyrocketed in market share based on its zippy engine and smooth JavaScript handling. If you're not using Chrome, you owe it to yourself to try it out. But it's not new. What is new, and is owed in no small part to Chrome, is that software development cycles have been significantly accelerated. We can see this in Chrome's competitor, Firefox, with five beta versions released for a minor-point upgrade. Users are demanding more frequent updates, and situations where popular software such as Adobe Reader suffers for months from the same major security hole will soon be untenable.

Microsoft Security Essentials

(Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

Speaking of, Windows security is never far from the top of any list. It's somewhat ironic that this year first gifted to us the mutating Conficker virus--which exploited a security hole in unpatched and bootlegged versions of Windows XP--would end well for the security field. But Microsoft Security Essentials and Panda Cloud Antivirus are two programs that prove that not only can free security programs be effective, but they can also be lightweight and work well on those processor-light, horribly-named "Netbooks."

Although it wasn't brand-new, Symantec's Norton refresh earns a mention for its surprising turn-around from their horrible mid-decade products. The overhaul started in the 2009 version, and the 2010 editions that came out in September were impressively fast and lightweight, overall, as well as being effective at detection and removal. Yes, just to reiterate: this is the same Norton that's been included as bloatware on new computers for years. Who knew?

While security was exploring the clouds, social networking came down to earth and your desktop. Desktop-based social networking coagulators TweetDeck and Seesmic serve up multiple protocols in a convenient, unified interface. They give users an expanded tool set for managing their social networking streams, including multiple Twitter accounts, Facebook news feeds, and most recently Twitter lists. Both offer mobile support, with TweetDeck on the iPhone and Seesmic on Android, Blackberry, and through a Web-based interface.

BumpTop

(Credit: Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET)

Staying social for a moment, Trillian Astra is another noteworthy resurrection of an already-existing program. The first major multiprotocol chat client, Trillian hadn't seen a refresh in three years and the previous version was a slow resource-hog that was also feature-deficient. Astra isn't exactly light, but it's not the RAM monster that version 3 was. There's also better support for newer networks such as Google Chat and Facebook, and it works with Twitter.

Bumptop finally debuted in 2009, three years after a YouTube demo enthralled viewers. BumpTop is a freeware replacement desktop that makes the items on your computer's desktop more manageable, or at least differently manageable. Its strong suit is that it's intuitive: You can drag or fling folders and icons, and they have weight, which is related to the icon's size. The size is related to its importance to you, which is determined by how often you use them or if you customize them. Files and folders can be stacked, flipped as if they were pages in a book, spread out arbitrarily, or arranged in static grids. BumpTop may not set the software world on fire, but it's an interesting alternative and could take off as touch screens become more affordable and widespread.

Postbox is a heavily remixed Mozilla Thunderbird e-mail client with an emphasis on social networking tools: think Gmail thrown in a blender with Twitter, Facebook, and Flickr, and then served hot over a serving of Thunderbird. Postbox would have retained more of its buzz from the spring and summer if it hadn't gone behind a pay wall, even though it's a flexible wall--under the right circumstances; you can get an official copy for 50 percent off. The trial version is still impressive, with deep hooks between your contacts, messages, attachments, and photo and video uploading. $15 is still cheaper than Outlook, but it's $15 more than Thunderbird 3, which can do many of the things that Postbox does.

Postbox (pictured in beta) is now available as a stable release.

(Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

Ninite is another interesting piece of software, and indicates how Web tools and desktop tools are merging. Go to the Ninite Web site and you'll see a vast list of mostly-freeware programs. Check off the ones you want, and then go get a cup of coffee as it downloads and installs them. It's an excellent tool for those with new computers and a preference for publisher-default settings. Fortunately, Ninite ditches all the installation bloat like toolbars, and keeps your installation clean.

Looking ahead to 2010, some developments will be easy to predict. The Google Chrome OS will be big, even if it eventually fails. The browser wars will continue, as Opera showed that it can remain competitive by significantly boosting its speed with the Opera 10.50 prealpha release. One improvement I'm hoping for is for friendlier installations, where users will not have to opt-out of bloatware toolbars and search engine changes that they don't want. OpenCandy is doing some interesting work in this area.

Do you like this list? Do you think I've missed something major? Tell me about it in the comments.

Disclosure: CNET's TechTracker product uses OpenCandy in its installation.

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