These free apps will transform your professional life, but please keep it quiet

Instead of opining about some pressing issue this week, I’m going to dole out a bit of advice. I’ve already written about the best hardware products of 2019 in this column. Now, I’d like to bring to your attention three free apps which I think will genuinely make a substantial difference to your professional life.

One of these apps, I can confidently say, is a service you’re unlikely to have come across up to now. The other two have been out a while, but are probably still under-appreciated.

All three should make most readers’ eyes open up wide. They show just how powerful and useful apps and phones have become.

So, see out 2019 with a couple of new ways to capitalise on the hulking productivity your phone boasts that is currently going unused.

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1: Otter.ai

First, a disclaimer: please, please don’t tell other journalists that I told you about this app. Almost everyone I know wants me to shut up about it, in case it becomes popular and the ‘free’ tier is stripped out.

Otter.ai is probably the most useful, transformative app I’ve come across in years. It’s a voice transcription app that actually works. In other words, it can turn live (or recorded) audio into written, editable text.

It’s not hard to imagine the utility of such an app for a whole range of working professionals.

What’s especially useful about it is that you can import audio files in for transcription.

This includes almost any recording you’ve made on a phone or a dictaphone, if you can get that file on to a laptop, iPad or smartphone. It works on iOS (iPhones and iPads), Android, Windows and Mac (through a browser).

You get 600 minutes (10 hours) free per month. If you reach that limit (I rarely do), it costs €7.50 per month for 6,000 minutes (100 hours). The premium also gets you some advanced features, although I’ve never felt the need to sign up for them.

As for accuracy, I find that it’s consistently over 80pc or 90pc. In practice, this means that when I see the transcript, I might have to replay one sentence in four or five to be sure it has picked up the right words.

But this is another strength of the app: instead of having to scrub through a progress bar or keep hitting ‘forward’ on 10-second advance buttons, you simply tap whatever word you want and the audio recording immediately resumes from that point. It speeds up the process of checking the transcript by an order of magnitude.

Can it pick up a thick, rapid Kerry accent? Less so than a slow American one, in my experience. But it does a good job for most Irish and British accents, while acing US ones. Fast-talkers aren’t necessarily at a disadvantage either.

Its usefulness to me as a journalist is obvious: it means that I can record a 20-minute audio interview and have it written, with extensive quotations, within an hour. (The same process would have taken at least an additional 30 minutes before.)

But its application should be equally useful to a number of other trades and professions, from medical professionals reviewing patient notes, to financial analysts trying to quickly parse or sum up the key bits of conference calls.

There are even hacks to keep you on the free version when you run over 600 minutes. Accounts are registered by email, Google or Facebook logins. Log in with a different email address and you’ve a fresh 600 minutes.

As should be obvious, my competitive advantage in using this app lessens as more people find out about it. So again: please keep this one to yourself.

 

2: Google Translate/Assistant

Google is close to delivering one of the Holy Grail services of a smartphone: live two-way foreign language translation. It has just released its Interpreter addition to its Google Assistant.

The concept of a gadget that is able to translate your speech into a foreign language and then translate your interlocutor’s reply back into English is right out of science-fiction. (There was, in fact, such a device in the Star Trek universe; it was called a ‘universal translator’.) It supports live translation for 44 languages.

Those who have downloaded the stand-alone Google Translate app for their phone will have an idea of what it can do.

Quite simply, this is one of those apps that you show to a grandparent and they look at your phone like it’s a magic device.

It’s also a good example of how quickly technology is evolving. Call it machine learning, artificial intelligence or whatever you like: the software is becoming smart to the point of appearing to be intuitive.

Google isn’t alone, either – Microsoft recently announced a similar new service.

 

3: WeTransfer

There may have been a time when one could not imagine needing to transfer a file that was over 20MB in size. But those days are long gone. Most decent presentations, especially if they have photos or videos, are now well above 20MB. But many common email systems have rules or limits that won’t allow you to transfer files that size.

Enter WeTransfer, the free online service and downloadable app that lets you transfer very large files (up to 2GB). The nicest part is that there’s no registration. Just go to wetransfer.com, tap ‘upload’ and attach your file. Your email recipient will get a link where they can download the file. If you need a transfer bigger than 2GB, it offers a ‘Pro’ version for €12 per month. This lets you transfer files of up to 20GB each time.

WeTransfer has been around a while. But it still surprises me how many working professionals aren’t aware of it, and who get panicked around the perceived need for USB keys and other physical storage whenever they have a bulky file or presentation to move between machines.

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