July 13, 2010, 1:56 PM — What, you're not using Microsoft Speed Launch? It's a free application that lets you instantly launch any application, Web site or document using any word or phrase you choose.
The app places a "bulls-eye" on your desktop. When you encounter anything you want to be able to quickly launch in the future, just drag and drop it on the "bulls-eye." It will prompt you for a name.
For example, let's say you run across a YouTube video that comically explores what would happen if Lassie were a cat. If you want to show people later, just drag the URL into Speed Launch and type "Cat." Later, just enter Windows+C and type "cat," and the video pops up.
This is just one of thousands of examples of apps that hardly anyone knows about, but that are free, powerful and -- let's face it -- really should be part of Windows.
Where Labs come from
The whole "Labs" idea was pioneered by Microsoft in the 1990s. Back then, Microsoft offered a range of "Power Tools" for Windows that brought features and functionality that could have been baked right into Windows, but for whatever reason was not.
The best of these was a Power Tool called TweakUI, which added more than 100 new capabilities to Windows. For example, you could speed up menus, get rid of those little arrows on shortcut icons and do a lot of other things.
Companies that make software tend to create far more applications, features, add-ons and plug-ins than they ship. Many of these are really great. But why do companies do this?
They know that every app and feature shipped will have to be tested against the full range of hardware and software supported by the hosting platform, will have to be supported and will add complexity and confuse newbies.
The solution is to post this software on a Web page, add "use-at-your-own-risk" caveats, and boldly claim that these aren't "real" products, only "experiments" that won't be supported by the company. In general, however, I've found "Labs" products every bit as stable as supported apps. Maybe even more so, on average.
Most people have at least heard about Google Labs. The company allows engineers to spend 20% of their work time developing projects of their own. Many of these end up in their Labs sites. The Lab sites themselves often serve as a kind of "farm program" for apps and features that might later become "real." Like Pinocchio.