i_spyAs part of our year-end PandoDaily staff picks, we were asked to nominate an app that we couldn’t live without in 2012. I thought “That will be easy!” and started to sort through the 80-plus apps I have on my iPhone.

Turned out, it was difficult. Considering there are more than 1 million apps in the App Store, surprisingly few are so useful that I would be deeply disappointed if they disappeared from my phone altogether.

For me to consider an app to be indispensable, I have to use it every day and it has to help improve my life, probably by saving me time, making me more productive, or by being freakishly entertaining. According to those criteria, there are only a few candidates beyond the apps that come pre-loaded onto iPhones or Android devices.

So, yes, I find a lot of apps indispensable. Among the apps I rely on every day are Messages, Clock, Calendar, Weather, Google Maps, Camera, Notes, Contacts, Chrome, Phone, Gmail, Twitter, Facebook, and Spotify.

In fairness to app developers who focus on mobile platforms first, I’m not going to include Twitter, Facebook, and Spotify, which are broad media platforms for which the apps are mere mobile doorways, among the competition. And for the sake of argument, I treat anything made by Google as if it were native to the iOS platform, because it likely would be native on Android, and they have for the most part been a default part of the smartphone experience for most users. So, that strikes Google Search off the list, too.

That pretty much leaves me with just one app that I use every day and would be very unhappy to live without. I’ll get to that soon.

In the meantime, most of the apps on my smartphone are ones that I use either semi-frequently, or hardly at all. Many are brilliant products. In the semi-frequent category, my favorites are: Evernote (universal note-taking and storage), Brewster (contact management), Easilydo (inane tasks), Instagram (growing tiresome), Yelp (still trusty but under threat from the improved Google Maps), Stitcher (podcasts and radio), TripIt (travel management), and Everpix (a promising new cloud-based photo app).

In the “hardly use but really like” category, there’s Flashlight, Kayak, Videolicious (video-making tool), SayHi (translation), and CloudMagic (universal search).

If I lost any one of those – or even all of those – my smartphone experience would be wounded, but not mortally so. Most of those apps are merely nice to have, especially if I happen to have a laptop within half a day’s reach.

So, back to that one app I would cry for if it died? It’s Readability.

Yes, I know – Readability is pretty much an Instapaper clone. But for me, it does a better job of syncing my reading between Chrome, iPhone, and iPad. Its Chrome extension lets me add stories to my reading list with the click of a button, or switch to a more readable format in a second – a feature I use often, given the abundance of poorly designed news sites on the Web. Then, when I fire up my phone, that story is waiting for me to read, in beautiful, readable type. As long as I update the reading list whenever I’ve got an Internet connection, I can then use my phone as a great reading device in Internet-less areas, such as on subway trains, or when I’m travelling and don’t want to use the 3G.

Another reason I think Readability is so vital, and why I think apps like it will only grow in importance, is that it offers a powerful filtering mechanism. We are overloaded with online content and messages. In his recent PandoMonthly talk with Sarah Lacy, Spotify founder Daniel Ek said that the company’s next focus will be helping people make sense of the millions of songs to which they now have access.

Reading faces the same curatorial challenge, and one that is in part alleviated by Readability. There are so many great stories online, from so many great publications, that we can be overwhelmed by choice. That challenge is only intensified in the social era, when so many recommendations come hurtling down the Twitter and Facebook pipelines that we can’t keep up in real-time. That way, read-it-later services like Readability become essential to anyone who cares about the written word. While they add numbers to our reading list, they reduce the “noise” considerably. Whatever finds its way into my reading list is pure nutrition.

Reading makes us smarter. Readability makes us smarter readers. That’s why I use it every day. That’s why it’s the first thing I use on my phone once I’ve taken care of my day-to-day tasks. And that’s why it’s the one app I couldn’t live without in 2012.

[Image originally from I-Spy]