An unofficial blog that watches Google's attempts to move your operating system online since 2005. Not affiliated with Google.

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February 29, 2008

Lyrics for YouTube's Music Videos

If you want to see a music video, there's a good chance you'll find it on YouTube. The downside is that YouTube doesn't offer any music-related feature, so you can't find information about the artists, lyrics or concert dates.

A simple Greasemonkey script adds one of these missing feature: lyrics. The script creates a container titled "Lyrics" below the video's description and shows the lyrics when you expand the container. Obviously, the video must contain the artist's name and the song's title. If the script doesn't find the lyrics of a song, change the site that provides lyrics or choose from one the alternatives.

As usually, to install this script you need Firefox and the Greasemonkey extension.

Google Book Search Adds a Social Layer

Book Search is the fourth Google service that integrates with the unified Google profiles. The list of favorite books includes a small widget with information from the Google profile.

If you find someone who has interesting books in his library, you can add him to a list of favorite libraries. Unfortunately, Google doesn't show when there are new books in your favorite libraries and doesn't make it easy to discover libraries that might interest you. Based on the books from your library, Google could recommend other similar books and a list of users with similar tastes. To make the library more personal, people should be able to annotate books and highlight interesting excerpts.


{ via Inside Book Search }

February 28, 2008

Google Docs Updates the Toolbar

Google Docs updated the toolbar in the word processing and the presentation apps, removing some of the buttons (copy/cut/paste), adding buttons for saving, printing, spell checking and showing the font name and its size. The updated toolbar is closer to the one from Writely and from office suites like Microsoft Office.


Some explanations directly from the source:
There is no longer "Save", "Save & close" and "Discard changes" on the far right of your doc. We've removed "Save & close" and "Discard changes" and moved "Save" to the far left on the editor toolbar as an icon. The icon is a floppy disk. Writely does auto save, so it's not necessary to save manually.

Spell check is now located on the right side of your toolbar as an "abc" icon with a check mark through it. Also, when you're spell checking a doc and you want to stop, you can just simply click on the icon.

As you create your docs, you may use different text sizes, fonts and colors as well as different highlight colors throughout. You'll notice now that when navigating to different parts of your doc, you'll be shown exactly which text size, etc. that particular part of the doc is in, by referring to the different menus on the toolbar. This functionality allows you to easily identify the properties of the text within your doc.

It's strange to see Google removing the buttons for some of the most frequently used commands (copy/cut/paste). Due to some security restrictions, Firefox doesn't allow web sites to read your system's clipboard or to overwrite it, so you had to make an exception for Google Docs.


Hopefully, the new toolbar will be added to all the apps that use a rich text editor (Gmail, Google Spreadsheets etc.) to create a consistent user interface.

{ Thank you, Robin and Hernan. }

Google Sites Launched

After more than a year since the JotSpot acquisition, Google finally launched a service that uses JotSpot's technology: Google Sites. The new service is a part of Google Apps and allows you to create web sites collaboratively. "People can work together on a Site to add file attachments, information from other Google applications (like Google Docs, Google Calendar, YouTube and Picasa), and new free-form content. Creating a site together is as easy as editing a document, and you always control who has access, whether it's just yourself, your team, or your whole organization," explains Google.

Google offers templates, a rich-text editor, 10GB of storage for each Google Apps account and integration with other Google services so you can embed gadgets, calendars, spreadsheets, presentations, photo slideshows and videos. You can invite people to collaborate or just view a site and you can also publish the site so that anyone can view it.

VentureBeat likes the new service. "Creating a new site with Google Sites is very easy. (...) You can start out by creating a front page for your site and from there decide whether to add more standard pages" or use one of the built-in templates: dashboard, blog, file cabinet, list.


Webware notices that Google doesn't offer too many features. "As is typical for Google productivity applications when they first launch, the functionality inside Sites is on the spare side, but the collaboration features are clear, easy to use, and well-chosen. This is a capable workgroup wiki, and even in this early stage its integration with the Docs and Apps suites makes it an excellent collaboration tool."

Here are three examples of Google Sites: a company intranet, a ski club site and a team project.





The video shows how easy is to create a simple site:



The new service is enabled by default for all the new Google Apps accounts, but administrators need to enable it explicitly for the existing accounts.

February 27, 2008

Download a Gmail Conversation

Wouldn't be nice if you could save a Gmail conversation so you can read it offline? Using an email client to access Gmail using POP3 or IMAP is an option, although it's not trivial to recreate the thread and to download everything, including the attachments.

To download a Gmail conversation, you could use the print feature. In order to prevent Gmail from actually printing your messages, disable JavaScript after opening the conversation or disconnect your printer. Then click on "print all" in Gmail's right sidebar...


... and save the generated page as a complete web page. This will create a HTML file and a folder with images, but it won't save the attachments. You can now re-enable JavaScript in your browser to be able to use Gmail's AJAX interface.

If you want to save all the attachments from a conversation as an archive, you could save them one by one. Alternatively, go back to the conversation and click on "forward all". You'll create a new message that concatenates all the messages and the attachments from that conversation. Send the message to yourself and click on "Download all attachments" when you receive the message. To save space, delete the individual message you've sent to yourself after downloading the attachments (make sure you don't delete the entire conversation).

Opera's Mobile Browsers Return to Google


For those who use Opera's excellent mobile browsers Opera Mobile and Opera Mini, there's a good news: from next month, Google will replace Yahoo as the default search engine. "With 2008 poised to be the year the mobile Web goes mainstream, Google and Opera are extending this collaboration to give our users immediate access to the quality and convenience of Google's search results," comments Opera's CEO in a press release.

Last year, when Yahoo became the default search engine in Opera's mobile products, users complained that they couldn't set Google as the default search engine. The contract with Yahoo forced users to find workarounds like bookmarking Google. "I will never use Yahoo, and being forced to do so is exactly the kind of patronizing behavior that antagonizes all those users who seriously use their mobile devices to scour the web on the go," explained one Opera Mini user.

Hopefully, Google didn't include similar conditions and users could change the default search engine to Yahoo or any other site. While criticized for the lack of support for Opera in many of its services, Google helped Opera become free and provided contextual ads in a free version of Opera.

February 26, 2008

Undocumented Emoticons in Gmail Chat

Emoticons are a simple way to disambiguate text messages and to add a human touch using a minimum amount of characters. While Gmail Chat supports many emoticons, the full lists of emoticons that can be used is much bigger. TKHere tried various combinations and found some undocumented emoticons in Gmail Chat:


In the screenshot above, you can see a diabolic creature (}:-)), a crab (V.v.V), a wince(>.<), a broken heart (</3), a kiss (:-x) and a mustache (:{).

These emoticons only work in the new version of Gmail and can be disabled in the chat section from the settings (note the cool permalink).

Meanwhile, the Japanese Gmail started to support emojis, pictograms popularized by i-mode mobile phones. "These images can be used as placeholders or icons to identify a link or other elements in your page. There are emoji of common use such as airplane or a train and there are some that may indicate emotions, sun, moon phases and more," explains The Wireless FAQ.

Chat With Your Site's Visitors Using Google Talk

Google Talk's gadget was a nice addition, but you couldn't use it to chat with unknown people or with the visitors of the site, like in Meebo Me. Now you can do that using the new chatback badges. You only need to add some code to your site and anyone could click on the generated badge to chat with you.


"A Google Talk chatback badge allows others to chat with you even if they haven't signed up for Google Talk or a Google Account. You can put the badge in your blog or website, and people who visit those pages can chat with you. The badge will display your online status (whether you're available to chat or not) and, optionally, your status message."

If someone clicks on the badge, a special version of the Google Talk gadget will open and he will be able to chat with you.


The conversations are private and only one-to-one, so other visitors won't be able to read them. For some strange reason, they're not even added in Gmail's chat section. Unfortunately, being constantly interrupted by other people is not very pleasant, so you can disable the link from your badge by setting your status to "busy" or by signing out of Google Talk.




{ Thank you, Dan. }

February 25, 2008

Google's Lock-in

Hal Varian argues in the latest post from Google's main blog that "if you look at Google's business, the competition is only a click away. Users can trivially switch search."

While it may seem easy to change your search engine, the reality is that it's difficult. Google is the default search engine in Firefox, Opera, Safari and it becomes the default search engine if you install any Google software and stick with the default options. Google is the default search engine in many people's minds and it's also a name synonymous with searching on the web. Google is the default homepage in Firefox and many people choose it because it loads fast. Google replaces the address bar and it's no longer a web site, it's part of the browser.

Because it's deceivingly simple, people don't treat Google as any other web site. Google is a core feature of their browsers and don't realize they could change it. Even when they find out that Google could be replaced with Yahoo, Live Search, Ask.com, people don't change it because they've already created a connection with Google, learned its tricks and accepted its flaws.

You first accept Google as a browser feature, start to rely on it for things that are important to you. When you learn about possible replacements, you'll start to judge them using Google as a standard and they'll mostly likely fail.

Google camouflaged into a browser feature, into a word, into the default gateway to to the web.

February 24, 2008

YouTube Down For Almost an Hour


Believe it or not, YouTube has been inaccessible in any corner of the world for about an hour. Among other consequences, all the sites that embed YouTube videos will load much slower and you won't be able to play the videos. OpenDNS has an explanation for this: "Youtube.com is down right now because Pakistan Telecom has decided to (accidentally probably) hijack their IP address space which means that nobody in the world can reach Youtube." The Pakistani government blocked the access to YouTube "because of content deemed offensive to Islam".

If you know more about this, tell us in the comments.

Update: the site seems to be back.

February 23, 2008

Question Shop

There are so many questions and so little time to find answers for them. Before there was Google and other search engines, people relied on friends, family or books to solve their mysteries.

In 1924, a company from New York launched a question answering service: people asked questions by phone and received their answers after a short while.
Offering to answer any reasonable question telephoned to its office, a firm dealing in general information is said to have set up business in New York City. Subscribers to the service are permitted to put as many queries to the "question shop" as they desire. Each patron is given a code name and, it is reported, can receive aid from the station at any hour of the day or night. It is also claimed that eighty per cent of the queries do not require more than two minutes for an answer.


This reminds me of Kevin Fox's imaginary Google circa 1960.

{ Found by Modern Mechanix. Image used by permission. }

Invisible Mode in Gmail Chat

Gmail Chat added a new status option: invisible. Now you can be logged in to Gmail Chat and see if your contacts are online, but they won't be able to see you're online.


If you simultaneously use Gmail Chat and any other flavor of Google Talk (the gadget or the desktop application), you won't be able to change your status to invisible because they don't support the new feature yet. The feature was first added to Gmail Chat because it's the most used interface for Google Talk, but it's unpardonable to have three separate interfaces with different features.


Note that feature is only available in the new version of Gmail, supported in Internet Explorer 7 and Firefox 2. I wonder if less people will disable Gmail Chat or the feature will become less useful.

{ via Blogoscoped Forum }

February 22, 2008

A Russian Ad for Gmail

This incredibly beautiful video is an ad created by Saatchi & Saatchi Moscow to promote Gmail in Russia. As Google Translate doesn't have speech recognition, I would be grateful if someone translates the message of Gmail's ad. From what I understand, the ad illustrates the human side of Gmail by recreating it in real life.


A related idea can be found in Be Kind Rewind's website, where the Internet is rebuilt from scratch.

{ Thank you, Maksym and Kristaps. }

Get GrandCentral Invites


Following the footsteps of Gmail, GrandCentral becomes more available to the world by connecting the invites to Blogger. If you're in the US, you can now get a free invite to GrandCentral, the Google service that centralizes all you phone numbers and adds new features on top of them (the service is free, at least for now). "GrandCentral provides an innovative web-based voice communications platform that helps you manage all your phones and phone numbers through one simple interface. You get a single phone number that forwards to all of your phones, giving you one number for life."

Bloggers can add a widget that allows readers to call them without knowing their phone numbers. Readers enter their phone numbers and GrandCentral makes the connection by calling both parties. "When you add GrandCentral's WebCall button to your blog, your readers can easily call your phone or leave voicemails without ever seeing your telephone number. You can screen calls, either accepting them or sending them to voicemail, and you can even block unwanted callers altogether."

You can receive voicemail notifications by email or SMS, access your voicemail from a mobile phone or from a computer and embed the messages into a site. It's almost like your phone numbers become a part of Gmail, a service that aggregates all the communication tools you use in a single easy-to-access place. GrandCentral is not yet a part of Gmail and it only works in the US, but the integration is inevitable.

If you already use GrandCentral or you're in the US and you can get an invite, what do you think about the service?

February 21, 2008

The Unnerving Microsoft

In an aggressive post from the Official Google Blog, David Drummond argued earlier this month that "Microsoft's hostile bid for Yahoo! raises troubling questions. (...) Could Microsoft now attempt to exert the same sort of inappropriate and illegal influence over the Internet that it did with the PC? While the Internet rewards competitive innovation, Microsoft has frequently sought to establish proprietary monopolies -- and then leverage its dominance into new, adjacent markets."

Apparently, these ideas are shared by Google's co-founder Sergey Brin, who declared in an interview that Microsoft's bid is not welcome for the Internet. "The Internet has evolved from open standards, having a diversity of companies. And when you start to have companies that control the operating system, control the browsers, they really tie up the top Web sites, and can be used to manipulate stuff in various ways. I think that's unnerving." According to WordNet, "unnerving" means "formidable, redoubtable, inspiring fear", so probably the word means "worrisome" in the context.

In the past years, Google was upset that Microsoft decided to make Live Search the default search provider in IE7 and Windows Vista didn't provide a way to integrate third-party desktop search tools like Google Desktop in the operating system. Microsoft will certainly try to increase its online presence by leveraging its software + services strategy and by making it easy to access its online services from applications that are presented as upgrades, but we should not forget that Google also uses its homepage to promote services and bundles its toolbar with popular applications.

Get Email Notifications for Google Groups Threads

Many people visit Google's discussion groups at groups.google.com when something goes wrong in Gmail, Google Reader or any other Google product. The forums are conveniently linked from the support pages and people noticed that email is not the best way to get feedback from Google.

Google Groups doesn't provide an option to be notified when someone replies to one of your topics. Furthermore, when you join a group created for a Google service, the email notifications are disabled by default. There is an option to receive notifications for individual threads, but it's very hard to find it. You have to go to thread you've just created, click on the Options link displayed next to the title and select "Email updates to me". This way, you'll be able to read the answer in your mail client, without having to go to Google Groups and find your post.


Unfortunately, the notifications are sometimes delayed, but Google doesn't provide reliable alternatives. You could manually check the posts from your profile or add an iGoogle gadget that also displays the number of new message from each thread.

API for Static Maps

For those who don't need all the complexity of Google Maps API or can't use JavaScript in a specific context (for example, in a mobile website), there's a new Static Maps API. Similar to the recently-launched API for charts, this API lets you generate maps by simply loading images with a list of special parameters.

The URL below lets you load a map centered on Munich by providing the latitude and longitude of the location:

http://maps.google.com/staticmap?center=48.23930899024907,11.162109375&
markers=48.139127,11.580213,red&zoom=7&size=500x300&key=KEY_VALUE



To use the API, you still need a domain-specific key generated from Google's site and the usage limit is 1000 unique image requests per user per day. If you don't want to read the documentation, there's a wizard that generates the URL for you, but it only adds a single marker to your map.

The new API is a good solution if you want to automatically create static maps from a list of locations, but it's limited to web pages, so you can't use it in a software. You should also know that the images can only be displayed on a page from the web site used to generate the API key. Google uses a similar API to generate static maps when you search for locations or local businesses.

YouTube Presents Itself to Advertisers

Despite the fact that Google paid $1.65 billion for YouTube, the most popular video site on the web doesn't make a lot of time. Google tried to find ways to monetize YouTube and chose overlay ads (or InVideo ads) because they're more user-friendly than other formats. Instead of being forced to watch an ad before playing a video, the overlay is triggered only if you click on a small animation displayed at the bottom of the video for 10 seconds. Google made the overlay format an option for other video sites, as well.

It's interesting that YouTube shows ads only for videos created by partners (media companies, popular video creators), a small portion from the total number of videos uploaded daily.

Here's a funny video targeted to the potential advertisers on YouTube that explains how you can advertise on YouTube and why you should:


The YouTube community watches hundreds of millions of videos every day, more than any other TV network, cable network or social network combined. YouTube isn't just about media impressions, it's about the choices people make to be entertained, educated, inspired. It's about tiger vs bear. It's about sharing.

Think of YouTube as the world's largest magazine rack. If it's of interest to somebody, it makes its way here.

YouTube thinks there's a misconception that the site is just about user-generated content and mentions that advertisers can place their messages next to high-quality content that won't diminish the value of their brands.

Cleveland Clinic to Test Google Health


More than a year after Google started developing a service for storing and managing health records, Cleveland Clinic will be the first test a pre-release version of the service. From a prototype revealed last year, we could see that Google Health intends to help you make more informed decisions about your health by putting you in control of your health information.

Cleveland Clinic will start to test the service on at least 1,500 patients. "It will test secure exchange of patient medical record data such as prescriptions, conditions and allergies between their Cleveland Clinic PHR to a secure Google profile in a live clinical delivery setting. The ultimate goal of this patient-centered and controlled model is to give patients the ability to interact with multiple physicians, healthcare service providers and pharmacies. (...) The pilot will eventually extend Cleveland Clinic's online patient services to a broader audience while enabling the portability of patient data so patients can take their data with them wherever they go — even outside the Cleveland Clinic Health System."

The big benefits are that health records become portable, more accessible and more useful, while still being stored securely. Despite the benefits, people might not feel comfortable with storing sensitive data online.

According to New York Times, Google Health will be publicly available after the pilot ends, in around two months.

Microsoft launched in October 2007 its own health service called HealthVault that has similar goals with Google's initiative, while partnering with a number of important medical institutions. It's not the only existing service for managing personal health records online, but their use didn't become widespread, not even in the US.

Update: Google Blog mentions that Google Health uses GData and standard medical information formats. "Patients participating in the Cleveland pilot give authorization via our AuthSub interface to have their electronic medical records safely and securely imported into a Google account. (...) Cleveland is just the first of many healthcare providers that will securely send medical records and information via Google APIs at your request. We've been hard at work collaborating with a number of insurance plans, medical groups, pharmacies and hospitals."

February 20, 2008

Gmail 2.0 and User Happiness


When Gmail released an update to its code base in October 2007, many people complained that it loads very slow and it's buggy. Since the new version was initially released only for the US interface, I suggested to go back to the older version by changing the language to British English. This will no longer work since Gmail will soon be released internationally. Meanwhile, I noticed that Gmail 2.0 loads much faster and it's almost as reliable as the previous version.

Some people are still having problems with Gmail 2.0. Geemo complains at Gmail's discussion group: "it usually takes several attempts to even get my mailbox to load and when it does load the mail links sometimes are unclickable. This is supposed to be an improvement!? Also, I always have to switch to Older Version EVERY TIME I need to send an email in order to get the address book auto-fill to work (It comes up in New Version but none of the address suggestion can actually be selected). (...) Is there a way to set my account to only work in the "older" setting? Or should I just move back to Yahoo? "

I enjoyed the reply to this post:
I share your feelings, and wish I could offer you more than just plain sympathy. Till February 13, we could suggest to users (and personally, I did) how to remain with the "old interface", forgoing only the pleasure of coloured labels and the pain of twenty acknowledged but unresolved issues, besides many more unacknowledged, random, quirky, and unresolved ones ... cf. these Groups.

However, from February 13 as he says, the happy Robby Stein, Associate Product Marketing Manager, has put paid to our escapist timidity in not venturing boldly out to embrace the "new interface" by rolling it out to everyone ... except to the Croatian, Icelandic, Hebrew, and Arabic speaking people, the only ones who -- in my opinion -- are truly blessed for now for not being rolled under or over by this "new interface".

I should not comment on whether you should move back to Yahoo! But with indications that either Microsoft or AOL or any other equally diabolical entity picking up Yahoo!, I would feel that learning Croatian, Icelandic, Hebrew, or Arabic may prove to be a smarter thing to do.

The migration to Gmail 2.0 is inevitable, assuming you use a supported browser, but it's not clear if this upgrade is perceived as an improvement. Unlike desktop applications, web apps can suddenly update to a new version you don't like and you can't remove.

February 19, 2008

A Great Online Document Viewer Gets Even Better

Scribd, a site that built a community around sharing documents online, launched an improved Flash viewer for documents. iPaper allows you to view PDF files, Word documents, PowerPoint presentations, Excel spreadsheets in a lightweight widget, but also do other things like zooming, searching inside a document, sharing or printing.

"The primary design goals of iPaper were that it be fast, light and easy to use. At 100 KB the iPaper application is about 1/1000th the size of Adobe's Acrobat Reader software, making it an incredibly fast way to view documents," explains Scribd. While the viewer lacks some features from Adobe Reader, most notably a way to copy text, it renders documents at a high quality, preserving the layout and the pagination.

Similar to YouTube, you need to upload your document, wait until it's converted to Scribd's internal format (that shouldn't take more than a minute) and embed the code into your site. Scribd lets you upload multiple documents at a time and it displays useful stats: the number of views, search queries that led to your document, a visitor map and more.

The site also launched a platform "that allows anyone to bring the iPaper experience to their own website." You could add some code that replaces the links to PDF or Office documents with links to Scribd's viewer, without having to convert the documents manually.

All in all, Scribd has one of the best online PDF viewers and could complement Google Docs, which lacks very good document viewers, shared spaces and a community.



{ via GigaOM }

The Most Frequently Used Features in Microsoft Office

Online office suites like Google Docs are often criticized because they have a very basic feature set, but the advanced features from software packages like Microsoft Office are rarely used. Jensen Harris, Group Program Manager of the Microsoft Office User Experience Team, published in 2006 a list of the most used features in Microsoft Word 2003, according to data collected from the users who opted for the Customer Experience Improvement Program:

1. Paste (11% of the usage)
2. Save (5.5% of the usage)
3. Copy
4. Undo
5. Bold

These five commands account for 32% of all the command usage in Microsoft Word 2003, as they are used very often.

"Paste is also far-and-away the number one command in Excel and PowerPoint, accounting for 15% and 12% of total command use, respectively. Beyond the top 10 commands or so, however, the curve flattens out considerably. The percentage difference in usage between the #100 command ("Accept Change") and the #400 command ("Reset Picture") is about the same in difference between #1 and #11 ("Change Font Size")," according to Microsoft's data.

Google Docs auto-saves documents so you don't need to press the Save button, while the undo feature has a powerful complement in revisions. On the other hand, because of the security restrictions from browsers, copy/paste doesn't work very well (but there are workarounds).

So instead of adding advanced features, Google Docs should focus on the most frequently used features and try to make them easier to use, while addressing the main goal: "enabling people to manage and collaborate on the documents and spreadsheets they rely on in their personal and professional lives, no matter where they are or when they need to access them".

{ via Jeff Atwood }

Translate Text From a Web Page Inline

gTranslate is a Firefox extension that lets you select some text from a web page and translate in another language. For short texts, you can read the translation in Firefox's contextual menu, but in most cases you'll have to click on the short preview to read the full translation. One of the most useful features is replacing the original text with the translation in text boxes. For example, you can write a reply to a post from Google Groups or compose a Blogger post in a language and instantly translate it to another language.

gTranslate uses Google Translate to perform the translations, so it supports the same language pairs.



Related:
System-wide translations using Enso
Google's translation bots

{ via ╬╝blog }

February 18, 2008

Google's Glossary Search Engine

It may not have a separate address or stand-alone identity, but Google's glossary search engine is a simple way to look up a word or a group of words in many of the glossaries available online. There are many definitions for "glossary", but one of the best is: "an alphabetical list of words or expressions and the special or technical meanings that they have in a particular book, subject, or activity." (source)

It's difficult to create a comprehensive dictionary with all the words from a language and all of their meanings, so specialized glossaries explain the terminology from a domain (for example: philosophy). There are many glossaries available online, but it's not easy to find all of them using a general-purpose search engine.

Launched in 2002 as a labs project, Google's glossary search engine restricts the index to glossaries and other resources like Wikipedia or WordNet, while allowing you to find all the definitions of a word or expression. To use it, add the define: operator in front of your query: for example, type define:isometry in Google's search box.


The search engine works for 9 languages: English, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Chinese, Russian. You can change the language at the bottom of the page.

So when should you use the define operator? If you search for:
* obscure words
* specialized terminology
* acronyms and abbreviations

An interesting alternative is OneLook, which supports pattern matching and reverse queries, but it only shows links to the definitions.

Add Full Web Pages to iGoogle

If you don't find appropriate iGoogle gadgets for your favorite web sites, there's a way to create tabs that include these sites in iframes. Michael Bolin, from Google, created a gadget that loads almost any web page. Before adding the gadget, it's recommended to create a new iGoogle tab, but don't forget to uncheck the "I'm feeling lucky" option that populates the tab with gadgets. If you add the gadget to an existing tab, all the current gadgets will be hidden and they'll be visible again after you delete it.

The gadget loads by default Google Calendar's homepage, but you can change the URL from the settings: click on the small arrow from the gadget's title bar and select "Edit settings".


Another useful gadget has a rich text editor and you can use it to create content or to paste code from other pages (like Yahoo Video's embeddable code).


iGoogle should have more bare bones containers that can be filled with user's content: HTML code, web pages, dynamic images or structured data and add them to the gadget creator page.

February 17, 2008

Gmail's Humble Beginning

Paul Buchheit, Gmail's first engineer, writes about the first steps in the evolution of Gmail.
I wrote the first version of Gmail in one day. It was not very impressive. All I did was stuff my own email into the Google Groups (Usenet) indexing engine. I sent it out to a few people for feedback, and they said that it was somewhat useful, but it would be better if it searched over their email instead of mine. That was version two. After I released that people started wanting the ability to respond to email as well. That was version three. That process went on for a couple of years inside of Google before we released to the world.

And even when it was released, Gmail stayed in a closed beta for more than a year. After almost four years since the release, Gmail constantly adds new features and it's still in beta ("There's no good reason in the world for Gmail to still have the beta tag. It was supposed to have gone away a long time ago," says Paul).

Paul Buchheit, who left Google and currently works for a startup with other ex-Googlers, thinks it's important to release applications in an incipient phase to get feedback from users.
So what's the right attitude? Humility. It doesn't matter how smart and successful and qualified you are, you simply don't know what you're doing. (...) What is the humble approach to product design? Pay attention. Notice which things are working and which aren't. Experiment and iterate. Question your assumptions. Remember that you are wrong about a lot of things. Watch for the signals. Lose your technical and design snobbery.

Gmail got a delete button after many months of requests from users, even if Gmail's philosophy was "archive, don't delete". Gmail will also add some functionality from folders to its labels, most likely drag and drop.

The key step is to build a product that's interesting enough to a attract an audience and learn from people who use the product. "The sooner you can start testing your ideas, the sooner you can start fixing them," explains Paul.

February 16, 2008

Your Gmail Adds New Features

What do these texts have in common?

"Looks like when you're on Google Reader and click a feed that leads to an external page, it now opens within Google Reader as opposed to opening in a new window. Not sure if this feature was rolled out for everyone or if it's still in testing. It opens up in a 'Preview' pane and you can click a button to open other posts up in Google Reader as well." (The Army of Gnomes)

"I opened my Gmail to find quite the surprise this morning – there's now a Feeds link the in the left nav, and reader opens up into the mail space. It's a little awkward, but pretty cool." (mail from a reader)

"Maybe we missed it but gmail.com has a new feature that was unanticipated. When you right click on a gmail email, you get a preview of the email. Just one more way to view all of that wonderful email." (NoHeat)

All the three texts talk about what seem to be new features in Gmail and Google Reader. The new features are actually introduced by Greasemonkey scripts or extensions, but people sometimes forget they installed them. Since the add-ons directly modify web pages, you'll see something else than most other people.

Custom Views in Google Calendar

Google Calendar has an option to define custom views: you can replace the "next 7 days" with other intervals like the "next 3 days" or "next 2 weeks". In the settings you'll also find an option to make your custom view the default.


Another way to change the current view is to use the small calendar from the left sidebar. Click on the small arrows to change the month and select a date to see the corresponding events. To see the events from a date range, click on the start date and drag it to the end date. Note that this only works for short periods of time.


Google Calendar has two useful shortcuts that let you easily move between periods of time: p (previous date range) and n (next date range). To see the events from a certain month in the past, click on "Today", go to the month view and repeatedly press p. Alternatively, type a date in the search box and click on "Search my calendars".

{ via Google Calendar Group }

February 15, 2008

Publish Blogger Posts to Future Dates

Sometimes you want to take a week off from your blog, but it's difficult to stop posting and keep your readers and search engine bots waiting for new posts. One way to handle this is to write a number of posts in advance that are automatically posted while you are away.

Blogger didn't offer this feature, so the only workaround was to use a service that schedules email delivery (like LetterMeLater) and Mail-to-Blogger. But Blogger constantly improve and adds a lot of interesting features, especially lately. Blogger in Draft tests a scheduled posts feature that changes the way Blogger publishes posts: if you publish a post with a future date, Blogger will delay the publishing until that date.

"Publishing a post in the future is pretty simple: in the post editor, reveal the Date and Time fields using the Post Options toggle and enter a post date and time that is in the future. When you then click the Publish button, your post will become scheduled. When the date and time of the post arrive, your post will be automatically published to your blog." This only works from Blogger in Draft, but the feature will soon be available from the regular interface. For those who want to see all the new Blogger features before they're released to everyone, there's a Greasemonkey script that redirects you to Blogger in Draft.

Video Ads in Google's Search Results Pages

A small bit of news from New York Times took a lot of people by surprise: Google experiments with video ads in the search results pages. The intention was announced last year, when Google launched Universal Search, a new format that integrates images, videos, books and other types of content in the main search results and also provides additional information for some web pages. For example, Google shows a thumbnail, the duration and the rating next to videos, while providing the option to play the video inline. This is a big shift from the regular format that only included ten blue links and some small snippets.


Obviously, Google will introduce video ads conservatively, without disrupting the entire experience. The ads will continue to be mostly text, but they'll include the option to play a short video. Google's Marissa Mayer "said, however, that the company would explore adding small thumbnail photos to the video ads as well. And a spokesman said the company is considering testing other formats that may include ads with images."

"The big insight of Google wasn't text ads; it was that the ads should be conducive to the format. We were doing text-based search that was all textual. Visual ads don't work in that format. With universal search, something is getting shaken up a bit on the bottom part of the page. The ads on the top part of the page should match," thinks Marissa Mayer.

Google already experiments with local ads that include maps, addresses and driving directions, mimicking the search results connected with local information. In July 2007, Google's promotion for Bourne Ultimatum included the option to watch a movie trailer inline.

"For us, ads are answers as well" is the phrase that sums up these changes and reflects how difficult is to keep the balance between organic search results and ads. "You will not be distracted by image ads or video ads on Google search results pages. Period. Just because other companies use image ads and video ads with the _purpose_ of distracting users doesn't mean Google will do that. Images and videos can be useful and entertaining, if you see them when you want to see them," clarified Daniel Dulitz in a Slashdot thread.

If you spot a video ad in Google's search results, take a screenshot and post a link to it in the comments.

February 13, 2008

Valentine's Day at Google

For Valentine's Day, Google prepared some special logos and design changes. Here's the kitschy Google Docs with custom icons and a prominent "Happy Valentine's Day!" at the top of the page (it reminds me of Slashdot's pink theme for April Fools' Day 2006: OMG!!! Ponies!!!).

Google Docs Pink Theme

There's an interesting doodle on the homepage:


...and YouTube has a commonplace logo:


Over the years, Google changed its logo and even linked to a Java animation. Last year, Gmail removed the invitations and Google surprised everyone with a doodle that seemed to miss a letter.

If you spot something different with Google's sites today, post it in the comments.

{ Thank you, Ilya and Nathan. }

10 Similarities Between YouTube and Yahoo


YouTube continues to be an independent company and has very little in common with the rest of Google's services. In fact, YouTube has more in common with Yahoo than Google:

1. YouTube's homepage includes content selected by editors, like Yahoo.

2. Both homepages are very cluttered.

3. Signing up for a YouTube account requires to enter a lot of information, including your country, your gender and the date of birth.

4. Both sites include a display ad on the homepage, unlike any other Google site.

5. Yahoo hosts images and other resources at yimg.com, while YouTube hosts them at ytimg.com.

6. YouTube is the only successful community site owned by Google, while Yahoo has a lot of social sites.

7. Both sites show undisclosed ads: YouTube promotes videos from its partners, while Yahoo uses features such as search shortcuts to show ads.

8. YouTube and Yahoo have similar welcome messages: "Hi, Your-Name!" and show the number of messages on the homepage.

9. Yahoo and YouTube use subdomains for the localized versions (e.g.: mx.youtube.com, mx.yahoo.com).

10. They were/are part of unpopular acquisitions.

Add a Blogroll to Blogger

Blogger in Draft (a pre-release version of Blogger) added an interesting widget that lets you display the latest posts from your favorite blogs. It's an enhanced blogroll that displays the recently updated blogs and snippets from the most recent posts.

You can manually add the blogs by entering their URLs or you can select from your Google Reader subscriptions. To add the widget to a Blogger blog, you need to go to Blogger in Draft, click on the Layout section corresponding to the blog and add the "Blog List" page element. You can't add the widget for blogs that still use the classic templates, like this blog.

Google Reader already lets you create a blogroll from any public tag, but Blogger's widget is more customizable.



In other Blogger-related news, the comment page make it more obvious that you can sign in using an OpenID and Blogger enabled pagination for posts with more than 200 comments.

February 12, 2008

Google Toolbar and 404 Error Pages

I find it very strange that people have abnormal reactions when Google does something. People have an incorrect perception of the "don't be evil" mantra and like to say that Google doesn't respect it every time Google does something debatable. I didn't hear too many people complaining that Internet Explorer replaces default 404 error pages with its own page, but when Google Toolbar does that, it suddenly hijacks web sites.

Let's take a look at a simple example of a site that doesn't have a custom 404 error page (they're very hard too find these days, so most sites won't fall in this category). If you try to go to news.speeple.com/sunflowers, here's what you see in IE7: a page with useful suggestions like "Retype the address" or "Go back to the previous page".



This is actually a page created by Internet Explorer and you can disable it in the advanced settings, by unchecking "Show friendly HTTP error pages". Here's the page returned by the server, which is displayed in most browsers (Firefox, Opera, etc.):



The latest version of Google Toolbar has a feature disabled by default that replaces IE's error pages with more useful suggestions: the site's homepage or subdomain, some search queries that could help you locate the right page. The idea is that you probably clicked on a bad link or the page was relocated without using a redirect. In this case, Google's query segmentation is not perfect, but it usually does a pretty good job at transforming a URL into an useful query. To obtain the suggestions, the toolbar sends the URL to Google's servers, so this feature has privacy implications. More exactly, the suggestion page is obtained from:

http://linkhelp.clients.google.com/tbproxy/lh/fixurl?sourceid=navclient &hl=en&sd=com&error=http404&url=http://news.speeple.com/sunflowers


Google Toolbar only displays that page for default error pages (that have less than 512 bytes), DNS errors and connection failures. The feature can be enabled from Google Toolbar's settings by checking "Browse by name in the address bar", a feature that also performs searches when you enter keywords in the address bar.

So which of the three pages is more helpful for someone who ends up on a non-existing page from a site that didn't bother to create a custom 404 error page?

Related:
Matt Cutts' reaction
Google tries to fix broken URLs
Browsing the web using Google Cache

Street View Update: 12 New Cities

About every two months, Google Maps adds 6-7 new cities to Street View. In May 2007 the service was launched with images for 5 cities, two months later 4 new cities were added, in October Google added 6 cities, while in December a record of 8 cities were added to Street View.

This month, Google added 12 new cities from the US: Juneau (Alaska), Boise (Idaho), Salt Lake City (Utah), San Antonio (Texas), Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill (North Carolina), Manchester (New Hampshire), Kansas City (Missouri), Milwaukee (Wisconsin), Albany, Schenectady (New York). It's interesting to see that the 12 cities are distributed uniformly and the total number of cities is now 35.

When do you think Google will add all the important cities from the US and the rest of the world? Shouldn't Google outsource this job to other companies or at least accept photos from users and use technology like Photosynth to combine them?

Bonus question: can you find the formula for an integer sequence that has the first 5 values: 5, 4, 6, 8, 12?



{ via the unofficial Google Earth Blog. Updated with more information from Google LatLong. }

Designing Google's Logo

Wired has an article about the design of Google's logo and its iterations. "Ruth Kedar, the graphic designer who developed the now-famous logo, shows the iterations that led to the instantly recognizable primary colors and Catull typeface that define the Google brand. Kedar met Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page through a mutual friend nine years ago at Stanford University, where she was an assistant professor."

In the process, Ruth used a lot of symbols: from a pattern that suggests the infinite to interlocking rings that symbolize the power of search to transgress cultures, from a happy magnifying glass to sheer playfulness. "By taking out the magnifying glass, Kedar opens up the logo to signify that Google can become much more than just a search engine. By playing with the angles and colors of the letters, she tries to make clear that Google isn't a square corporation."

Ruth Kedar explains that she chose the Catull typeface because "Catull borrows elements from traditional writing instruments such as the quill and the chisel with a modern twist. Search, by nature, is an activity that requires we look into the past. Therefore Catull's historical ties seemed appropriate, as did the bridging between the old analog world and the new emerging digital era."

As you can see, the simple and cheerful Google logo hides a lot of interesting ideas and it's still relevant to the company, even if it's no longer just a search engine.

Before adopting a professional logo, Google used a logo created by Sergey Brin in GIMP. "Tinkering one day with a graphics program called GIMP, Sergey created a color rendering of the Google letters with an exclamation point at the end, mimicking Yahoo! He seemed quite proud of the new logo, which was composed of kindergarten-style block letters in primary colors. But it wasn't the look that meant the most to him. He was pleased that he had been able to teach himself how to use GIMP, free software that was tricky to employ," writes David A. Vise in The Google Story.

February 11, 2008

Intuitive Mobile Search

Image licensed as Creative Commons Attribution by Mac Funamizu.


Mac Funamizu imagines a more intuitive way to search by just pointing at objects or selecting text. An Internet-enabled mobile device that incorporates a camera, scanner, GPS could make use of services like Google Maps or an improved image search to recognize objects and deliver useful information about them.

"You can use it when you want to know a car model, an insect name, what kind of food is served at a restaurant and how much, who built a bridge, etc. etc. But as a designer myself, I hope it's able to tell me a name of a font of the type I see, the size, color (in RGB), and so on," explains Mac.

There are already commercial applications like GeoVector 3D Search that let users access data about some points of interest, but this could be extended to non-local search. GeoVector "currently provides products and services which significantly simplify local searches, allowing users to point their mobile device toward objects of interest to access information about them. Users can point and click with their mobile phone the way a computer user navigates using a mouse," according to a press release.

Google tests introducing barcodes in print ads to increase their accountability. "2D barcodes (...) allow readers to click on interesting print ads with their cellphones and seamlessly connect to relevant online content." A barcode could encode URLs or any other short text. "When you capture a picture of it with your cellphone, special decoding software reads the encoded information, and prompts your phone's browser to visit a URL." Barcodes are very popular in Japan, where a lot of mobile phones include decoding software. "Japan, the first country with a highly developed 3G network and high usage of the mobile internet, was also the country where telecoms like NTTDoCoMo and KDDI achieved a breakthrough by bringing QR code readers to mobile phones. Today QR Codes are so pervasive in Japan that it's almost impossible without seeing one. You can find them in advertisements, mobile campaigns, on maps, in magazines, on billboards etc. and nobody want to miss them anymore."

Point-and-click is an intuitive way to interact with objects and obtain information from search engines, but it's necessary to be able to analyze images and recognize objects, the same way barcode decoders transform codes into text. Google's acquisition of Neven Vision is a step in this direction.

February 9, 2008

Google Shows the Indexing Date for Each Search Result

If you use Google's advanced options to restrict the search results to a certain period of time, you'll find that Google shows the date when each web page has been first indexed (in many cases, this is a good approximation of the date when a web page has been created).


As previously mentioned, you can edit Google's URL to customize how fresh the search results should be. For example, if you append &as_qdr=y9 to Google's search URL, you'll restrict the results to web pages first indexed by Google in the last 9 years. Since this restriction should include all web pages from Google's index, you can use it to display the timestamp next to each search result (e.g.: a search for iPod).

Maybe in the future Google will display the date next to each search result, it will try to approximate the date when a page has been created, allow users to filter results from certain periods and sort the results by date.

Interesting Results from Google Blog Search

Even it still has problems with duplicate content and spam, Google Blog Search has an important advantage over other blog search engines: it actually finds the most important search results. This is the default option for displaying results and it's recommended to use it even if you only want to read fresh news, as you can change the time interval to "last hour" or "last 12 hours".

Google's blog search engine lacks a homepage that displays the most important posts from the blogosphere, but there's a way to find interesting posts without entering a query. For some strange reason, if you search for [label:keyword] or [view:keyword] (keyword can be anything you like), Google ignores your query and displays a list of blog posts. We can assume it's a list of blog posts relevant for any query.


Related:
How Google Blog Search ranks results

Finding Places of Interest in Google Maps

Google Maps has a very useful mapplet (what's a mapplet?) that shows places of interest from a list of categories. You can select the mapplet by going to the My Maps tab and clicking on Featured content > Places of interest.

Instead of searching for bars, restaurants, hospitals, shopping malls, you can select these categories in the left sidebar and see all the places that match your selection. Unlike the standard search results, the mapplet shows many more places and you can use it to see the picture: for example, to estimate the distribution of restaurants in a certain area. Google Maps lets you select more than one mapplet, so you can also activate the distance measurement tool, the Panoramio layer with beautiful photos or the popular community maps.

February 8, 2008

Google Goes to Disneyland


This year, Google's employees didn't go on the traditional ski trip due to the size of the company, so they went to Disneyland for three days, from 4 to 6 February. Here's how Googlers described the trip:

"Monday through Wednesday, Googlers from the West Coast offices headed down to Anaheim for a visit to place of a 'million dreams.' Suffice it to say, it was an incredible experience. I got to go on rides I had gone on over 10 years ago - including Space Mountain, Matterhorn, and Star Tours. And, I got to ride the new rides - California Soarin', California Screamin', Buzz Lightyear, and Indiana Jones. From 8pm-1am, the park was open only to Googlers, with our very own fireworks show and no waits in the lines." (Reid)

"Tomorrow I'll be on my way (...) to LAX and then to Anaheim for Google's yearly ski-trip! Oh wait. There's no skiing in Anaheim. So what's this all about? Well it turns out that Google with its 16,805 employees is now so big that we cannot by any means rent enough rooms in Tahoe, so it was decided to give us a choice this year: Camping at the Pinnacles National Monument south of Salinas, CA (bring your own tent!) or Disneyland! Google's got the whole park just for Googlers after 8pm on Tuesday [February 5th]", writes Ulf Waschbusch.

"One of the things I can most prominently remember about my childhood is Disney cartoons. There was a stage when Mickey, Donald, Pluto, Goofy meant more in life than probably computers mean today. I visited Disneyland at Anaheim near Los Angeles. Many thanks to Google for the company trip. (...) Disneyland is a childhood dream come true. One less thing left to do in life." (Nirnimesh, a Googler from Hyderabad, India)


"Absolutely amazing time. The organization of the trip was second-to-none... pretty much what you'd expect from Google. I couldn't even imagine what a logistical nightmare organizing something like this must have been. They flew about 5,000 people down from three different airports in the bay area, to three different airports in Los Angeles area. Shuttles were organized to take us from those three airports to about 10 different hotels where the Googlers were staying. At the airports, for most of us who only had carry-on luggage, we were handed our boarding passes after showing ID and went straight to security (after waiting on a Google line for a quite some time but what would you expect?!). When we arrived at the airport (going down and coming back), there wasn't a single moment where the Googlers weren't informed where we were supposed to go to catch our shuttle. (...) There's definitely a reason why Google's the number one employer to work for. This was the most fun I've had since I moved out here." (Billy)



More photos of Google's trip to Disneyland: Arturo, Ana, Rosalie, Cynthia, Michael, Tessa, Gregory.