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June 28, 2010

Mobile Google Docs Viewer

Google Docs Viewer, a service that lets you preview online PDFs, Word documents and PowerPoint presentations, is now available for iPhone and Android devices.

Google added some features that make the service more useful on a touchscreen device: pinch to zoom (only for iPhone and iPad), buttons for zoom and pagination.

Unfortunately for Google, iPhone's built-in PDF reader and Microsoft Office viewer are much better than Google Docs Viewer because they don't convert documents to images. Some Android phones include a document viewer based on Quickoffice, which also does a better job than Google Docs Viewer. There's also Adobe Reader for Android, probably the best Android PDF reader you can download for free.

Gmail to Use More HTML5 Features

Computer World reports that many of the upcoming Gmail features will use HTML5. Adam de Boor, a Gmail engineer, said that Google's goal is to make Gmail load in less than a second.

"If the browser supports CSS3, Gmail will render the pages using these specifications, rather than its traditional approach of using the Document Object Model (DOM). The company has found that using CSS3 can speed the rendering time by 12 percent. (...) Gmail will also make use of HTML5's database standards. Now, the e-mail service uses Google Gears to store mail for offline reading, but over time that will migrate to the HTML5 standards."

Another feature that will be added to Gmail allows users to drag attachments to the desktop. This feature is not part of HTML5, but Google says that it will encourage other browsers to use it. Right now, you can drag and drop files from the desktop to Gmail, but only if you use Firefox 3.6 or Chrome.

Adam de Boor revealed how many lines of code are in Gmail: 443,000 lines of JavaScript code written by hand.

Gmail has added many features that used to be available only in desktop mail clients: fetching email from other accounts, threading, powerful spam filters, reading messages offline. Now it's time to better integrate Gmail with the browser or the operating system and to add notifications, a simplified way to handle attachments and a better performance.

{ spotted by George }

A Gay Google Search Box

Each year in June, Google search results pages for gay-related queries include a multicolored bar. This time, Google added the colorful bar below the search box.

In the US, June is the "Gay & Lesbian Pride Month". "This month is meant to recognize the impact Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender individuals have had on the world. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual groups celebrate this special time with pride parades, picnics, parties, memorials for those lost from hate crimes as well as HIV and AIDS, and other group gathering events that attract thousands upon thousands of individuals."

Erica Baker pointed to a shirt of one the Googlers marching in the Global Pride Parades:

{ Photo licensed as Creative Commons by magic robots. Thanks, M. }

Google OneBox for Sunrise and Sunset

Google shows sunrise and sunset information in a special OneBox at the top of the search results. If you type [lima sunrise] or [paris sunset], Google will show the time for sunrise or sunset in that location.

Google says that this feature works for almost any location. "Whether you're looking to find the best time for a morning jog or trying to plan that perfect moment for a wedding proposal, knowing exactly when the sun rises or sets can always be helpful. (...) Unlike the weather, sunrises and sunsets are quite predictable, and as a result, we don't use a data source. Instead, we calculate sunrise and sunset times based on latitude, longitude and the current time. This calculation has been of interest to astronomers and mathematicians for millennia, so they've had time to get it just right. And for most locations, it's accurate to within a single minute."

You can also type [sunset] or [sunrise] and Google should show accurate information for your location. Google has similar OneBoxes for weather and time.

Google Chrome Tests Unified Menu

Google started to test a unified menu in the latest Chromium and Google Chrome dev builds. The new menu includes most of the options that were available in the page and tools menus.

If you use a recent Chromium build or Google Chrome dev channel, you can enable this feature by adding a command-line flag to the desktop shortcut: --new-wrench-menu.

To make the menu more compact, Google uses a single menu item for cut, copy, paste and another menu item that combines zoom options with full-screen.

Opera already uses a unified menu that replaces the menu bar, while Firefox 4 will include a single menu button. The unified menu takes up less space, it's less complex and it reduces clutter.

"The general purpose of the menubar is to contain all of the things that you want your program to do but you can't cram into the main UI. So the menubar generally ends up with a lot of stuff that isn't used very often, if at all, and yet is reproduced on every window and takes up a significant amount of real estate. It also has the tendency to become a dumping ground for new or hardly used features. Starting with Vista, and continuing with Windows 7, the menubar has been systematically removed from Windows applications built by Microsoft and other vendors. It has been replaced with alternatives like the Windows Explorer contextual strip or the Ribbon found in Office 2007," explains Mozilla's wiki.

June 24, 2010

YouTube Adds Vuvuzela Button

YouTube's player added a new button for playing a vuvuzela sound file. If you watch the World Cup football matches on TV and you're missing the loud vuvuzela noise when you're watching YouTube videos, there's a new button for you.

"The vuvuzela is a typical 65 cm (2 ft) plastic blowing horn that produces a loud, distinctive monotone B♭3 note. The vuvuzela is most used at soccer matches in South Africa, and it has become a symbol of South African soccer as the stadiums are filled with its loud and raucous sound that reflects the exhilaration of supporters," informs Wikipedia.

Unfortunately, if you click on the vuvuzela button, you might not be able to hear the original sound of the video. YouTube has an option that provides automatic captions for videos, but the results are rarely accurate.

{ Thanks, Sterling. }

June 23, 2010

Viacom Loses the Case Against YouTube

YouTube's blog informs that YouTube won the case against Viacom. In 2007, Viacom sued YouTube for $1 billion because the video site hosted copyright infringing videos that included content from Viacom.

"YouTube's strategy has been to avoid taking proactive steps to curtail the infringement on its site. Their business model, which is based on building traffic and selling advertising off of unlicensed content, is clearly illegal and is in obvious conflict with copyright laws," said a Viacom representative in 2007.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act has some provisions that protect web services by creating a safe harbor against copyright liability. To be protected by the DMCA, online service providers must not make money from the infringing activities, must not be aware of the presence of infringing material and must remove the infringing material if the copyright owners send a notice to the service provider. Viacom said that YouTube's employees were aware that the site hosted copyright infringing videos, but the court didn't think that it was enough.

Here's a relevant excerpt from the court's decision:
Mere knowledge of prevalence of [copyright infringement] activity in general is not enough. That is consistent with an area of the law devoted to protection of distinctive individual works, not of libraries. To let knowledge of a generalized practice of infringement in the industry, or of a proclivity of users to post infringing materials, impose responsibility on service providers to discover which of their users' postings infringe a copyright would contravene the structure and operation of the DMCA.

That makes sense, as the infringing works in suit may be a small fraction of millions of works posted by others on the service's platform, whose provider cannot by inspection determine whether the use has been licensed by the owner, or whether its posting is a "fair use" of the material, or even whether its copyright owner or licensee objects to its posting. The DMCA is explicit: it shall not be construed to condition "safe harbor" protection on "a service provider monitoring its service or affirmatively seeking facts indicating infringing activity".

This decision is not important only for YouTube and Google, it's important for any other sites that host user-generated content.

June 22, 2010

Google Spreadsheets Adds Format Painter

Google Spreadsheets added a feature that lets you copy the formatting a cell and use it for other cells. It's called "format painter", like the similar feature from Microsoft Office.

To use the format painter, select a cell that has special formatting, click on the "paint format" button from the toolbar and then select one or more cell to apply the formatting.

Microsoft offers an example to show why this feature is useful:

"Say you've written a report in Word. You like the look, especially your headings, which are 14 pt. Bookman Old Style, centered, green, and bold, with a nice subtle shadow. Fifteen minutes before you're supposed to present the report to the team, your manager asks you to add four new sections to the report. You spend thirteen minutes adding the information, and the next two wishing that you hadn't chosen such complicated formatting for your headings, since you now have to apply it to all the new ones. Using Format Painter saves you that time and duplicated effort. Instead of having to manually apply the font, font effects, centered paragraph alignment, and other formatting to each new section heading, you can quickly copy all of the formatting attributes by using one toolbar button."

Unfortunately, format painter is not available in all Google Docs applications and you can only use it in Google Spreadsheets. So much for the Google Docs consistency.

{ Thanks, Cougar Abogado. }

Google Voice, Available Without Invitation

If you're in the US, you can now use Google Voice without asking for an invitation. Three years after acquiring GrandCentral, Google finally makes the service widely available.

"A little over a year ago, we released an early preview of Google Voice, our web-based platform for managing your communications. We introduced one number to ring all your phones, voicemail that works like email, free calls and text messages to the U.S. and Canada, low-priced international calls and more—the only catch was you had to request and receive an invite to try it out. Today, after lots of testing and tweaking, we're excited to open up Google Voice to the public, no invitation required," explains Google.

Google Voice has a lot in common with Gmail. They're both innovative communication services and they both help you manage your communication flow. Gmail has been available as an invitation-only service for about 3 years, just like Google Voice.

The next steps for Google Voice should be expanding the service's availability outside US, integrating with Gizmo5 and becoming a VoIP service, integrating with Gmail and Google Talk.

CJ, a reader of this blog, already found some signs of a future integration:

"Late last year, Google Talk appeared as an option for Phone Type when adding a new phone in the Google Voice settings. I added my Google Talk account, but could not verify it. I just left it in there unverified because I knew at some point the day would come. At some point in the past few weeks, I was able to get my Gmail Voice Chat client to ring when attempting to verify the Google Talk account in my Google Voice account, but the call always immediately failed. Now in the past two or three days I've been able to answer the call and hear the prompt to enter the verification code, but there's no way to send the verification digits. I tried generating DTMF tones and sending them through the microphone, but it doesn't work. So close!"

{ Thanks, CJ. }

Save iPhone Notes to a Gmail Account

Apple's iOS 4 (iPhone OS 4) added an important missing feature: a way to save your notes online. If you add an IMAP mail account like Gmail or Yahoo Mail and enable the notes feature, you can create notes that are saved to your email account.

For Gmail, Apple creates a label called Notes and saves the notes created in the Gmail section to your Gmail account. The notes can only be edited from an iPhone or iPod Touch and the changed are reflected in Gmail.

Some other new iOS 4 features that should be useful for Google users: Google Suggest in Safari's search box, an option to search the Web in Spotlight and the ability to add multiple Exchange accounts.

June 21, 2010

Distance Measurement in Google Maps Labs

Google Maps Labs added a feature that used to be available as a mapplet: distance measurement tool. After enabling the Labs feature, you'll notice a small ruler at the bottom of the map. Click on the ruler and you'll be able to use the distance measurement tool by clicking on the map and tracing the path you want to measure.

If you click on "I'm feeling geeky", you'll be able to pick from a long list of measurement units, including light-year, parsec, PostScript points, Olympic swimming pools, American footbal fields, Persian cubits and more.

Google Adds OCR for PDF Files and Images

When you upload files to Google Docs, you'll notice a new option that tells Google to convert the text from PDF and image files to Google Docs documents. The feature has been released last year as an experiment, so Google had enough time to improve the accuracy of the results.

I've tried to convert an excerpt from the book Rework and the result wasn't great. About 10% of the text has been incorrectly converted and the formatting hasn't been preserved.

"This document contains text automatically extracted from a PDF or image file. Formatting may have been lost and not all text may have been recognized," explained Google in a note included in the document.

To be fair, ABBYY Online wasn't able to produce much better results:

Update: Google Docs Blog says that this feature only works for the following languages: English, French, Italian, German and Spanish. "For the technically curious: we're using Optical Character Recognition (OCR) that our friends from Google Books helped us set up. OCR works best with high-resolution images, and not all formatting may be preserved."

{ spotted by George }

Gmail's Redesigned Contact Cards

Gmail's contact cards, which show up when you mouse over the sender of a message or a Gmail Chat contact, have a new interface. Action buttons are displayed at the bottom of the card and you can no longer edit the name of a contact inline. When you click on the name of a contact, Gmail opens the contact manager.

Contacts cards haven't changed too much since 2007, when Google released a major Gmail update.

If you'd like to see how much Gmail has evolved since 2007, open Gmail's old version. It's surprising to see that Gmail still offers the old version, which lacks most of the features released in the past three years.

{ Thanks, Itamar and Angelo. }

June 18, 2010

Use Google Services from the Command Line

Not every one likes beautiful interfaces with big buttons, controls for entering text and uploading files. Sometimes it's faster to type commands in a terminal.

GoogleCL is a project that makes it easy to use Google services like Blogger, Picasa Web, YouTube, Google Docs ans Google Calendar from the command-line. It's a wrapper for the Google Data APIs, so you first need to install Python 2.6 (or 2.5) and Google Data APIs Python Client Library.

It's not very difficult to install a Python package. For example, in Windows you need to extract the archive, open the folder in Windows Explorer, shift + right-click in a blank space, select "Open command window here" and type: python install.

After installing Python, Google Data APIs Python Client Library and Google CL, you can type commands that let you upload photos to Picasa Web, upload videos to YouTube, publish Blogger posts, add events to Google Calendar, find Gmail contacts and more.

Here are some of my favorite commands:

google calendar add "Meet Mary tomorrow at 10am"
(add an event to Google Calendar)

google picasa get "Album Title" c:\files\picasa\
(download the files from one of your albums)

google picasa create --title "Miami Beach" c:\files\photos\miami\*.jpg
(upload photos to a new Picasa Web album)

google youtube post --title "Summer in Rome" c:\videos\rome.avi
(upload a video to YouTube)

google docs get --title "Reports .*"
(download documents that have titles starting with "Reports" as text files)

google docs upload c:\files\*.doc
(upload the *.doc files from a folder to Google Docs)

For a more comprehensive list of commands, type google --help or read the manual.

{ via Google Open Source Blog }

Switch to HD When Playing YouTube Videos in Full Screen

YouTube added a clever option for those who want to see a better video quality in full screen. If a video is available in a HD format, you can view it in HD when switching to the full screen mode.

Just click on the drop-down menu for switching between formats, click on "Settings" and enable "Always play HD when switching to fullscreen (when available)". You can also change playback quality settings from this page.

Unfortunately, when you exit the full screen mode, YouTube doesn't switch to the previous format. As YouTube's help center explains, "if you play HD video in a small player, the computer works overtime to scale down the video to fit within the player, which may result in choppy playback. It's always best to play the video size that best fits the size of the video player."

{ Thanks, Sterling. }

June 17, 2010

Built-in PDF Reader for Google Chrome

Chromium's blog announced that the latest Google Chrome dev build for Windows and Mac includes a plug-in for viewing PDF files. The plug-in can be enabled by going to chrome://plugins/ and clicking on "Enable" for the "Chrome PDF Viewer" plug-in.

When you click on a link to a PDF file, Chrome no longer opens the file using the Adobe Reader plug-in. Instead, Google Chrome uses a basic PDF viewer that lacks many useful features like pagination and bookmarks.

"PDF files will render as seamlessly as HTML web pages, and basic interactions will be no different than the same interactions with web pages (for example, zooming and searching will work as users expect). PDF rendering quality is still a work in progress, and we will improve it substantially before releasing it to the beta and stable channels. To further protect users, PDF functionality will be contained within the security sandbox Chrome uses for web page rendering. Users will automatically receive the latest version of Chrome's PDF support; they won't have to worry about manually updating any plug-ins or programs," explains Google.

This is especially useful for Chrome OS users, who won't be able to install PDF viewers like Adobe Reader or Evince. Instead of relying on Google Docs Viewer, Chrome will be able to display PDF files faster, especially if they're saved locally.

{ Thanks, Arpit. }

Synchronize Google Chrome Extensions

After adding support for synchronizing bookmarks, preferences and themes, Google Chrome tests a new option that synchronizes extensions and their settings. The feature is available in the most recent Dev Channel build, but you need to add two flags that enable this feature:

--enable-sync-extensions --sync-url=

For example, in Windows you need to edit a Chrome shortcut: right-click on the shortcut, click on "Properties" and append a space followed by the flags above to the target field.

I tried this feature using the latest Dev Channel build for Windows and a recent Chromium build. Most changes are synchronized almost instantly, but not everything is synchronized: Greasemonkey scripts are ignored and uninstalling extensions doesn't propagate to other clients.

It's important to keep in mind that this is an initial implementation of the feature and that Chrome Dev Channel releases are buggier and less reliable than the stable releases.

Chrome Dev Channel and Chromium, using the same extensions

On Google Chrome's Lack of Native Support for Feeds

Google Chrome is the only popular browser that doesn't have native support for feeds: it doesn't detect or preview feeds and it doesn't let you subscribe to feeds using your favorite feed reader. Most of these features are available in Firefox, Opera, Safari, Internet Explorer, but they're implemented in Chrome using an extension.

Chrome's RSS subscription extension was supposed to be bundled with the browser, but it was no longer included because not many people subscribe to feeds and the orange icon would've been distracting. A Google Chrome engineer offered a more detailed explanation:

"We originally intended to include RSS support by default as a native feature of Google Chrome (and we still might in the future) but we decided instead to implement this as an extension. This decision was made based on our philosophy of trying to limit ourselves to adding only the UI features that a vast majority of users need and allow each user to customize the browsers to fit their needs with Extensions. Given that most people are not familiar with and don't consume RSS feeds, we thought that RSS support would be a better fit as an extension, at least to begin with."

Here's what you see when you click on a link to the Slashdot feed:

... and here's the same feed if you use the RSS subscription extension:

Maybe not all users know the definition of a feed, but not many people know what a browser is and that doesn't stop them from using a browser. Orange icons for feeds are everywhere and many sites display them prominently.

It's strange to see that Google Chrome doesn't have native support for feeds, while Google Reader is the most popular online feed reader, Google's FeedBurner is the most popular service for managing feeds, most Google search services have feeds for search results and even Chrome's blog links to an Atom feed.

What's even more surprising is that Chrome doesn't parse XML feeds to show a human-readable preview. Google Chrome doesn't even recommend users to install the RSS subscription extension.

If you'd like to see native support for feeds in Google Chrome, star this issue.

June 16, 2010

Google Docs and Backwards Compatibility

When Google announced a new version of Google Docs in April, it was obvious that not only the user interface has been changed. The new document editor, code-named Kix, is so different that Google had to change the way documents are stored.

"The new Google document editor doesn't use the browser to handle editable text. We wrote a brand new editing surface and layout engine, entirely in JavaScript. (...) To you, the new editor looks like a fairly normal text box. But from the browser's perspective, it's a webpage with JavaScript that responds to any user action by dynamically changing what to display on each line," explains Google.

When Google launched an early preview of the new online word processor, you probably noticed that the only way to see the new version of the editor was to create a new document. All the existing documents were tied to the old editor and Google didn't offer an option to convert them. A Google blog post informs us that all the new documents will be created using the new editor:

"Beginning today and rolling out over the next couple of weeks, all new documents will be created using the new documents editor. Docs already created using the older editor will remain there. We will be sharing more information on how to move those documents to the new version soon."

The problem with the new editor is that it lacks many features that were previously available in Google Docs: translation, editing CSS and HTML, document settings, custom dictionary, comparing revisions etc. These features will probably be added to the new editor, but users expect to find new features in a major update, not missing features.

Another issue is that most documents will open in the old editor, while recent documents will open in the new editor. Google will offer an option to migrate the existing documents to the new format, but users shouldn't have to deal with converting between formats.

The new document editor should have become the default option when all the features from the old editor were implemented and all the existing documents should have been converted to the new format. Meanwhile, you can still create documents using the old editor if you use this URL:

Also notice that the two document formats (Writely and Kix) have slightly different icons:

June 15, 2010

YouTube Video Editor

YouTube has a new video editor that lets you create videos using excerpts from the videos you've already uploaded. You can also add a music file from the AudioSwap library, but YouTube mentions that it might display ads if you use some of the audio files.

In 2007, YouTube launched a more advanced Flash-based video editor called YouTube Remixer, but it was discontinued. The service was based on Adobe Premiere Express and, despite offering features like transitions, captions, adding images, it was slow and buggy.

Here are some videos created using YouTube's new video editor.

{ Thanks, Kevin. }

What's Still Missing in Google Chrome?

When Google released Chrome almost two years ago, many people complained that Google's browser lacked basic features that were available in all the other browsers, it didn't support extensions and could only be installed in Windows. Since then, Google Chrome has added many missing features (bookmark manager, form autofill, options for disabling cookies, images and scripts, full-page zoom, themes, extensions), the browser has been ported to Mac and Linux and it continues to be fast and to evolve rapidly.

While Google Chrome focuses on implementing useful features for improving the transition to web apps (HTML5 features, cloud printing, desktop notifications, extensions for web apps, Native Client, WebGL), many basic features are still missing. Google Chrome still can't print selected text and lacks print preview (both features should be available in Google Chrome 6), you still can't drag text from a tab to another tab, there's no way to find the size of an image or to automatically clear the cache when closing the browser.

What other basic features would you like to see in Google Chrome? Please keep in mind that Google Chrome is a minimalist browser and it shouldn't include features that would be used by a small number of people or features that could be implemented as extensions.

Google Chrome's homepage in Google Chrome 1

Google Chrome's homepage in Google Chrome 5

Google Earth Includes a Web Browser

Google Earth 5.2 no longer uses the operating system's web browser when you click on links. Google Earth comes with a WebKit-based browser, so you'll never have to leave the application to open a Wikipedia page or the website of a local business.

"Sometimes when you want more information, you may want to click through to a link to see the full Google Places page for a business, or learn more about a photographer whose photo you really enjoy. In the past, this has required opening a link in an external browser to see the full page. For Google Earth 5.2, we've added an embedded browser that lets you browse the full web. Click on a link, and the browser pane slides across the screen. When you want to return to the Earth view, just click the Back button," explains Google.

Apparently, Google Earth uses the Qt port of WebKit (QtWebKit) and it doesn't include the V8 Javascript engine from Google Chrome. I tried to run the V8 benchmark suite in Google Earth and the result was very poor: about 10 times lower than the latest Chromium build.

As in the previous versions, Google Earth for Windows and Mac also includes a plug-in that lets you embed a Google Earth view in any web page. Google Maps is the most popular service that lets you use Google Earth in your browser. Now you can browse the Web in Google Earth and use Google Earth in a Web browser.

If you don't like the embedded browser, you can disable it by going to Tools > Options > General and checking "Show web results in external browser".

June 11, 2010

Better Gmail Multitasking in Google Chrome

This is the second Chrome-only feature in Gmail, after inserting images using drag and drop. If you open the compose page or a conversation in a new window, Gmail uses some tricks to load the new page fast. The downside is that you can't close the initial Gmail tab without also closing the pop-up window.

Here's what happens if you open the compose page in a new window when you use Firefox:

When you try to close the original Gmail tab, a dialog informs you that the compose window will also be closed: "Are you sure you want to navigate away from this page?".

Gmail's blog says that Google Chrome added some code that makes the pop-up windows "long lived".

"If you're using the latest version of Google Chrome, you can now continue to work in popped out windows after you close your main window (especially handy for those of us who always like to keep an eye on our tasks). For the technically curious among you, our friends on the Chrome team made it possible to transfer the code that runs Gmail from one window to another as the window closes. When the window that hosts the code fires an unload event, we move the iframe with the code to a surviving window. Everything continues to run, including timers and outstanding requests."

The enhancement is great, but I'm wary of non-standard features that only work in a browser. The feature is part of HTML5, so it should be implemented in other browsers. Google Chrome happened to be the first browser that implemented it.

Gmail doesn't have tabs, but you can open many views in a new window by shift-clicking on a link, by clicking on the "new window" icon or link. This way, you can keep a conversation open while composing a message (shift-click on "Compose mail" or Shift+c), open Gmail search results in new windows (shift-click on the results), reply to a message in a new window (shift-click on "Reply" or Shift+r).

Google Doodle Notifier

If you picked a background image for Google's homepage, you probably noticed that Google uses a special white logo. Unfortunately, the customized homepage can't show the regular Google logo and Google doodles for special events.

That's the reason why Google shows a small notification icon next to the logo when there's a doodles you can't see.

When you click on the colorful icon, Google shows the doodle on a white background.

I wonder if Google will use full-page doodles for users who picked a background image.

June 10, 2010

Google Web Alerts No Longer Available

Google will no longer offer alerts for web search results and will replace them with comprehensive alerts that include results from Google Web Search, Google News and Blog Search. Marcel Gordon, Product Manager for Google Alerts, says that web alerts weren't very popular.

"We've decided to retire Web alerts because they are used by very few people and an alert of type Everything will find the same results. This week we'll be changing all alerts of type Web into alerts of type Everything. You may receive more results after this change. If you find that you are getting too many results, you can change the "How often" setting to "once a day" or "once a week." You can also change your search query. You can do this on the alerts management page, or by removing the alert using the link at the bottom of each alert email and creating it again with different settings."

Maybe Google should discontinue Google Alerts and provide regular feeds for search results. Right now, you can create feeds for web search results using Google Alerts, but they have URLs that can't be generated automatically. Google News, Blog Search, and Google Video already offer feeds for search results.

{ Thanks, Abhijeet. }

How to Set Google's Background Image as a Wallpaper

Even if you don't want to add a background image to the Google homepage, you must admit that some of the images are beautiful. Here's how to set one of the pictures as a desktop wallpaper:

1. You should should first pick a background image. Click on "Change background image" and select an image you like.

2. If you use Internet Explorer, right-click on Google's homepage and select "set as background". That was really easy.

In other browsers it's more difficult to save the image or to set it as a wallpaper. For Firefox, right-click on the image, select "View page info", go to the "Media" tab and find the JPEG image in the list. Then you can save the image and set it as a wallpaper.

In Google Chrome it's even more difficult: you need to right-click on the image, select "Inspect element", find the last img tag from the page, right-click on the URL, select "Edit attribute" and copy the address using Ctrl+C. Now you can open the image in a new page, save it and set it as a wallpaper.

In Safari you need to enable the developer menu in the settings, go to the "Develop" menu, select "Show Web inspector" and copy the address of the last image from the page.

(Update: someone in the comments found a better way to save the image in Firefox, Chrome and Safari. Right-click at the bottom of the page and you'll find options like "Set as desktop background" or "Save image as". Thanks, ichmbch.)

3. Now you can click on "Remove background image" at the bottom of Google's homepage to hide the image. Today you may still see the default images select by Google, but that's just a full-page doodle that promotes the new feature.

Google Promotes Homepage Wallpapers

Google's wallpaper feature is now available internationally and Google tries to convince people to change the background using a trick. Google's homepages in France, UK, Canada and many other countries have a default background image.

Marissa Mayer, from Google, explains why Google's homepage no longer has background image today: "To provide you with an extra bit of inspiration, we've collaborated with several well-known artists, sculptors and photographers to create a gallery of background images you can use to personalize your Google homepage. Included in the collection are photographs of the works of Dale Chihuly, Jeff Koons, Tom Otterness, Polly Apfelbaum, Kengo Kuma (隈研吾), Kwon, Ki-soo (권기수) and Tord Boontje, as well as some incredible photos from Yann Arthus-Bertrand and National Geographic. We'll be featuring these images as backgrounds on the Google homepage over the next 24 hours."

The only option displayed is "Change background image", which requires to login using a Google account and lets you pick a background image. If you don't like the wallpaper chosen by Google, you'll use the option to customize it.

That's quite clever, but Google didn't consider that some users don't like to see a background image. If you pick an image and select "Remove background image", Google shows one of the default wallpapers. Fortunately, the promotion only lasts a day.

What you can do is to pick a background image, wait until tomorrow when Google's classic homepage will be available again or use Google SSL homepage, Google's Firefox homepage, the Linux template and other similar interfaces. Another option is to use Opera, which is not supported by Google.

When you pick a background image, one of the options is a plain white background:

Update: Google's promotion ended 10 hours earlier. "We had planned to run an explanation of the showcase alongside it—in the form of a link on our homepage. Due to a bug, the explanatory link did not appear for most users. As a result, many people thought we had permanently changed our homepage, so we decided to stop today's series early," explains Marissa Mayer.

Maybe Google should stop showing full-page doodles and games when you visit Google's homepage. There are many subtle ways to promote a service or celebrate an event without annoying your users. For example, Google could show a game, an animation or a background image when you click on a doodle.

June 9, 2010

Google Caffeine: Indexing the Web Faster

Google announced today that new indexing system called Caffeine is live. The goal is to find fresh content faster, to index web pages faster and to update the index in real-time.

"Our old index had several layers, some of which were refreshed at a faster rate than others; the main layer would update every couple of weeks. To refresh a layer of the old index, we would analyze the entire web, which meant there was a significant delay between when we found a page and made it available to you. With Caffeine, we analyze the web in small portions and update our search index on a continuous basis, globally. As we find new pages, or new information on existing pages, we can add these straight to the index," explains Google.

Now that the index is updated in real-time, you'll find recent information faster, sometimes a few minutes after it's posted. Matt Cutts says that you'll sometimes find web pages that weren't indexed when you started typing your query. This is really incredible, even though it's still very difficult to rank recent web pages.

To find recent web pages, click on "past 24 hours" or "past week" in Google's right sidebar (the screenshot shows Google's old interface). You can even sort the results by date.

Google Voice to Integrate with Gmail as a VoIP Service

Google tests a new feature that makes Gmail chat more useful: users are able to make and receive Google Voice calls from Gmail. A new phone icon opens a Gmail chat window with a dialpad, an option to find contacts, a credit balance and a call button.

Right now, if you want to call someone using Google Voice, you need a phone. You can either visit Google Phone's site on your computer, enter the phone number you want to call and wait until Google calls your phone and connects you for free or use Google Phone app on a mobile phone.

The new feature will allow users to make voice calls over the Internet and it's likely that it won't be limited to Gmail. In April, TechCrunch reported that Google "built a Google Voice desktop application to make and receive calls" and that the application is tested internally. Google used technology from Gizmo5, a VoIP service acquired by Google last year.

For now, Google Voice's integration with Gmail is not publicly available.

{ Thanks, Anon. }

Google Maps Navigation for Canada and 10 European Countries

Google Maps Navigation for Android is now available for Canada, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and Switzerland, in addition to the 3 countries that were already supported: US, UK and Ireland. It's interesting to notice that Google still uses data from Tele Atlas for all the countries supported by Google Maps Navigation, except for the US and Canada.

"Google Maps Navigation is an Internet-connected GPS navigation or 'satnav' system that provides turn-by-turn voice guidance as a free feature of Google Maps. Google Maps Navigation (beta) with Search by voice is available in version 4.2 of Google Maps, on Android devices 1.6 and higher," explains Google.

Free turn-by-turn navigation could be an important reason why people choose a mobile phone, so Google and Nokia try to make the most of Google Maps Navigation for Android and Ovi Maps for Symbian. Most likely, in the near future, all smartphones will include a free application for navigation.

In other related news, Google Search by Voice is now available for German, Italian, Spanish and French. Search by voice is an important feature of the Quick Search Box app for Android, Google Mobile App for iPhone and Blackberry. The nice thing is that you don't have to download an update for none of the applications, as the new languages are automatically recognized.

June 8, 2010

Google's Special Results for the Football World Cup

Google started to show a special OneBox for the FIFA World Cup, the international football tournament that will start Friday in South Africa. If you search for "world cup", you can see a list of the teams and the upcoming matches.

At the bottom of the page, Google replaced "Goooooooooogle" with "Gooooooooooal!", at least for the first page of search results.

Google Street View is now available for South Africa and you can see the 10 World Cup stadiums in a gallery. Google Earth links to 3D models of the stadiums and the 9 cities that host the World Cup.

{ via John Mueller and Websonic }

Safari Reader for News Articles

Apple launched Safari 5 for Mac and Windows. In addition to a better support for HTML5 and a much faster JavaScript engine, Safari added an interesting feature for reading news articles and blog posts.

"Safari Reader removes annoying ads and other visual distractions from online articles. So you get the whole story and nothing but the story. It works like this: As you browse the web, Safari detects if you're on a web page with an article. Click the Reader icon in the Smart Address Field, and the article appears instantly in one continuous, clutter-free view. You see every page of the article — whether two or twenty. Onscreen controls let you email, print, and zoom."

The feature works well, but the "Reader" option is not always available. It's quite difficult to detect news articles and to extract their content, so Safari's heuristics are far from perfect. Safari Reader is especially useful for sites that split articles into multiple pages to increase the number of page views. Some of these sites offer a printer-friendly version of the article, but that's usually difficult to read.

If you're using Google Chrome, there's an extension called Readability Redux which offers similar features. Firefox users can install the Readability extension. Both extensions are based on the Readability project, whose goal is to make "reading on the Web more enjoyable by removing the clutter around what you're reading".

Google Maps Previews in Gmail

Gmail added a new Labs feature that parses your messages and lets you preview some content using web services. This time you can preview the addresses from a message using Google Maps. The addresses extracted by Gmail are displayed after a message and you can load a map preview without opening a new page. Right now, the feature only works for US addresses, but Google promises to address this issue.

Gmail already displays addresses from messages in the right sidebar, but you need to click on a link to open the map in a new page. The new Gmail Labs feature has another advantage: it also previews links to Google Maps.

Gmail's blog says that a map preview feature is now available for Google Buzz, but it only works when you paste a Google Maps link in a Buzz message. Unfortunately, Google's thumbnails is really small and clicking on the thumbnail opens a static map.

To find the Labs feature, open Gmail Labs and use your browser's find-on-page feature (Ctrl+F / Cmd-F) to search for "Google Maps previews". Gmail Labs offers other similar contextual gadgets for previewing links to Flickr, Picasa Web, Yelp, Google Voice messages, Google Docs and the YouTube preview feature is enabled by default. Developers can create custom contextual gadgets for Gmail in Google Apps and hopefully the APIs will be extended to the regular Gmail app.

June 7, 2010

Spelling Corrections in Google Suggest

Google Suggest has already been detecting misspellings and showing suggestions that include the properly spelled keywords, but now the mistakes are easier to spot. If you type a misspelled query, Google Suggest includes the "did you mean" label.

"These spelling suggestions already exist on the results page, but by moving them to an earlier point in the search process, we hope we've made it faster and easier to get to the results you're looking for. Right now, this feature is offered only for in English, but we're working to roll this out internationally in the near future," explains Google.

A Wall Street Journal article listed some of the most commonly misspelled words in Google and other search engines: "Criagslist" instead of "Craigslist", "Facebok" instead of "Facebook", "definately", "definetly" or "definatly" instead of "definitely", "stilletos" or "stillettos" instead of "stilettos", "mischevious" and "mischievious" instead of "mischievous". Yahoo's most misspelled word of 2010 so far was Eyjafjallajokull, the famous volcano in Iceland that erupted this year.