Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Geek Wednesday: The New Empire

Today we're honored to have Nearly Redmond Nick back on the blog, to help sort out all the latest offerings from The Stanford Franchise, better known as Google. Nick, unlike me, is a genuine, dyed-in-the-wool geek: I mean, he builds computers, writes code in more languages than they had at Babel, and has a bloodstream that's 99% caffeine. Believe me, you'll get more out of this Geek Wednesday than you have from any before it.

For eons and eons (in Internet time, that is), Microsoft has been referred to as the Evil Empire. And for my part, I'd say the moniker is well earned with their well-documented monopolistic practices and habit of swallowing up any start-up that may pose a realistic threat. Here I'd like to make my case for a new sheriff of this town. Watch out Bill, Mr. Schmidt is lurking in your backyard!

Last week, Google announced four new products. Much to the chagrin of their major competitors, this was headline material even though the concepts behind their offerings were nothing new. In fact, this writer found more than a few eerie similarities between these services and existing competitors' offerings. Let's dig in, shall we?

Google Trends
Google Trends is neat little tool that allows a user to gauge the relative popularity of a search term. For example, enter "cruise vacation" and you can see the seasonal trends of the cruise travel business. Google Trends generates a graph showing the total number of searches for the entered term originating from the chosen geographic region within the selected time period. Similar to a stock chart, what Google calls the "News Reference Volume" is displayed along the horizontal axis to give you an idea of how frequently that term was referenced in the news on a particular day. In addition, significant news events are shown on the graph using callouts. What this means is that you can tell why there was a huge spike in searches for "Cheney" on February 14th of this year (something to do with a good friend of his getting shot in the face).

Google Co-op
Co-op is probably the geekiest of the new products. At its core, "Google Co-op is about sharing expertise." You can be either a user of co-op or a contributor to co-op.

A co-op user can choose to subscribe to the offerings of contributors who match their interests. For example, as a travel buff I have subscribed to co-op offerings from Fodor's, Frommer's and Lonely Planet. In electing to subscribe to their offerings, I am saying that I trust their expertise and would like to see their input on the things I search for. So now, when I search for "Seattle", I'm given a set of links with which to refine my search. I can choose from "Dining Guides", "Lodging Guides" or "Attractions" to view a new set of search results that are influenced by my chosen co-op subcriptions.

For aspiring co-op contributors, a little more work needs to be done. You must work through a 4-step process that includes picking labels, designing facets and creating a context file (in XML) to describe your labels and facets. Once that is done, you need to get users to subscribe to your contributions. While this seems like a lot of work (worthy of an experienced Information Architect), I expect many content creators to participate. With increased usage of Co-op, it will allow them to become recognized experts in their domains. This is already happening in the limited number of categories available now.

Google Desktop 4
Anyone not living in a cave for the past few years has heard of Widgets. But for those cave-ridden few out there, Widgets are small (both in size and weight) applications that run on your local machine and can be placed anywhere on your screen. If you're an owner of Mac OS X, or a user of Yahoo! Widgets (formerly Konfabulator), you know the many uses of Widgets. There are the useful (news alerts, weather forecasts) and the not-so-useful-but-mildly-entertaining (Dilbert cartoons, Harry Potter quotes).

With release 4 of Google Desktop, Google introduces Gadgets (a widget by any other name). Currently, the available selection is small but I'm expecting developers to hop on board, as they did for OS X and Yahoo!, and begin creating a large library of offerings.

Google Notebook
Available as a Firefox Extension or Windows application for IE (I recommend the former), Google Notebook acts as your digital scratchpad for all your browsing notes. The application hides away as a small icon in the browser's bottom-right corner as you do your normal browsing. However, when you finally come across that lobster bisque recipe you were looking for, you can click on the icon and copy all the pertinent information right into your notebook.

At this point, you're probably looking back at the beginning of this article and asking yourself, "How exactly does this make Google the next Empire?" And you would have every right to ask such a question. After all, I've only described 4 new offerings that simply copy existing technologies. Google Gadgets? Check out Yahoo! or OS X widgets. Notebook? Ever heard of A9 Search? But wait, that Trends thing is pretty cool, right? Well, it was pretty cool when Yahoo! introduced it as Yahoo! Buzz way, way back. And while Google Co-op may be the closest thing to a unique offering, pieces of it seem to have been culled from Flickr (now also part of Yahoo!).

Now for the part that makes all of this important: people care! When Google announced all of these new and updated products, they did so in front of over 100 reporters. If the atmosphere wasn't so electric, you may have heard self-pitying whimpers coming from Redmond or Sunnyvale. "Why don't they care about us?" Well, that's for another day. Let's consider this the first of many installments about Google's rise to supreme power!

--Nearly Redmond Nick

Today's Geek News

The MacBooks have arrived. Pictures here and here; Tech Specs and options here. Prices range from $1100 - $1500, making it an affordable high-end option. Like the other Intel Macs, they will run Boot Camp with Win XP and Mac OS X. But if you don't need that dual core power; the ability to run Windows on a Mac (I still don't understand that one); or are simply looking for a bargain, sit back a little and watch the prices drop on the "old" iBooks.

Take out the "service" and make it "spy": ISPs are about to become Internet Spying Providers, if the neocons have their way. This is another invasion courtesy of our good friend Jim No-Sensenbrenner.

I'm still working on my Tao of Hogwarts book, and I'm using a recent Google acquisition, the Writely online word processor, which--like my life--is still in beta. Overall, I'm very impressed: the uploading is a nearly flawless process. I've uploaded a number of Word documents from both my iMac and the Wintel machine, with equally good transfer of formatting, design, fonts, and screen elements. The only slip I noticed in this respect was with first-line indenting of paragraphs. Otherwise, it's a full-featured word processor with collaboration options, versioning, blogging features, and the ability to save a document in any of five different formats (html, doc, pdf, rtf, and Open Office files, with WordPerfect compatibility on the way). The product will need some fine-tuning in browser compatibility (though it currently works well in Firefox and IE) and viewing options; but on balance this is an excellent effort with great potential. No wonder there's an extensive waiting list for admission to the beta user group. Since it's a Google product now, it works a lot like G-Mail: so I've got 50 invites to hand out, if you're interested.

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