Google announce Web History

Google have announced their new Web History service.

Today, we’re pleased to announce the launch of Web History, a new feature for Google Account users that makes it easy to view and search across the pages you’ve visited. If you remember seeing something online, you’ll be able to find it faster and from any computer with Web History. Web History lets you look back in time, revisit the sites you’ve browsed, and search over the full text of pages you’ve seen. It’s your slice of the web, at your fingertips.

The service allows you to look back over time, revisit the sites you’ve browsed, and search through the full text of pages you’ve seen. In order to work though it requires you to install Google Toolbar and have PageRank enabled.


Image:Lifehacker.com

I feel a bit divided on this service. I recognise that it can and will be useful to many people, but it does mean that we all as users have to accept that Google is tracking every site we visit (if we choose to enable this service). It does feel like an invasion of privacy – bit like the CCTV camera on every corner, you just accept it’s there – like Big Brother is watching … ok perhaps that’s a bit unfair :p

I guess to Google’s credit though Yahoo and MSN also track which sites we’ve visited and of the three only Google refused to hand over their user’s data to the US Government – whether that decision was based on moral/ethical grounds or purely based on an unwillingness to hand the data over without a fee is debatable – but nonetheless they have shown some kind of willingness to protect the privacy of their user’s data.

The reality though is that if you don’t want people tracking what you do online then the only solution is to disconnect yourself from the internet – in the past we’ve been happy(?) to accept that this was something our ISP’s did as the provisioner’s of our connection to the internet. Search engines have always tracked what we collectively are searching for, the tailoring of adverts is a reflection of the fact that they already use this information to provide directed contextual ads to us.

So why is this bothering me so much? It’s not as though it’s anything new. So why is it troubling me? I’m not sure if I can answer these questions right now. Do I trust Google? based on their history and track record to date the answer is probably – yes. They have always been forthcoming in admitting what they track and how they use that data.

I think trust is something that is very important to Google, as they move more and more into getting users and organisations to adopt their online services as opposed to desktop based services. Keeping users data safe, secure and private is the measuring stick by which many of us will judge them. Interestingly I think that’s the biggest problem facing any software as a service, it’s convincing users that they can trust you and your service with their data. Any failure will cause possibly irreparable damage to that relationship between you and your users.

Premier Google Apps Demonstration

Came across this video on the Official Google channel on YouTube. It’s a tutorial that demonstrates how organisations can improve their productivity by adopting Google App’s. It show’s some of the customisation capabilities Google are providing for organisations to brand the apps. There’s heavy focus on how you can use Gmail for more than just email – e.g. instant messaging, calendars etc. There’s also a great deail of emphasis on the collaboration features in the tools, which are quite impressive. They also demonstrate how easy it is to for administrators to configure the tools, branding and permissions. The premier addition also allows organisations to switch of adverts.

Google Tech Talk : One Laptop Per Child

The aim of OLPC is to change how kids learn.

Ivan Krstic, Chief Security Architect at OLPC gives a technical talk on how the laptop was designed and how they are going about building it. He goes to great length to explain why they are doing this, the rationale behind the project, and why this influenced many of the technical decisions.

How do you build laptops for kids?

The Original XO-1 laptop has the following spec:

  • Geode GX-500 1.0W, 366Mhz,16kb L1, cache no L2
  • 128 MB RAM
  • 512 MB NAND Flash

The newer version has the following hardware spec:

  • AMD Geode LX-700 0.8W, 433Mhz, 128KB L1, 128KB L2.
  • 256 MB Ram
  • 1024 MB NAND flash

The laptop has no moving parts which helps keep the power usage down. It;s peak power consumption is 4-5W, the standard consumption is closer to 1-2W. Compare this to a normal conventional laptop which is around 40 – 50W. One of the things that stands our for me in this talk is that the OLPC team and doing what is probably the most aggressive work in Power Management using Linux anywhere in the world. In order to conserve more power they’re goal is to suspend the machine every 2 to 3 seconds if nothing on the screen is changing. They actually target they have set is to be able to suspend and resume the machine at the edge of human perception which is ~100ms. That’s incredible!

If you set aside the social aspects of this project and focus purely on the technical goals they’re attempting to achieve, the OLPC project could radically change the way laptops are built. It’s well worth watching the talk, there’s a number of other unique advancements the project has made, and I for one will be keeping a close eye on its development.

Google buys DoubleClick for $3.1 Billion

It’s official, Google has acquired on-line advertising outfit DoubleClick for $3.1 billion. The sky high price though may be less a function of DoubleClick’s actual worth and more about what it can strategically provide for Google – and what it could have done for Microsoft, who were also bidding for the company.

Through this acquisition Google has gained a vibrant advertising business for banners, videos and other so-called display-ads intended to promote brands rather than to generate immediate sales. It’s widely known fact that DoubleClick has relationships with almost every major online publisher and almost half of all online ad agencies. This means that Google can now go head to head with its main search rival Yahoo! in the display advertising business.

To get an idea of why this is so important, analysts predict that the paid search advertising market will account for more than 40% of the $19.5 billion expected to go to on-line advertising this year (Mar. 7 eMarketer report).

David Rosenblatt, CEO of DoubleClick, made an interesting comment about this acquisition – he’s excited at the prospect of using DoubleClick’s relationships and Google’s targeting to sell off-line ads in the future. He also believes that DoubleClick’s existing clients wont think of this as a threat, but as a tool that makes advertising easier : ” I think they will see this as a best-of-breed combination – the leading platform technology provider and the leading monetization engine”.

Even more power for Google.

Web Apps can never be desktop replacements … ?

Came across this article over at madpenguin.org. The author, Matt Hartley, argues that Web Apps will never be desktop replacements. After reading the article I think the most compelling arguments he provides are:

  1. In order to use a web based application you have to have an internet connection. Broadband outages mean you can’t be dependent on them. When your offline you can’t use them.
  2. There are privacy issues to think about. Your effectively handing your data to a third party and relying on the fact that they will not abuse it.

Firstly, I think never is a long time 😉

I am not sure if either would dissuade me from using web based applications instead of desktop ones. I already use Google’s web based applications and I think they are pretty good in terms of delivering my day to day needs. I suppose if I’m honest I’m hard pressed to think of what I do with a word processor or spreadsheet on a daily basis that I can’t do using these applications.

As for availability. I can’t remember the last time I suffered from an internet outage that prevented me from getting on line for any significant amount of time. I certainly can’t remember any time I’ve tried to use one of Google’s applications to find that it was down or unavailable, or one of 37Signals applications.

Speed of response as I see it is a big stumbling block for web based applications. I’ve not experienced many such issues using Google applications, but I know how much I get irritated when I’m sitting there waiting for a page to load in BaseCamp for example. However, any organisation, worth its salt, that is serious about providing software as a service over the web has to consider the responsiveness of its software as a key metric in gauging the applications success, because users using it will.

Data security is a bit a funny topic, if you consider the prevelance of behaviour logging spyware on most computers , I’m not convinced the average persons data would be more secure on their own PC, or even works machine. I suppose it feel comforting to think that your somehow responsible for your own data but Microsoft is Microsoft, spyware is spyware, rootkits are rootkits and hackers are hackers.

Realistically thought, it’s certainly going to be a while before people will actually bring themselves to trust third party company’s with their corporate data. Any form of outsourcing raises questions. Google is making some inroads with its Google Apps premium service – which basically allows companies to have their corporate email provided by Google, and use slightly richer versions of Google’s web based applications as opposed to Microsoft Office.

Ultimately, I do wonder though if the reality around the viability of this transition from desktop to web is less about the technical issues but more the commercial ones:

Web apps will slowly replace desktop apps so long as desktop apps fail to turn the same profit that web apps and subscription services can. To some extent we can figure in the level to which users acquiesce to the transfer but the fact simply is that there are larger entities than end users calling the shots on this one. It’s like pushing a bill through Congress: if at first they don’t succeed they’ll launch a campaign to poll the public for the conflicting arguments, they’ll pay enough lip service to make people think that the issues have been resolved, and then they’ll resubmit next year. If the major business partners on Wall Street decide that they’re making more money from companies which offer web based applications then, slowly but surely, venture capital will be steered away from desktop application vendors and to world wide web application providers. We, the end users, have no control over this.

Microsoft is dead.

I’ve read pretty much all of Paul Graham’s essays. I think he’s a wonderful writer and in the past we have often found ourselves debating his views at our bi-weekly geek bookclub @ Talis. One of his most seminal pieces was Hackers and Painters – which every developer should read. So, as you might imagine, I was more than a little intrigued this morning when my FeedReader listed a new essay by Paul with the contentious title: Microsoft is Dead.

Paul argues that Microsoft is no longer frightening, that the company is no longer seen as a threat, no longer casts the shadow it once did over the entire software industry:

I can sense that. No one is even afraid of Microsoft anymore. They still make a lot of money—so does IBM, for that matter. But they’re not dangerous.

Paul attributes this demise, if that’s the right word for it, to four things:

Firstly , Google. Who Paul believes is the most dangerous company now by far, in both good and bad senses of the word – using www.live.com as an example of how Microsoft is limping behind Google, continuously playing catchup.

Secondly, was the release of Gmail and the introduction of AJAX to the masses. Gmail showed how much you could do with web based software – signalling the death knell of the desktop as more and more applications are delivered over the web. Paul describes how Microsoft themselves might have contributed to the rise of AJAX, something I was previously unaware of:

Ironically, Microsoft unintentionally helped create Ajax. The x in Ajax is from the XMLHttpRequest object, which lets the browser communicate with the server in the background while displaying a page. (Originally the only way to communicate with the server was to ask for a new page.) XMLHttpRequest was created by Microsoft in the late 90s because they needed it for Outlook. What they didn’t realize was that it would be useful to a lot of other people too—in fact, to anyone who wanted to make web apps work like desktop ones.

The third cause is the widespread availability of high speed broadband Internet access – which is key to facilitating the delivery of web based applications to end users – which in turn is key to moving users away from the reliance on desktop based tools and applications.

The final nail in the coffin, Paul argues, came from Apple. The company re-defined itself and offered the world a viable alternative to Windows, in OS X. I know from personal experience that although I don’t have a Mac or a PC running native Linux, I do much of my development work in Linux VM Machines – this is partly due to infrastructure policy on our company laptops … which I should hasten to add … just changed 🙂 So when I get my shiny new laptop I can run Linux on it natively Yippee! ( I’d love it even more if I could have one of those 17″ MacBook’s … pretty please Ian if you do I’ll buy you one of these t-shirts!)

I think to a great extent Paul is actually right. But I personally wouldn’t count Microsoft out of the running. Microsoft is still a company that is capable of innovating great things. Just take a look at what’s coming out of their research labs in terms of PhotoSynth and DeepFish – to understand that they are looking to push the envelope in certain areas. Unfortunatly it does appear that these days they are reacting to innovations made by their competitors – www.live.com , and maps.live.com are great examples of two Microsoft products that are essentially late alternatives to Google Web Search, and Google Earth. Instead of leading the way, Microsoft is being forced to change it’s traditional business because others, like Google, are changing the industry around it.

I think Paul is absolutely right when he attributes part of their downfall, as it were, to their complacency as a Monopoly:

I’m glad Microsoft is dead. They were like Nero or Commodus—evil in the way only inherited power can make you. Because remember, the Microsoft monopoly didn’t begin with Microsoft. They got it from IBM. The software business was overhung by a monopoly from about the mid-1950s to about 2005. For practically its whole existence, that is. One of the reasons “Web 2.0” has such an air of euphoria about it is the feeling, conscious or not, that this era of monopoly may finally be over.

It’s been a well known fact for years that Microsoft is propped up by the profit it generates from two product lines … Microsoft Windows, and Microsoft Office. Hell even the XBOX is still making a loss for the company. It’s no accident then, that Google, have released browser based Office applications, in the form of docs.google.com. This service allows people to write and share documents and spreadsheets for free, combined with gmail and several other apps. Google are now positioning themselves as a service provider offering enhanced versions of this service for small businesses for $50 per user, per year. This will no doubt force Microsoft to change – perhaps even releasing a browser based SOA version of its Office Suite. It’s going to be interesting to see how this competition between these two giants pans out. I’m not saying that being the first in this kind of race is always the best, but if you get into a position where your forcing both the industry and your competition to react to you then thats got to be a good thing.

Take the time to read Paul’s essay. It’s not very long, but it does make some excellent points.

Yahoo! alpha (beta) Search – released

Looks like Yahoo! has taken a page from Google’s SearchMash experiment. I’ve been using SearchMash as my default homepage in firefox for a while now – because I can get an aggregated view of search results on a single page instead of having to navigate to different pages for different types of content.

Yahoo! ‘s new offering called “alpha” ( which is currently in beta 😉 ) neatly organises results from the Web, Flickr, YouTube, Wikipedia and Yahoo Answers, as well as other sponsored results. In fact at first glance it looks, well, almost identical to SearchMash actually. Yahoo! have stuck with a traditional paging control to page through search results, whereas SearchMash does away with the paging metaphor and instead gets more results which are added to the bottom of the page.

Yahoo! alpha integration with both YouTube and Flickr is very nice. Even though the layout of the two search engines is almost identical, I think Yahoo! makes better use of the screen, content doesn’t feel as cluttered as SearchMash can at times.

I like Yahoo! alpha. I love the fact that I can customise the layout and move the portlets around to my own liking … and I can share my layout with others. There’s no doubt in my mind that Yahoo! have taken a great idea that Google was experimenting with, and have improved upon it.

It will be interesting to see how Google respond to this? I’d hope it would be by releasing a long overdue update to SearchMash, to show all of us who have been providing feedback if and how they have taken that on board.

Google Notebook – New and Improved

The Official Google blog today announced the release of the new, updated multi lingual version of Google Notebook. Put simply it’s a free service that provides a very easy way to save and organise research and thoughts as you browse. It’s provides very similar functionality to the snipit service that I have discussed previously on this blog.

Users can make their Google Notebook public and share the notes they’ve taken with others. As a result, the time and effort put into their research can be harnessed by the online community as a whole. Each note has a heading or title and you can drag and drop notes in order to organise them within a notebook. The interface, like most Google products, is intuitive and easy to use. I’ve installed the FireFox extension for Google Notebook which build support for clipping content and create notes directly into the browser.

Have to admit, I really like it.

Cracking weak passwords

A really interesting read over at One Mans entitled “How I’d crack your weak passwords“. The article outlines how he’d go about cracking weak passwords, which involves making some educated guesses which in 20% of cases actually succeed. If they don’t he resorts to brute force attacks.The attacks can vary in the amount of time they take to crack a password, with the time increasing depending on the strength of the password. Here’s a table that demonstrates this, and should illustrate why its a good idea to use strong passwords:

People are generally very bad at selecting strong passwords, the OneMan provides a some tips on how you can go about selecting a strong password. One tool that he recommends and that I have used in the past is Microsofts Password Strength Tester. Another tool is Google’s password checker, which is driven by a URL request that returns an integer in the range 1 – 4, where 4 means Strong and 1 means very weak, for example, the password “123456” returns 1 denoting its very weak:

https://www.google.com/accounts/RatePassword?Passwd=123456

It’s relatively simple to integrate Google’s solution into your own web applications, however I should point out that the company does not provide any official branding or user interface, and im not sure how long they will continue to provide it.

Google Tech Talk: Mashups – Combining Web Applications to Make Desktop Productivity Tools

An interesting tech talk by Mark Birbeck CEO of X-Port. Some of my colleagues saw Mark talk at the mashup* event in London last month. Although I have reservations about the Sidewinder framework he proposes, we at Talis are doing more and more work to make API’s available to developers that can be called from desktop based applications like the widgets and gadgets Mark describes. The problem with Sidewinder though is it provides a wrapper around web based applications allowing you to run them on your desktop – and im struggling to see the value in that.

I’ve done a fair bit of work creating Yahoo (Konfabulator) Desktop Widgets that use our API’s which will be released in the new few months, as exemplars of how developers out there can mashup our API’s with other services to create interesting and even compelling new applications. We like mashups at Talis, in fact we held a very successful mashup competition last year, which we are running again this year so if your interested why not enter the competition.