Meewella | Fragments

The Life of P

Tag: google

Social Divisions

As an amateur photographer, the highest praise I can receive since I began photographing people (which really began with my first SLR) is when someone uses one of my shots as their Facebook profile picture. It is essentially an acknowledgement that it is currently their favourite image of themselves and the way they wish to be seen by others. So, with the photos from Ruth and Jonny’s wedding now up, I was incredibly flattered to find both the bride and groom using my photos. Thank you.

On the subject of social networks, I remain confused by Google’s strategy with its fledgling Facebook rival. They once again launched via the “exclusive” closed beta route that worked so well for GMail, apparently failing to realise that it fundamentally worked because its email service was still compatible with every other email service. By contrast Google Wave failed miserably under the same system because early adopters had no one with whom to communicate. Similarly a social network, unsurprisingly you might well argue, requires social interaction to thrive.

They have finally flung open the doors to the population at large. So now everyone will be streaming into this brave new utopia, right? Well, they might have if there were important differentiators to set it apart from Facebook, like per-post visibility settings and grouping features. Unfortunately, Facebook has spent the last few months replicating those very features itself.

That is not to say Facebook merely aped Google’s innovations. Its per-post settings are arguably a superior implementation as it lets you hide from certain people as well as add them, a feature I suggested to Google was necessary soon after joining the beta. Meanwhile grouping — be it in “Circles” or “Lists” — is really inspired by “Aspects” in the open source project Diaspora. Sadly the crawling pace of its development is likely to leave it hopelessly outclassed, much as I love its notion of a decentralised system through which you don’t simply hand over all your data to a third party.

The last remaining card for Google+ to play is “Hangouts” which I expect to see it pushing more strongly now. So far I have only had the opportunity to use this feature one-on-one but group video chat does offer interesting possibilities beyond “socially” watching YouTube clips, particularly with improving Android integration.

The bottom line: I am very grateful to Google+ for sorting out two of Facebook’s key failures but, now that it has, I suspect any notion of mass migration may be little more than a pipe dream, exclusive or open.

Social Circles: Google+

First, allow me briefly to gloat over the failure of News Corp’s BSkyB takeover, and highlight unsubtly exactly what they have lost (be sure to check the source code). For all my cynicism — and while I lent my support to the 38 Degrees campaign, I did not believe success was likely — clearly there are times when democracy works.

I’ve spent a couple of days exploring Google’s latest venture into the social networking space with Google+ and that’s enough to share some preliminary impressions. The universal first impression seems to be its stark cleanliness, coupled with a sense of emptiness because the invite-only system means the majority of your friends are yet to arrive. I described it as being like your first visit to Singapore; perhaps a better description, via Tom E from whom I obtained my invitation, was: “You know when you re-install windows and it’s all clean and fresh and empty? That’s what Google+ feels like.” It is easy to underplay the importance of a clean UI, but let us not forget that the fall of MySpace and the mass exodus to Facebook was in no small part due to the increasingly cluttered UI of the former in comparison to the latter’s (then) minimalism.

Google+ is a much more successful, and arguably more mature, implementation than their previous attempts with Wave and Buzz. Unlike these endeavours Google is neither trying to reinvent the wheel nor merely replicate a service found elsewhere. This is a direct, brazen even, competitor to Facebook but one that pares the social experience down to its essence of dialogue and sharing content, but also brings some new ideas to the social party. The clearest is the use of “circles” to organise your contacts. Rather than treating everyone equally, Google+ aims to replicate the way real world friendship groups operate by allowing you to create a range of different “circles” and every piece of content you share can be made available only to specific circles. That simple solution bridges the divide many keep between their “friends only” Facebook profile and “work only” LinkedIn account. It was a key issue I hoped Diaspora would address, and now with Google to compete with those kids have their work cut out.

Realtime communication is far superior, incorporating Gchat instant messaging, which has always been superior to Facebook chat, not least through its automatic creation of searchable chat logs. Videochat, however, has the potential to draw in a far larger audience. Choosing to “hang out” allows you to create a video chatroom with one or several friends. Straight from the browser (after installing a plugin) it is convenient but hardly earth-shattering. The inclusion of YouTube integration, however, is a major departure. Clicking the buttons launches a shared YouTube window which streams to all participants, muting their microphones in favour of a push-to-talk system to avoid unnecessary distraction. I can certainly see this becoming a feature I regularly use — something as seemingly inconsequential as watching a friend’s reaction while showing them a video remotely is not to be underestimated.

Cross-platform integration in general is Google’s strength, being able to share directly from its search engine or share pictures through the advanced Picasa service. Further integration is undoubtedly on the cards, such as Google’s calendar service since a robust event organising infrastructure is notably missing at present. I have yet to experience the Google Docs integration but one certainly suspects there are elements of the abandoned Google Wave code at work beneath the surface of Google+. One assumes notifications will eventually be available while in every Google service and crucially the drop down allows you to see a great deal of info, including viewing posts and leaving comments, without navigating away from the current page.

I am happy to provide Google+ invites to those who want them: simply provide me with an email address. For those already using it, IGN have some useful tips.

HTC Desire is the ‘droid you’ve been looking for

Having finally caught up with the modern mobile world on buying the HTC Desire, I have been reluctant to discuss it. The main reason is that nothing but gushing praise would seem rather biased so I wanted to find some faults too. That took time.

As you probably guessed it’s a phenomenal device. I’m not going to repeat others’ “iPhone killer” rhetoric here because it’s irrelevant – with or without Apple’s product, this is a powerhouse of a smartphone and, for me, the best on the market to date. A large capacitive touchscreen with a high-res 800×480 AMOLED display, it looks stunningly crisp with vibrant colours and smooth transitions. Its 1GHz Snapdragon processor makes it fly, coupled with the Android operating system.

Android is a slightly geekier OS than the iPhone’s, but HTC’s Sense user interface sits on top, with attractive widgets that allow for easy customisation and show a lot of info at a glance (e.g. FriendStream which combines friends’ Facebook and Twitter updates). For me it fixes the Nexus One control flaws by inverting them: the touch-sensitive buttons are now physical, while the trackball is replaced with an optical trackpad that is great for fine cursor movement. It’s not secret that I like the tactile feedback of buttons and would still prefer a slide-out physical keyboard, but as soft keyboards go the Desire’s is one of the best I’ve tried.

Now a mature platform, the Android Marketplace has a wealth of apps. Numerically it is still far behind the Apple’s App Store (and isn’t as easy to browse), but most high-quality apps (other than games) are now cross-platform or have equivalents. Android’s open system makes it attractive and easier to develop for, without the need for official approval, so it certainly has the potential to grow rapidly.

The contacts list seamlessly merges my GMail address book with Facebook contacts, including importing profile pics to identify people. Multitasking is a breeze on the Desire, allowing you to stream music with the Spotify app while browsing the web, pausing  and resuming everything automatically to receive a call. Other neat tricks include Google’s turn-by-turn SatNav, recently rolled out in the UK, and Flash support, which is welcome but certainly leaves room for improvement.

Video looks gorgeous on the vibrant screen although AMOLED does wash out dramatically in direct sunlight. Codec support is rather limited at present, meaning you’ll need to convert most video files. Previously a nightmare, these days this it is simplified drastically by doubleTwist. Sound quality for voice calls is fine, but I found music playback is rather average: excellent clarity but a lack of depth with virtually non-existent bass. Of a course a phone will never compete with a dedicated PMP and I readily admit I’ve spoiled my ears with Cowon players, but this confirms I will still require a second device.

I’ll discuss specific apps I’m using in a future post.

Unstable Foundation

It has to be done all CG because I would not know how to shoot this thing in real.

-Roland Emmerich on adapting Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series

Of course you don’t. That’s because you’re a talentless hack who doesn’t actually know how to shoot a movie without special effects to bedazzle the viewer and cover it up. His last two films didn’t even bother with words in the title, opting instead for numbers to explain when their respective special effects are set (that’s 2012 and 10,000 BC for those keeping track). Given that Asimov’s work is about simple but thought-provoking ideas and their logical extension, special effects are the least important aspect in adapting it for the screen.

As one of the finest science fiction writers in history, it’s a shame to see that I, Robot is apparently the low benchmark being set for film adaptations. Apologists keep trying to suggest that it’s a perfectly adequate sci-fi action film which would be fine if they had gone with any other title rather than shoehorning Asimov’s name and three laws onto an existing script that bears no resemblance to his story at all, in a vague attempt to engender some sort of geek cred. Robots running haywire and revolting against their human creators is exactly what Asimov didn’t write. In this instance Maddox’s belligerent ramblings are remarkably accurate too. Sadly the choice of director suggests the Foundation adaptation, which initially excited me, is heading down exactly the same route. The bottom line is that if you haven’t read Foundation, please do. But be very wary of the film.

Google’s Buzz represents the company’s first move into social networking, integrated into Gmail. Most people are describing it as “sort of like Twitter”, which is quite accurate. The added convenience is one less account to sign into if you’re a Gmail user, but then most people likely to take it up are already invested in Twitter. While I’m unlikely at present to use it directly, the most attractive feature is that it acts as an aggregator importing everything I post to Twitter and share via Google Reader, so that readers can access all that content in one place, whether or not they use either service themselves.


Kennington Fête

A month-long hiatus due largely to my recent move into Kennington and the ensuing interlude sans internet. It should finally be sorted by the end of the week and I will be connected once more with the world. Kennington has been remarkably easy to settle into.  Partly, one suspects, because I live in the centre and there’s simply not a great deal of it. For anything beyond grocery shopping one hops on the bus/tube up to Oxford Street in a matter of minutes. The closest pub is the inimitable Dog House, though bizarrely I haven’t actually been since I moved. The politicians’ favourite Kennington Tandoori performs take-away duties. Sal is about minute away, and the Clapham gang only a little further. And best of all, the journey to and from work has around half an hour sliced off. All in all an ideal location, even if my hatred of estate agents remains as forceful as ever.

Kennington Fête: Guitarist

Marching back from the station, slightly stressed in the evening, Cleaver Square often proves to be the calming antidote one needs, being the only place outside of Cambridge where one routinely stumbles past people playing a recreational game of bowls. And, as Anna and I discovered the week after we arrived, it’s where Kennington holds its annual village fête. Yes, in the middle of London. It was a charming affair with all the expected games and trimmings crammed in, coupled excellent food courtesy of the local restaurants.

The biggest news in the last month on which people have been asking my opinion is Google’s announcement of its new operating system, Chrome OS. I will admit to be intrigued, perplexed, and curious as to whether I will ever use it. I am first intrigued by the prospect of a new OS being built from the ground up at this stage, with the potential to be utterly different from its competitors, particularly with its web-based intentions. Yet cursory investigation swiftly reveals Chrome really just runs atop an existing Linux kernel, so quite how much is new below the surface is questionable. I am perplexed by the name choice given firstly that Google already has an OS in the form of Android for phones and its not a wide leap to their target market of netbooks, and secondly that the Chrome web browser from which it takes its name has made no discernible inroads into the browser market at all so is hardly an impressive brand (most people who tried it out were Firefox users who quickly returned for the customisation if offers). Finally I suspect it will be years before it’s ready for my use. The netbook approach seems an ideal fit but the jump to desktops is a sizeable one. A web based application system is fine for basic use but I’m unlikely to switch until (virtually) all the software I currently use is available. Given its Linux roots it’s entirely possible that this could happen if the Google brand encourages Linux support from more software vendors, but that would become an endorsement of Linux in all its guises rather than Chrome specifically. The alternative is web-based versions of all software which may well be the future, but we’re not there yet. If being without internet access for the past few weeks has taught me anything at all, I’m exceedingly glad all my software and data are local so that I can still do everything but surf.

And to fill the procrastination void created by my absence: Web Side Story.

An Oscar a Day?

Apologies for the short downtime this morning due to problems with some behind-the-scenes upgrades. Typically the start of the year features several films that might legitimately be described as Oscar bait, the idea being that they will remain fresh in the Academy’s mind when it comes to that pesky system of actually selecting the winners. This year things have gotten a little ridiculous with virtually nothing of that callibre being released throughout the year as if everything has been saved until now. Is Hollywood’s memory really that short-term? The studios and distributors certainly seem to think so. This has caused a sudden flood of releases I’m keen to see, with the result that I’m quite likely to miss a few. In a vain bid to rectify the problem, this week has almost turned into an Oscar a day, with The Wrestler (last night), Frost/Nixon (tonight) and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (maybe Friday) all down for viewings. The downside is at that rate I almost certainly won’t have time to write reviews for everything I would like to. We shall see.

Mostly today’s post is another catch-up with things I’ve been meaning to mention:

  • With its rapidly growing popularity, and celebrity users making the service mainstream, c|net gives a Twitter masterclass that discusses the full range of features. I’m endeavouring to make better use of it without it degrading into spam — Goldilocks tweeting: not to much and not too little…
  • Lifehacker advises on cheap upgrades to your Home Theatre setup.
  • Top 10 sights on on Google Street View.
  • MIR-12 is an ARG advertising campaign that got off to an impressive start with its supposedly leaked footage of a foiled assassination in Russia that many mistook for real (although given the news reporter in the video that’s slightly surprising). It’s getting underway now, and is thought to be for Activision’s upcoming Singularity.
  • GiantBomb highlighted a brilliant recent Videogame Classics trend of redesigning boxart in the style of classic books (think the abstract artwork of Penguine Classics). And it’s not restricted to gaming either, with classic films getting the treatment too.
  • Apple has made noises about the new Palm Pre and their intention to defend their IP rights, no doubt referring specifically to their recently acquired multitouch patent. However interesting articles from BNET and RCRWireless muse on whether this would be a wise move, and whether Apple’s patent will really stand up to close scrutiny. In particular they note Apple failed to mention prior art published by University of Delaware academics (now employed by Apple) which may invalidate their claims. This is not to mention the fact Palm has been in the mopile industry far longer, building up its own stack of patents, several of which the iPhone itself may infringe.
  • With February 14 rapidly approaching, nothing says “love” like a stylish Left4Dead Valentine’s Day card (scroll halfway down) for that special zombie/survivor in your life.

The Ones To Watch

Those of you who frequent the Critic section of the site may have noticed a new page appearing in the last few days. Quite why anyone would frequent that section leads to questions of sanity since it is not exactly kept what one might call up-to-date. Which is sort of the point of the new page, Ones To Watch. It is an entirely personal list of the films on my radar that I intend to see, along with the reasons that I am interested. Since it will look forward by around six months, the idea is that it should never end up totally out of date. There is no real guarantee of quality on the films listed, and my opinion may well change as further information emerges, but the descriptions should let you know if it’s likely to be up your street. There is also a higher probability that films in the list will get the full review treatment, but given my dismal performance last year I make no promises at all. The list is sparse right now, just to give you an idea, but should fill up over the next week or so.

Virtually all of the first year trainees are heading off to Diss in Norfolk this weekend for a potentially debaucherous weekend of fun in a large cottage. This is the result of some sterling work by Edwin in arranging the entire affair, including the provision of a worrying amount of alcohol. For the sake of everyone’s health I rather hope there is some left over. Expect a fuller report once recovered next week.

Several bits and pieces I’ve been meaning to mention:

  • Google Maps has added a transit layer for a host of major cities including London. Quite how useful you’ll find it in the long run is a good question, but my impression is it may be more helpful as a tourist in one of the other 58 cities added so far.
  • I’m definitely suffering inauguration fatigue from the excessive Obama coverage, but arguably one of the more interesting things to emerge from it is the best demonstration to date of Microsoft’s PhotoSynth technology in CNN’s “The Moment”.
  • Royal Society of Chemistry announce the winner of their A great idea? competition to solve the conundrum at the end of The Italian Job.
  • The BBC offer a detailed description of Porsche’s stroke of stockmarket genius involving its acquisition of VW shares last year.
  • Wired’s long article The Plot to Kill Google discusses the wrangling behind the search giant’s deal with Yahoo!, the potential criminal prosecution that resulted in Google pulling out, and from where the next threat may come.
  • And finally, a stunning replica Portal gun. This is a triumph!

Adobe Air

Adobe has launched the first official version of their new Air platform. Its goal is to bridge the divide between online and offline applications, something Google experimented with in Google Gears, though Air is on a larger, more open, scale. Installation was a breeze, with a small file to download and completing in moments. Anyone can develop applications that run on the Air platform and a couple of dozen are available now. Cream of the crop are undoubtedly eBay desktop, Google Analytics Reporting Suite and Spaz (for twittering).

eBay desktopThe advantage to this method is that only the data is pulled from the web, meaning snazzy user interfaces can be implemented without causing any speed issues. In addition, data is cached so that when offline I can, say, browse through the last 100 eBay items I have viewed. Usability is key and each application appears just as any other software installed on your machine and is run in the same way and in its own window, not through a browser. In some cases the functionality of these apps is superior to their online counterparts, such as Analytics’ use of a fully scaleable map interface. I have noticed a few bugs with the foreign shipping in the eBay application, but otherwise it provides a fantastic mechanism for searching and sorting auctions, as well as running in the background to provide alerts. Obviously any changes you make when using these applications are stored online and accessible as normal from anywhere.

The idea is not revolutionary and I was unsure what Adobe expected to achieve with this project. The result is really impressive, with even the early crop of applications featuring some gems that have a really professional polish. I have long been sceptical of the online-only applications that claim to replace traditional office suites. However this compromise — online service with offline application and access to data — seems ideal. Whether Air takes off as a platform depends on the applications, of course, but Adobe seem confident with their SDK. The early releases bode well so I’m keen to see what else emerges.

"Civilization now depends on self-deception. Perhaps it always has."

(CC) BY-NC 2004-2024 Priyan Meewella

Up ↑