Monday, June 25, 2012

Musing about Google I/O 2012

There are a lot of guesses what lies ahead for Google I/O 2012, so I thought I'd toss my two cents into the mix. I love the speculation, and I like to try and guess what's coming down the pipes a little in advance, just in case I get something right. I also see it as a good point to throw out totally unfounded predictions, because I think the obvious rumors are set in stone at this point.

Just to get them out of the way, the biggest rumors getting thrown around include the Nexus 7 tablet produced by Asus and distributed by Google for $200 or less, and an Android 4.1: Jelly Bean release - but seriously what's the fun in regurgitating "obvious" rumors? There are a couple other rumors that are a little vaguer or seemingly less significant, like another push for Google TV, release of some Google+ APIs. I'll start off from there, and journey from the reasonable speculations to the crazier ideas as I write.

Google Drive Living Documents

One thing I was a little surprised about with the Google Drive push was a lack of integration across documents and other Google services. Seeing how Google's services have been getting standardized over the last few months is definitely exciting, yet the cross-application capabilities are lacking. Within Google Documents you can't seem to include anything - Spreadsheets, Maps, or any of the things that make online documents different from Office. Drawings are the closest thing you kinda get, but even that seems like an experiment rather than integration. If Google wants to compete, they not only need to match Office, but beat it. Current unique features of Drive include cross-service scripting (through Google Apps Script) and integrated social collaboration tools (like chat and hangouts). However, some things are still notably missing like customizable document web publishing (see Wave Embeds) and embedded gadgets like polls.

To include these missing features of Google Drive, I'm specifically hoping Google merges Blogger's (tagging, location, and web publishing) capabilities into Google docs, and uses Google Documents as the only way to publish articles. They discussed rebranding Blogger and Picasa a while back, and with the updated UI and even more recent retirement of Blogger in Draft, I've be surprised if it wasn't soon. Blogger and Docs repeat a lot of functionality, and none of the seasonal cleanups have obliterated any major tools so far - so maybe they are saving it for something big like a developer conference.

Google Dis-Play (or what Google Learned from the Kindle)

There's been a lot of speculation about Google's upcoming tablet, and I think rumors are making it pretty clear that we'll have a cheaper Google Tablet running Android 4.1 and being relatively inexpensive. But I still don't think that's as important as what it's running. To that run end, I think it's worth noting that the best selling Android tablet was in fact the Kindle Fire. I don't think Google missed the lesson that having a simplified and focused user experience on a tablet is a good way to go. So to that end it's important to compare the Kindle Fire's UI to Google Play.
Android's more defined and
focused on Google products.

Google Play has sections for Music, Movies, Books and Apps much like the Kindle Fire (and the iPad), but it's worth pointing out that the Kindle Fire did a few things differently and with much success. Kindle offered a simplified interface - they had a media shelf to make it easy to get what you wanted quickly and easily. Kindle's main page was a storefront with a search button that searches Amazon's products first. The Kindle lastly sacrificed features like the camera to lower price point to appeal to a broader market.

Based on recent history it seems Google is making strides to match Kindle's success. News articles relevant to this include work on the "infinite scrolling" WebGL bookcase chrome experiment. As a Chrome experiment, the project's been untouched since last year, so maybe the work related to it is being applied elsewhere. Google Play replaced the Android Market to cover Movies, Music, Apps, Books and Devices, with Android icons available for each. Play's main page still looks a lot like Android market still. Lastly, the Nexus 7 and Android 4.1 set the rumor mill on fire. I suspect 4.1 provides more UI and cross-service improvements, although there is an impressive drought of information about this release.

As a result of these thoughts, I think Google's next tablet will have a more consumer-friendly "shelf" interface when initially purchased, similar to that of the Nook or Kindle. I also think there will be an option to exit out into the "file system" mode, and used more conventionally for current Android users.

Hanging out with Google TV

I think at this point it's safe to say that Google TV hasn't taken off in the real world. Although I do think adoption is quietly happening, it doesn't seem to be a product anyone is particularly excited about. I think Google has some real opportunities to change that though, especially with the introduction of Google+ hangouts.

Back in Google I/O 2011, Mike Cleron presented Google's "virtual camera operator" (18m in) which allowed a video camera to detect a person talking and focus on that speaker. It was a neat demo, but they didn't have Google+ at the time, so at the time its application was unclear. Now, if we imagine hangouts on a Google TV, this camera operator has greater appeal for a casual chat with friends or family off your television. So I think future Google TVs will come with a camera accessory. With that also comes the assumption a some sort of "leanback" mode to Google+, because if you have Hangouts through the TV, you want to be able to get to them - and start your own - easily. 

Chrome Emulation

My wild prediction for Chrome OS is that Google will begin selling or giving the operating system away on CDs or USBs for average users. Unofficial ISOs have been around for a while now, but that only has a niche market, and 3rd party builds don't necessarily imply the same official or secure qualities users trust. Offering CDs would allow installations on old desktops, or people that want to move off Windows but want a dead simple alternative. This wouldn't discourage the sale of Chromebooks or Chromeboxes, because their selling points are of compactness and/or long battery life.

Taking a page from Ubuntu, bootable USBs would be even better adoption technique. Since with Chrome OS everything you need is on the web, a bootable USB makes any computer your Google Chrome platform (* network setup required though ) Again, people are already doing this, but if Google produces and distributes these for free, it'd be a powerful marketing tool. Remember the AOL floppy disks? Same thing, except with Google and 4GB USB drives.

You can already make your own bootable USB drive with Chrome OS,
but imagine it coming in the mail instead.

For a wilder prediction, I also think with Chrome OS's new desktop-like functionality, a fascinating next step Chrome could take is to emulate its desktop within other operating systems (Like with Virtual PC for Windows, or Parallels for OS X). For example, opening Chrome in Windows could open up Chrome OS fullscreen, and take you out of the Windows experience altogether. I don't know if Google would see much value in this, but it's an interesting alternative.

Project Glass Crashing Through

It took Apple 6 months to get from the initial announcement of the first iPhone (9 January 2007, Wikipedia) to retail outlets (29 June 2007, Wikipedia). Project Glass was announced in a "prototype phase" in early April of this year. If we pretend Google's announcement was similar to Apple's, then a release date could be obtained in September of this year. This could go in line with the 722 demo units being requested just before I/O - so maybe Google will announce a product to sell before the holidays after all.

Though it'll probably be another year or two before it works like their promo video.

Pairing Google Wallet with Social Identity

With the rebranding of Google Checkout to Google Wallet late last year, I wondered what changes may've been in store. Google Play came out, but that wasn't really helping merchants. I've seen Google Wallet accepted in a few places in the D.C. area like Macy's and the Container Store, but accessibility has been difficult with only a handful of NFC-supporting phones on the market. So how would Google address this issue?

First thought is that you get some sort of thin credit-card-like device with NFC and some handshake that can transmit off of 3G (like the Kindle's Whispernet service). It works, but it's not great. So what's another approach? Maybe a one-time pad QR code that can be created for a financial transaction, but that still requires some knowledge and a smartphone, so again not so great. Google I/O offered a hint when it required to things for registration: financial information through Google Wallet and a real identity through Google+. With Google+ able to link a real identity to Google Wallet, Google has the building blocks of producing their own type of credit card.

Some people already made their own Google+ "identity cards."
With the supporting Android app Google is distributing for I/O 2012, the prominence of Google Wallet is seen in their event map. At first impression it hints cross-product integration between Wallet and Maps, but Android apps have been showing more of that. The Google I/O 2012 app posts events to Google Calendar for us, and the Google Maps app got Places recently added in as well.


I believe it's only a matter of time until a technology company purchases a telecommunications company. Tech companies want to offer the best products they can, but it seems telecommunication companies don't have the infrastructure to support it. Last year it was reported that Steve Jobs wanted the iPhone to work on WiFi and dodge the phone carriers altogether, probably out of Apple's desire to have more control over distribution channels and their vertical stack. However, I think it this thought has greater appeal for addressing Google's problems working with many OEMs and carriers.

I think it'd be a brilliant, crazy idea if Google acquired T-Mobile. At the very least, I do think there's some quiet discussion about something going on between the two of them, and here are a few of the things that lead me to speculate:
  • T-Mobile was first to Android
  • T-Mobile's the only US carrier without the iPhone still.
  • T-Mobile has been prominent in recent Google announcements, notably the Google Music announcement late last year.
  • T-Mobile's Galaxy S III recent announcement that the release date is now split between the 21st and 27th.
  • The San Francisco 3g network update that's been in the news recently.
At the least, I do expect the close relationship with T-Mobile and Google to continue, though I couldn't tell you to what end. But we'll see where things go.


Google is tackling more and more fields, and they're covering a lot of territory. In the end, my thoughts are only a drop in the bucket, but I am hopeful at least one or two things work their way into Google I/O this year (personally I'm hopeful my Chrome speculations have legs). In the end though, Google has a way of taking their influence and steering the industry toward a better place. Whatever Google has in store for us all this year, I hope they continue to take us down this road.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Playing Well With Others

Let me first say I liked the WWDC Apple Keynote this year. Previous years I've found the Keynotes - from both Apple and Google -  alienating and divisive, and to me it's brought the entire ecosystem down a couple notches. Now this Keynote did throw a couple punches (Forstall calling out 7% Ice Cream Sandwich was a justifiable statistic, but Safari being the "best and most popular web browser on the planet" was manipulative and shameful marketing). However I thought Apple expressed three things in their Keynote that Google should be keeping in mind: that Apple dominates the mobile computing world right now, Apple works well with other companies, and Apple is truly concerned about the user's experience.

Apple Triumphant

Every year the WWDC Keynote has been a way for Apple to show its increasing dominance in the computing world. Media outlets over-saturate the Internet with all the Apple stories and rumors, whether the news is big or small, because they know that when Apple events occur, the tech world watches. This year Apple expressed its dominance by announcing a replacement for Google Maps throughout their products. It was enough for Google to schedule a press event a few days beforehand, to remind everyone that Google Maps still offers powerful features like walking directions, map layering, offline map storage and a robust and tested API in the wild for 7 years.

Apple's maps certainly won't have the robustness Google Maps has, but that isn't really the point of Apple's solution. Apple focused on providing the minimal features that make their Maps comparable to Google's, and that's about it: terrain, road navigation, place discoverability. From there though, they offloaded the content to other tools - for the time being Yelp. In a way, Apple's saying taking Google on is doable at a basic level, and that you can make a comparable product if you provide a good user experience (via Siri). It's a good message, that a lot of companies should listen to, or Google will make them irrelevant.

Apple Communicates

It's important to notice that the Keynote referenced Apple products that integrated with a lot of different software partners. Yelp, Facebook, Twitter. These software partners are all known and provide reliable services to users. Additionally they showed off Passbook, which is encouraging a way of using paperless tickets that has been painfully lacking through a lot of retail outlets. That these tools are developing shows a will and drive from Apple to provide a solution through its partners to have something easy to use that "just works."

Let's contrast this with Google. Google has been trying to get Google Wallet off the ground, but carriers have been working on their own digital wallet solution called Isis instead, while OEMs have been dragging their feet with adding NFC technology on a wide scale into their phones over this past year. Another example is Android 4, Ice Cream Sandwich, which was released 19 October 2011, and as of the Keynote only had 7% adoption.

Now Google understood they had a problem with OS updates last year, and at Google I/O 2011 formed the Android Alliance to produce timely updates to Android devices - as Scott Forstall's chart shows, it hasn't really been a success. The other thing Google did more recently was acquire Motorola Mobility. Everyone wrote off the purchase for Motorola's patent portfolio, but if Google has direct control over an OEM in the Android Alliance, maybe Motorola can encourage others to follow a better schedule. I don't know about you, but if Motorola had the "Google Promise" of having the latest OS version within a week of a release, I think I'd think twice about getting another Samsung (By the way, still waiting on that ICS update for my Epic 4G Touch, Samsung...)

Apple Cares

The final point is that Apple sincerely does want to provide the best products and experiences to their users. At the end of the day, Tim Cook addressed the audience toward the end, saying "The products we make, combined with the apps that you create, can fundamentally change the world." I like Cook's attitude, but also think his words may've been a little intentionally poignant. Google's employees have 20% time, have games in Google products, and create some really offbeat products to the average user. I get the impression that older companies think Google doesn't take being a tech company seriously enough.

I don't think this perspective is justified, personally. I do think Google has grown a lot in offering better experiences to users. For a while I did hear they were a little too metrics-driven, relying on A/B testing and data processing over UX, in the last few years I think they've moved beyond that. I do think Google still rubs a lot of companies the wrong way with their youth and cockiness at times. Additionally, I think it's also worth pointing out that Google's humanitarian efforts are commendable.


When the Keynote completed and everyone was chattering about the new Macbook Pro with the retina display, I was eyeing Passbook. As a user, Passbook offers a solution to paper coupons that hasn't been tackled very well on a massive scale. It shows a willingness of Apple to collaborate with different companies on creating a solution that their partners all buy into upon release. Since Apple has the benefit of being labeled a hardware company, maybe Google is seen too much as a competitor for other companies to work with them. Or maybe Google is overreaching by jumping into everything from deal sites (Goggle Offers), social media (Google+), to publishing (Currents and Catalogs), and doesn't feel like it needs to work with others. Either way, in the end I felt Apple's Keynote confronted Google with the fact that although Google's presence is huge and powerful, it can easily be uprooted with the right tools, the right partners, and the right user base.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Fun with Fusion Tables

I've been playing around with Google Docs features a lot in my spare time. For instance, playing with the different document types (Documents, Presentations, Spreadsheets, Forms, Drawings), as well as Google Apps Scripts. One tool I hadn't done much with, but had heard some about, are Google Fusion Tables. At Google I/O 2011 there was a presentation I sat through on Fusion Tables, and although it looked really cool, I got the impression that it was best with large amounts of data to aggregate through - not really what I was using Google Docs for at the time.

A walkthrough of some Google Fusion Tables features.

Fast forward to today, and I've been using Google Docs a lot more. I've collected Wii Fit metrics to help lose weight. I went to a Google Hackathon in D.C. and discovered some of the conveniences of Google Apps Scripts. So the other day when I saw Tables available in my Google Docs, I figured I'd finally try it out.

Finding a Data Set

I took part in the AFCEA 5k in the Baltimore/Washington area, but was underwhelmed with the text file of results that they provided on their site. So I did what any rational person with a computer and a bit of free time would do: I dropped it into a Spreadsheet (in this case, courtesy of Google Docs). Let me take a moment to mention that the importing the data provided through AFCEA was less than perfect - some participants excluded hometown information or age data, and others didn't finish the race (probably because they lost their timing chips). So importing isn't super smart yet, but after moderate Google Spreadsheet editing I persevered.

Now this Spreadsheet has information for 762 participants. If you're used to Google Spreadsheets, you may know that working with a somewhat sizable data set sometimes isn't so great - sorting and searching data is sometimes slow and a bit of a nuisance. The most interesting part of this data however, was that it included hometown information. In Spreadsheets you can't do much with that, but I remembered from the demo last year that plotting data to a map was easy with Fusion Tables.

Initial Impressions of Fusion Tables

Fusion Tables are a little hidden under the Create button of Google Docs.

From there, you get a friendly little prompt asking you what data set you'd care to import from. Options include spreadsheets and text files, Google Spreadsheets, or creating an empty table. I imported from the Google Spreadsheet, although I found editing batches of data from Fusion Tables was somewhat tricky (and also a feature request). So I got the data established after re-importing the same data multiple times, and imported in this Table format. If you view the data set, you'll notice a few things: it renders fast (I assume because of there's no Spreadsheets bloat of loading full/large amounts of data or Apps Scripts), it sorts fast, and it has a few other different options.

One new option is to merge data sets, which is good if you're combining data from multiple sources. Another is to import more rows, which should be good if you want to work with very large amounts of fixed data - something I've found inconvenient through Spreadsheets.

The Neat Stuff

Filters and Aggregators are another tool that's new, and by far one of the more interesting tools. The AFCEA data had a few typos in it, and although I caught most of them in Spreadsheets, there were a few imported into the Table. Finding the discrepancies by filtering down was really slick, as I could filter for the typo in a particular field, and the matches came up instantly. Aggregation was also easy in Tables. For example, the graph below displays the time (in seconds) it took the max, min and average runner to complete the 5k. It's a lot slower a process to represent this data in Spreadsheets.

What really was neat in Tables though is that you can also map the data, and you don't need coordinates to go it. Fusion Tables can derive locations from record data and "geocode" it, giving you a cool way of presenting table data. A little spooky that it's so easy to process, but impressive. Also I hear there's a limit to the amount of data you can freely geocode (like 2500 records/day), but that's pretty decent for personal use.


So there's some neat things that Fusion Tables have to offer. I'm still toying around with this, but so far it's been pretty awesome to work with. If you're looking to compare this tool to something in the Office suite, your closest bet is Access, but with data sharing courtesy of the Internet, and visualization tools courtesy of Google gadgets that make the experience 500 times better. So think of Fusion Tables as Access, but much, much more awesome.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Book Review: HTML5 Step by Step

Good if Starting from Scratch
By Tom O from Baltimore, MD on 1/12/2012


Pros: Easy to understand, Helpful examples, Well-written
Cons: Omits some details, Too basic
Best Uses: Novice, Student
Describe Yourself: Designer, Developer
This is a well structured and clear book about how to write articles and code using HTML5. If you are looking to create or adjust content for the web and don't really have much experience, this provides good introductory material to get you on your feet.

If you have decent HTML knowledge you will want to avoid reading the book cover to cover, because much of the basics are covered here. Particular newer topics you should look at include the newer tags (like article and nav) and the newer input types (like the slider, date picker or spin box). The color picker input type wasn't mentioned, but it only really works in Opera so it's a very minor omission.

One slight disappointment about this book was that it didn't discuss some of the other aspects of HTML5, such as offline storage or location services. I understand those capabilities do assume JavaScript knowledge beyond the neophyte level, but mentioning these aspects of HTML5 in passing would've been nice. I did like the introduction to the canvas tag, and how it gave a brief introduction to JavaScript and jQuery to make the first experience fairly simple.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this through O'Reilly Media.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Improving the Battery Life of your Android Device

If you're not used to an Android device, there are some minor improvements that you can make to improve the battery life. Please note this is only referring to simple steps that can be taken - nothing complex or too advanced for the average user.

Out of the Box
When you take the device out of the box, there are a few things you should disable or adjust to improve its battery life.

  • Turn off GPS
    Although GPS should only be running when you want it to (like when running Google Maps, Facebook or Foursquare), it's usually wise to keep it off until you really need it. Half the time the phone's coarse location is good enough for everything except Driving Navigation, and GPS doesn't work indoors unless you're near a window anyways. More recent versions of Android have a settings ribbon as part of the navigation dropdown now, and it makes switching common settings like WiFi, GPS and Sound fairly simple.
  • Turn off 4G
    Some of the more modern phones usually have a 4G option. For the most part you won't really need this unless you're either downloading a huge application or watching high definition video.
  • Turn off Automatic brightness
    Located in Settings > Display > Brightness, the brightness detection can be useful occasionally, but usually it's only noticable in low-light environments.
  • Choose Static Wallpapers instead of a Live Wallpapers
    The live wallpapers look really cool and can definitely sell phones, but in the end aren't incredibly useful. Generally speaking I haven't seen a live wallpaper that has been worth sacrificing battery life for. If you like the Nexus, Galaxy or Live Aquarium wallpapers, just know that what you gain in animation, you lose in power.
Even with all these changes you'll still have to keep an eye out for power-intense activities. The good news is that Task Manager apps are now usually included to help users see where their power's going.

  • In Settings > Applications you have a bunch of options available to better manage your applications.
    • Battery Usage lets you see if any applications are running in the background more than you're expecting. If something's running more than you want, check the application's settings to see if you can disable or reduce the background checks. If you don't have the option, email the developer and see if they could add the feature. If they have a mobile web application, switching to that instead of a native application may be a good alternative as well.
    • Memory Usage helps if you're running out of space on your phone. Usually games and multimedia editing tools use a lot of resources here, although some social networking and content publication applications have internal storage that can take up space too. In some cases you can adjust the application's cache, although if your phone needs to hit the Internet too much it'll drain the battery more.
  • Third Party Applications
    If you're looking for other ways to tweak performance, there are some applications out there that can give you additional help. Personally I don't use any, but I thought I'd add them to be more complete. Let me know if there are additional resources and I'll add them as I can, with descriptions if I have used it.