Monday, July 2, 2012

Notes from the Future - Google Hum Search

Google Hum Search lets you hum a song to Google, and it will start playing that song back to you, the original version, in full. It will first search your Google Music library for the song, and then it will search the rest of the Internet. Wherever it finds the best matched song, it will start playing back. You can do this search on your computer, on your smart phone, on your tablet.

Google Hum Search is so good, you don't even need to know the lyrics of the song. You can just hum the tune and it will play back the song. Here's a video of me humming Bryan Adams's I Wanna Be Your Underwear, and watch Google play back the full song to me:

First World Problems: Can't Hum to Google

Ah, NO! That feature is still not available in Google! :-(

What year is this? 2012! Why can't I do this already? It's not like I am asking for flying cars or jet packs or hoverboards.

It's been over a year since Google introduced their Music product, and this feature is still not available. Yo Google, don't be slacking off on the job! I want this feature yesterday!!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Google Plus is more than just a social network destination

Google recently unveiled its latest foray into social networking. Since then, there have been the inevitable comparisons to Facebook. There are some who say that most of the features of Google Plus (G+) are already available in Facebook (FB). There are others who say that G+ will fail as a social networking site. There are many who claim that FB has nothing to worry from G+.

Most of the people who make the above claims are looking at G+ as a social networking website similar to FB. It's true that there are a few elements of G+, the home screen being the most prominent, that are similar to FB. But there ends the comparison. G+ is not just a social networking destination. G+ is a whole new Google. Hence the name Google Plus!

What Google is attempting to do with G+ is to rethink all its products and services, in order to bake social features aka sharing features into them. There are two things about the way that Google is doing this that have very high significance:
  • Google is not just tacking on sharing features to existing products. It is rethinking these products from the inside out, from the bottom up so that sharing features are natural, intuitive and organic in these products.
  • Google is also unifying all its products and services using a single layer. The current form of this single unifying layer is a dark tool bar that permeates all its products. This could take other forms in the future.
There are a few far reaching consequences of the above two actions by Google:
  • It may not be very apparent right now, but there is no separate G+ social networking site that users can accept or reject. Simply by using one or more of Google's many fabulous products and services, you become a participant in G+.
  • The unification that G+ brings to all of Google's services was a crucial missing element during all these years that Google offered many different services. Now that G+ neatly unifies all these services, the chances of people using many more than one Google service are higher than ever before. For example, if you were a user of just Google Search and GMail all these years, there is a much higher chance now that you might also start using Google's photo, calendar and video chat services.
  • The net result is that, unless all of Google's services fail, there is simply no question of G+ failing.
During all these years that Facebook was growing into the Internet's No. 1 social destination, while Google's attempts at collaboration and sharing such as Wave and Buzz did not take off as expected, there were many people who wrote off Google all too readily and not a little gleefully. They claimed that Google had absolutely no access to the social web and social was not in Google's DNA. These claims always puzzled me because I could see that through its many products and services, Google had access to much more social information about the Internet citizens worldwide, than FB or any other service ever did. All that Google needed to do was simply present a unified interface and view of the seemingly disparate services. That is what Google Plus is all about.

Funny thing is, even now many people are unable to go beyond an apples to apples comparison of Google and Facebook. If Facebook is the most popular lake in the world to which all the people come to play, Google is the ocean permeating the whole world. It is an ocean in which people play, work, do business, connect with loved ones, travel, etc. An ocean without which we cannot imagine modern life as we know it. FB and G+ are not even in the same league!

Edit on 7/5/2011: Don't know why I didn't think of this when publishing this post last week. G+ integration with Google Apps! This is going to give instant social media implementation on many company intranets. Yet another reason why G+ will be a success. But the real success of this will be when G+ is integrated with Google Apps for schools and colleges. People will be hooked onto G+ from a very young age in the normal course of their school and college work. And when they graduate, they will continue using G+. Does this remind you of any other social network? ;-)

Friday, June 18, 2010

Phone-based Computing

Kevin Tofel at Gigaom laments that the Recipe for a Successful Smartphone is getting Bland. He talks about how every new "superphone" being released today is only evolutionary and not revolutionary. He wonders what the next big telephone innovation will be.

My answer: phone-based computing. Basically, your phone becomes your computer.

You want to use a desktop PC? You slide your phone into a dock on your desk. The dock is connected to a monitor and a keyboard. Voila! You have a desktop PC. You want to use a tablet? Just slide your phone into the slot provided in a dumb tablet-sized frame. There is your tablet. Hell, your phone will even be your TV! Just slide it into the dock that is connected to your TV and stream content from Google TV to the screen.

Today’s “superphones” have as much computing power as the yet-to-be-released Chrome-based tablets. So, there is no reason why we can’t have phone-based computing in the near future.

PS: Incidentally, I blogged about this idea back in Oct 2005, long before we ever heard rumors of the first iPhone.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Notes from the Future - Google Traffic

Disclaimer: Google Traffic is not a real product yet. In my "Notes from the Future" series, I like to describe imaginary innovative products from the future.

Google Traffic is Google's latest innovation that promises to change the world. It is a traffic light system built and managed by Google. It uses the most sophisticated traffic routing algorithm to manage the flow of traffic in dozens of cities, big and small, around the US. The results have been so encouraging in these American cities, it is estimated that hundreds of cities around the world will install Google Traffic within the year.

The main feature making this system so efficient is the traffic sensing cameras installed all over the city which provide constant feedback about the traffic conditions to the main traffic management system. For example, if a bunch of cars are moving along a single road, in a single direction, towards an idle intersection, and there are not many cars coming from any other direction to the intersection, the system learns about this long before the cars reach the intersection. It turns the right lights green so that the cars can pass through the intersection without stopping. This is just a simplistic example. In reality, the system can handle much more complex traffic patterns. The system is smart enough to calculate such parameters as the number of cars moving towards an intersection, the number of cars already waiting at the intersection, the average wait times, etc. It uses this information to ensure that there is minimum average wait time for the cars, minimum fuel burnt waiting and minimum time spent commuting to places.

Studies of people's commutes in cities with Google Traffic have shown an average of 3% - 9% decrease in travel times. More tellingly, the cities have shown an average of 2.5% - 5.5% month on month decrease in gasoline sales compared to the months prior to the Google Traffic installation. A clear sign that Google Traffic is delivering useful results. In the coming months and years, the system is expected to get smarter as it learns a city's traffic patterns, the areas and times of maximum and minimum traffic, the directions of traffic flow at different times of the day, and days of the week, etc. And of course, Google has its vaunted team of PhDs working on making the system more and more efficient.

So, what's in it for Google? Advertisement, of course. Google has started to buy up space on thousands and thousands of electronic bill boards in cities where Google Traffic is installed. The traffic system provides a valuable input to Google for targeting display ads in places where it can ensure maximum attention from passing commuters. Google changes these ads based on the traffic density in the area, the time of day, day of week, seasonal patterns, etc. Google even uses information from users of Google Latitude and Google Navigation who have opted-in to share information about themselves, their interests, and their locations with Google to target bill-board ads at them when they pass by. There is the story of a Google engineer who proposed to his girlfriend this way during the initial beta testing of Google Traffic in Mountain View, California.

Incidentally, users of Google Latitude and Google Navigation also form an input to the Google Traffic system, along with the roadside cameras. In a beautiful example of a reinforcing positive feedback loop, Google Traffic provides extremely accurate traffic information to Google Maps and Google Navigation. And in a major enhancement to Google Maps, the roadside cameras enable real time live streamed video on Street View.

Google Maps Contact Search

Contact Search in Google Maps will most probably be a future enhancement to Google Maps, especially the mobile version. As of now, it's only a feature in my own imagination.

Here's how the Google Maps Contact Search will work:

When you are on the Google Maps screen, just type 'C'. A search box will pop-up. Start typing in the name of one of your contacts in the box. Google will suggest names from your address book. Select a name and hit enter. Google will show the contact on your map in one or more of the following ways:

1. Display the contact's current location if contact has enabled Google Latitude sharing with you.

2. If you have the addresses for the contact in your address book, those addresses will be shown on the map too.

3. If you are using a phone that has Google Navigation installed on it, you can just tap on one of the contact points on the map and have yourself routed to that spot immediately.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Thirteen Tips for New Bloggers

Here are thirteen tips I sent a friend who has just started blogging this year. In no particular order:

  1. Adding pictures to the posts always makes them look better. Advice I hardly follow myself, but admire in others. Most professional bloggers add at least one picture to every post. They search online for copyright-free pictures to post. (Free pictures on Flickr!). It is good practice (and karma!) to mention the origin of the pictures in the footnote. Add other media like music, voice (podcasts!) and video - even better. If you are the original maker of these other media - that's the best!
  2. Subtle wording which encourages readers to comment is also good. This could be as simple as asking a question. I had one friend who often ended her posts with a question. She had a lot of participation.
  3. Blogs are a more casual medium. So, the tone of writing should be conversational, active as opposed to passive, first and second person as opposed to third person. Many successful bloggers make you feel like you are engaged in a friendly, personal dialog with them.
  4. General rule of online writing: avoid walls of text a.k.a. long running paragraphs. Breaking text into smaller paragraphs is always nice - even smaller than you would have in printed pages. Also, focus on just one topic per post and may be 2-3 main points about that topic. If you have more to say, you can always do another post. TL;DR (too long; didn't read) is a new and popular acronym online.
  5. Some bloggers have a popular theme or practice to which they come back regularly. Like, post on a certain topic every Friday. Or, answer reader questions on Saturdays in a post of its own. Some ideas for you: weekly recipes / seasonal recipes, first Monday on a professional topic, second Saturday post for kids, etc. Do enough posts on a single theme and you will end up with a neat little collection of essays you could publish as a book!
  6. Occasionally, do a post with links to interesting things you read / saw online. Not too much text. Just a set of 5-6 links. This is a way to share your reading material with your users.
  7. As you continue blogging, during the course of the day you will come across many topics which you think would make a good post. I immediately send myself a short email about the topic so that I don't forget. Later, I turn that into a post. Sometimes, if I am not ready to publish immediately, I will make up a draft and keep it saved. Then, I come back to it again and again, gradually adding more material until I am ready to publish. This happens rarely though - I am a one-sitting writer, even if it takes me all night.
  8. Be careful and conscious about revealing personal information. There are weirdos and stalkers out there. One day you might post an opinion someone doesn't like. They will read your entire blog from beginning to end, leave nasty comments, etc. Don't take it personally. On the other hand, talking about your personal passions and interests will connect you to many people who share the same. Those days can be fun.
  9. Another weird thing: your regular readers get to know you very well, while they remain total strangers to you. If you ever interact with them, they will talk to you as if they are old friends and you will feel somewhat uncomfortable. I guess that is how celebrities feel. But then, you might be familiar with being a celebrity already! :-)
  10. Participate in other blogs and discussion boards, leave comments. Link to other blogs, quote from other blogs. You will bring the authors and readers of those blogs to yours. I guess this is not much different from Tweets and re-Tweets.
  11. Some people do occasional guest posts. They invite a friend or acquaintance or expert to write a post for their blog, covering the same or related subject.
  12. Not to sound sexist, but for some reason, topics of interest to women bring lots of readers and comments.
  13. Keep the title line of the posts simple and straight-forward. They should give a good idea what the post is about. This is especially important because search engines like Google give a lot of importance to the words in the title and the top few lines of the post. So, be sure to mention the topic of the post in the title line and at least a couple of times in the first 5 lines.

Bonus: If your blogging tool does not already provide reports of visitor statistics, be sure to use free tools like Sitemeter and Google Analytics.

Do you, dear reader, have any other tips for new bloggers?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Google Goes Do or Die in China

There was some major news from Google today: Google will stop censoring search results in China, even if it means the death of Google in China.

They have not quite turned off the censor switch yet. An image search for Tiananmen Square on still shows censored results, as compared to the same search on

But Google has declared unequivocally that they will no longer censor in China, as written by David Drummond, Google's Chief Legal Officer:
We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down, and potentially our offices in China.

What prompted this change?
Google discovered that in mid-December of 2009, there was a highly sophisticated cyber attack on Google's infrastructure, whose sole purpose was to hack into the GMail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. Common sense might tell us that these attacks must have come from the Chinese government. After all, who else would specifically target only the Chinese human rights activists? But Google must have information which strongly suggests that the Chinese government perpetrated this attack. That is why Google sees no point in cooperating with the Chinese government any more and censoring search results. If the attack had come from any other source, why would Google pick a fight with the Chinese government?

It should come as no surprise to Google that it came down to this. If you decide to play with the dragon, prepare to have your hand burnt one day or the other. But if a burnt hand is what it takes for Google to stop censoring search results in China, so be it. This is a welcome development.

However, a few questions persist: When will Google stop censoring in other countries? Will it take a cyber attack by the government of a country for Google to stop censoring in that country? What about not censoring because it's the right thing to do? Because that is what freedom of speech is all about?

Google does different levels of censorship in different countries. Yes, Google censors in India also.

There are few forums where the average Indian can participate in political discourse. The political blogosphere in India is still fledgling. Indians have very few alternative sources for news, other than the mainstream media. As such, it is extremely important that Indians have uncensored access to online discussion boards, mailing lists and blogs. The Indian public is still at the beginning stages of Internet connectivity. It is very disappointing that Google agrees to censorship of information on its web properties in India at this initial stage of the Indian Internet infancy. The irony is that, unlike in China, Google need not even die in India if it refuses to censor itself. It will have the support of the majority of the Indian public and will be hailed as a hero.

Update on 1/13/2010: Lots of interesting updates in this Arstechnica article. Most interesting among them:
Why only subject lines? If the attackers could get access to subject lines, why couldn't they access entire e-mails? Apparently because the hackers infiltrated automated systems set up to provide such information to law enforcement in the US and elsewhere. (Getting access to the contents of e-mail messages is harder under US law than getting access to addresses, subject lines, etc, which are considered to be on the "outside of the envelope" and subject to pen register searches).

According to a Macworld source, "Right before Christmas, it was, 'Holy s—, this malware is accessing the internal intercept [systems].'" Later, Google cofounder Larry Page supervised a Christmas Eve meeting on the security breach.

Fun fact: Google's security team managed to penetrate one of the servers being used by the attackers, which was how the full extent of the attack—more than 30 companies—was revealed.