An unofficial blog that watches Google's attempts to move your operating system online since 2005. Not affiliated with Google.

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March 31, 2012

Google April Fools' Day 2012

April Fools' Day is now associated with Google and the countless pranks which show that Google hasn't lost its cheerfulness.

The first hoax for this year comes from Google Japan: you can now try the 8-bit version of Google Maps. Just click the "quest" button in the regular Google Maps interface.

"Our engineering team in Japan understood the importance of maps on retro game systems. With the power of Google's immense data centers, and support from Nintendo and Square Enix, we were able to overcome the technical and design hurdles of developing 8-bit maps. Today, we're excited to announce the result: a version of Google Maps for NES, with beautiful low-res graphics, simple and intuitive controls, and a timeless soundtrack," explains Google.




The 8-bit Google Maps hides some monsters from the Dragon Quest series.


Google Japan also came up with a simplified IME for Japanese (Google Translate) that only uses a single key: space.


Google China changed the search results page for [Qingming], but you'll only see the beautiful animated wallpaper if you use Chrome. "The Qingming Festival (...) is a traditional Chinese festival on the 104th day after the winter solstice (or the 15th day from the Spring Equinox), usually occurring around April 5 of the Gregorian calendar" (from Wikipedia).

"Use the Chrome browser, Google's search box, enter "Qingming", the results page is the past is not the same? Greeted by swaying willow branches, a symbol of spring in the air. "Green little Liulv the Yula have Qingming, the page will float to the surface ripples from time to time, and click a fish tail out of the water continued to click, but also do not like surprises! The bottom of the page are two cowboy, riding a piper playing in the back of a bull, quiet and lightly." (machine translation - Google China Blog)


Don't miss the underwater image search experience developed by Google China. It's so much fun to type your query.


Google Australia found a way to capture more Street View images for Australia: Google Street Roo. "Over the next four weeks, more than a thousand Big Red kangaroos will be equipped with a 360-degree head camera that will automatically capture images when the marsupial is on the move during daylight hours. The cameras on our Street Roo collection team will be powered by solar panels stitched into the back pocket of custom-made roo jackets. Images will be wired to Google in real-time. A GPS tracker embedded into the jacket will match the location of the kangaroo to ensure the image is accurately uploaded onto the new Street View layer."


Inspired by the Japanese IME and the Morse Code, Gmail's team introduces a new way to type on a mobile device. "Gmail Tap takes the keyboard from 26 keys to just two. Every letter of the alphabet is represented by a simple pattern of dots and dashes, and once you know them you can type without even looking at your screen. This makes it ideal for situations where you need to discreetly send emails, such as when you're on a date or in a meeting with your boss."


AdWords brings a new ad extension: click-to-teleport. "While features like call extensions and location extensions have aimed at solving the online to store marketing objective for multichannel advertisers, Click-to-Teleport shortens the offline conversion funnel by allowing a user to teleport directly to your business location by clicking on your search ad."


If you've already optimized your sites for mobile phones, you can now optimize them for rotary phones.


YouTube offers a way to enjoy your favorite videos even when you don't have an internet connection. The YouTube Collection lets you watch any YouTube video on DVD and you can still share your feedback.


Just click the "home" button from the YouTube player to watch a demo.


Chrome's engineers found a new way to multitask. "We call it Multitask Mode. Multitask Mode lets you have access to multiple mice at the same time, so you can make a chess move while you watch a dance move, or draw a horse while you draw on a friend for relationship advice. Chrome can handle as many mice, touchpads, styli, joysticks, trackballs, and other pointing devices as you can plug into your computer, so you and your friends can browse dozens of sites at the same time."


Jargon-Bot for Google Apps translates business jargon into plain English. " Jargon-Bot has been integrated across the entire suite of Google Apps so that next time you are on an IM chat with your manager, it will help you recognize and say no to unrealistic expectations. When you receive an e-mail from your supplier, Jargon-Bot won’t let you get ripped off by demystifying the fine print," explains Google.


Make sure you try the interesting new options from Google's search sidebar that let you find pages from the past: "Jurassic Era", "Victorian Era", "Enlightenment", "Once Upon a Time" and even tomorrow's pages.


Image Search lets you find images from "the Gilded age".


Here are the queries used by Google:

* Hadean Era: just us rocks, move along
* Jurassic Era: It's a UNIX system, I know this!
* Cretaceous Era: "dinosaur repellent" OR "time machine repair"
* New Kingdom Era: tetrahedral real estate listings
* Once Upon A Time: Poisoned Apple Antidotes
* Enlightenment: ego quaerere ergo ego sum
* Victorian Era: this query served from Google's Difference Engine cluster
* Past 5.391e-44 seconds [Planck time]: a photon passes, no new celebrity news, must refresh faster
* Tomorrow: todo: create tachyon web crawler

For even more search options, try Google Really Advanced Search. You can find pages with words "almost, but not quite entirely unlike" a word you enter, "this exact word or phrase, whose sum of unicode code points is a mersenne prime". You can narrow the results by font, textured background, "embarrassing grammatical faux pas" or "looping midi music".


Google's weather OneBox is now more powerful and it lets you change the weather. "Don't like the weather? Now you can change it in your region by selecting from the dropdown to change precipitation and setting your own temperature. Please notice, after submitting it takes approximately 45 minutes until your weather changes take effect," informs Google.


There's also a new Cloud API for the App Engine which lets you "gain cloud coverage in locations around the globe within minutes".

Google Analytics promise to add support for interplanetary reports, just in case your site has visitors from another planet. "While currently you only get a partial picture of website visitor location, we want to expand beyond Earth to help you understand visitor activities from neighboring stars and planets. You’ll also be able to drill down on each planet to see greater detail. For example, which colony or outpost your visitors came from similar to the city drill down available for Earth today."


Self-driving cars are becoming a reality, but happens if you bring self-driving cars to NASCAR? "Our autonomous cars have now been test-driven (or rather, test-ridden) for more than 200,000 miles without a single machine-caused mishap. And today we're moving the project one great leap forward with Google Racing, a groundbreaking partnership with NASCAR to help self-driving vehicles compete in the world of stock car racing."


Google is bringing an ultra high-speed fiber network to Kansas City, but also releasing a Fiber Bar. "Google Fiber starts with 100 times more fiber than any source of fiber available today. Tested in labs across our Mountain View campus, we found that in just the right synthesis, psyllium and vitamins C and D morph into a byproduct we have coded as Fiberlicious. This smarter fiber delivers just what the body needs to sustain activity, energy and productivity up to 100 times more than you have experienced before."


{ Thanks, everyone. }

March 28, 2012

Google Account Stats

Google added an interesting feature that shows stats for services like Google Latitude, Gmail, Google Search and more. If you go to the Account Activity page, you can opt in for a monthly report that provides a "summary of your account activity across many Google products".

It's like a personal Google Analytics, but it's less detailed and it focuses on security features. For example, Google shows a list of locations and browsers detected when you've signed in. If you never use Opera, but the browser is included in Google's list, then it's likely that someone else found your password. The activity page also includes the number of emails you've sent and received, the number of Google searches and stats from Google Latitude, Picasa Web and YouTube.


I've enabled this feature and Google says that my "next report will be ready in a few days" and I'll receive an email notification when it's ready. It would be nice to aggregate the data in real time and integrate Account Activity with Google Dashboard, which already shows some stats.

{ via Google Blog }

March 27, 2012

Google Experiments With a Collapsible Search Sidebar

Google tests a new search interface that hides the options from the sidebar by default. You need to click a small arrow icon to see the list of specialized search engines and some advanced search options that let you filter results.

Essentially, this experiment hides the sidebar's content, but the sidebar still takes up space. Back in 2009, the sidebar was hidden by default and Google made it more visible one year later.

Now that the navigation bar no longer includes many specialized search engines, it doesn't make sense to hide the sidebar. Another issue is that the sidebar highlights advanced options that are relevant to your query, but few people will find them if the sidebar is collapsed by default.


{ via Websonic. Thanks, Akos. }

Google Play, Added to the Navigation Bar

There's a new service in Google's navigation bar: Google Play. The link replaces Google Music and it's prominently placed next to popular services like Google Maps and YouTube. For now, the link takes you to the Google Play homepage and your query is ignored.

It's interesting to notice that Google's navigation bar changed its purpose from showcasing popular services to promoting new services. Ever since it was launched, Google+ became the first service from the navigation bar, even if Google Search was the most popular service. Then Google added links to services like Google Offers, Google Wallet and a page that lists Google's mobile apps.

Google Play is more than a new name for Android Market, it's Google's attempt to sell digital content across different platforms: from apps to music, from books to movies, from magazine subscriptions to TV shows and more. It makes sense to integrate Google Play with Google Search and maybe include the top results in an OneBox, assuming that they're relevant.

{ Thanks, Joshua, Kartik, Thomas, Marian, Shimmy, Matan and TechDows. }

March 22, 2012

Upcoming Google Music Features

Google Music's source code includes a few references to some new features. There's a Music Labs page that will probably include new ways to organize and visualize your songs. "Google Play music player labs is a testing ground for experimental features that aren't quite ready for primetime. They may change, break, or disappear at any time." For now, this section is empty.


Right now, you can only upload songs using the Music Manager software, but that may change in the future. There's a new page for uploading music.


Another new section called "history" could show a list of songs you've recently played.


Google Music could also add a roulette view and some charts for visualizing how often you play certain songs.


{ Thanks, Florian K. }

Google Docs and Clipboard Access

A major annoyance when you use web apps that include a rich text editor is that they don't have access to the clipboard. Browsers prevent web pages from reading the clipboard or replacing its text and that's a security feature, but the downside is that apps like Google Docs can't include functional options for copy, cut or paste in the interface. Of course, you can use the browser's features, including keyboard shortcuts like Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V, but not everyone will do that.

Let's see how Google Docs handles this issue. If you use Internet Explorer, cut/copy/paste are available in the Edit menu and in the contextual menu. When you use these features, a browser dialog asks for permission. Annoyingly, IE will ask for permission again when you open a new document or reload the page.


In Firefox, cut/copy/paste are removed from the contextual menu, but they're still available in the Edit menu. Try to click one of these options and Google Docs will ask you to use keyboard shortcuts. Google Toolbar for Firefox included an option that addressed this issue, but Google Toolbar is no longer available for Firefox 4+. Fortunately, there are some workarounds.


What happens when you use Chrome? Select some text, right-click, choose "copy" and Google Docs shows the following message: "Copying and pasting requires the free Google Docs web app. This lets us access your clipboard so you can cut, copy and paste." To install the app you don't need to open a new page, but you'll have to reload Google Docs to use the new permissions.



While browsers don't allow JavaScript access to the clipboard without permission, there are workarounds that use Flash, but they're limited to copying some text to the clipboard.

For now, the best thing you can do is to use keyboard shortcuts (Ctrl+C for copy, Ctrl+X for cut, Ctrl+V for paste) or install the Google Docs app in Chrome.

Smart Spell Checker in Google Docs

Google's search engine has a great spell checker because it doesn't rely on dictionaries and because it's context-sensitive. The smart spell checker from Google Search is now available in Google Docs.

When you type "its", no English spell checker will ever find a mistake, but a smart spell checker will flag it when you add more words: "its a great idea". While "its" is actually an English word, it should be replaced with "it's" in that particular context.

The updated spell checking feature from Google Docs is more precise and it will usually show a single suggestion when you right-click a word that's highlighted. Another advantage is that it works well when you type proper nouns.

"Suggestions are constantly evolving. As Google crawls the web, we see new words, and if those new words become popular enough they'll automatically be included in our spell checker—even pop culture terms, like Skrillex," explains Google. That's the great thing about web services: they evolve faster and they can become smarter by bringing more data. Just like Gmail's spam filter is better than the spam filter of a desktop mail client and Google's online speech-to-text engine is better than any offline speech recognition software, the smart spell checker from Google Search and Google Docs (originally available in Google Wave) is better than any dictionary-based spell checker. There are some downsides (it doesn't work offline and everything you type is sent to Google's servers), but all Google services and software could be improved by switching to the online spell checker.

Unfortunately, the example I used back in 2009, when Google Wave added a context-sensitive spell checker, no longer works today. When you type: "Their coming too sea if its reel" in Google Docs, only "too" and "sea" are flagged, while no misspelled word is flagged in Google Search.

{ Thanks, Techdows. }

Blogger Adds Advanced Webmaster Features

Blogger blogs are no longer that limited. After adding support for static pages and favicons, Blogger added some new advanced features to the "search preferences" section of the settings page.

Now you can edit the description meta tag without editing the template. If you edit the description meta tag for the entire blog, you can also write descriptions for your blog posts. This is useful because Google's snippets sometimes rely on this meta tag.

For the first time you can create a custom 404 error page for a Blogger blog without buying a domain. Just "enter an HTML message that will be displayed on the Page Not Found page instead of the generic message." Google has some tips for creating useful 404 pages and there's even a widget powered by Google search that shows related links and a search box with appropriate search suggestions.

You can also create custom redirects, but only for internal URLs. For example, you can redirect http://googlesystem.blogspot.com/mailto to http://googlesystem.blogspot.com/2012/02/open-mailto-links-using-gmail-in-google.html. Make sure that you leave out the first part of the URL (http://googlesystem.blogspot.com) when you create the redirect.

There are also options for customizing the robots.txt page and robots header tags. It's probably a good idea to use Blogger's robots.txt page as a template (http://yourblog.blogspot.com/robots.txt) and only add some new pages you want to be ignored by search engines.


March 21, 2012

Why Gmail Messages Are Marked as Spam

If you wonder why a certain message is flagged as spam by Gmail, you can find the reason from Gmail's web interface. When you open a message from the spam folder, there's a new section titled "Why is this message in Spam?" which offers "a brief explanation about why that particular message was placed in Spam".


Here are some of the explanations you might see:

1. "You previously marked messages from info@example.com as spam."

2. "You clicked 'Report spam' for this message."

3. "It's written in a different language than your messages typically use."

4. "It contains content that's typically used in spam messages."

5. "It's similar to messages that were detected by our spam filters."

6. "Many people marked similar messages as spam."

7. "We've found that lots of messages from info@example.com are spam."

8. "Be careful with this message. Our systems couldn't verify that this message was really sent by amazon.com. You might want to avoid clicking links or replying with personal information."

9. [Phishing] "Be careful with this message. Similar messages were used to steal people's personal information. Unless you trust the sender, don't click links or reply with personal information."

#4 and #5 are the most common explanations and they're rather vague. It's interesting to notice that the messages written "in a different language than your messages typically use" could be flagged as spam, but this shouldn't be the only explanation.


"We hope that this is not only interesting, but also helps you learn about scams and other harmful messages that Gmail filters out. Whether you prefer to leave your spam folder untouched or do some educational digging, the information will be there for you. And if you're interested in learning more, check out our new series of spam articles in the Gmail help center," informs Google.

{ Thanks, Venkat. }

March 20, 2012

Customize Gmail's Buttons: Replace Icons With Text

If you don't like that the new Gmail interface replaced most text labels from buttons with icons, there's an option that lets you disable this tweak. Just go to Gmail's settings page, select "text" in the "button labels" section and click "save changes".

Before:


After:


"Icons brought consistency across languages and solved problems with functions that had long names. Some people loved the new icons. Others, especially low vision users, found words easier to distinguish," says Google.

My main issue is that some of the Gmail icons aren't very helpful. For example, it's not obvious that the exclamation mark is an icon for reporting messages as spam. The icons are also small and monochromatic.

{ Thanks, Sterling. }

March 10, 2012

Google's Easter Eggs for Binary and Other Number Systems

Google has some new geeky Easter eggs. When you search for [binary], [octal] and [hexadecimal], Google writes the number of results using the numeral system from the query.

Make sure that "search plus your world" is disabled to see the Easter eggs. Either click the "hide personal results" button below the search box or sign out.




{ Thanks, Abhishek. }

Google Toolbar Built Into Chrome?

Now that Google Toolbar is no longer available for Firefox, you can only install it if you use Internet Explorer. If you visit Google Toolbar's site using Chrome, Google shows an interesting message: "You're using Chrome, that's great. All of the features of GoogleToolbar are already built into your browser. You can search from the address bar. Create bookmarks with one click."



If you use Firefox, Google Toolbar's homepage suggests you to download Chrome if you want "to get all of the features of Toolbar and more".


Obviously, that's an inaccurate message since there are many Google Toolbar features that aren't built into Chrome. Here are some of them:

1. searching the current site

2. highlighting the search terms on the page you're visiting

3. changing the Google search site (maybe you are in France and want to use Google.com instead of Google.fr)

4. preserving the query in the search box and switching to other Google services. For example, you can go from Google Search to Google Scholar without losing the query

5. showing the PageRank of the page

6. spell checking powered by an online service (not by a local dictionary)

7. the "share" button that supports services like Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo Mail, etc.

8. integration with Google Bookmarks

9. custom buttons that combine search features with feeds and other useful information

Some features are available as Chrome extensions developed by Google:

10. the Google +1 button and Google+ notifications

11. Google Related

12. Quick Scroll.

While Google Toolbar will not be available for Chrome and some Google Toolbar features are either included in the browser or can be added from the Chrome Web Store, it's misleading to say that "All of the features of GoogleToolbar are already built into [Chrome]".

March 8, 2012

Google's Unified Gaming Platform


Google Play may not be a great name for an ebook store, but it's the perfect name for a game platform. Right now, you can only download Android games from Google Play, but that may change in the future.

"By next year, we will not be (...) talking about Google+ Games, Chrome Web Store games, Games for Native Client and Android games, we will be talking about Google games," says Punit Soni, Google Product Manager.

The Google Games platform is supposed to be launched later this year. "Soni also indicated that they were planning on making Google Games truly social, offering Hangouts for video communication, mobile games, and better distribution and discoverability for games," informs Android and Me.

Hopefully, the new platform will bring more high-quality Android games, powerful games in the Chrome Web Store and some addictive Google+ games. It would be nice to pause a game on your phone or tablet and continue playing it on your computer.

Google provides a cross-platform library for writing games and creating Java desktop apps, HTML5 web apps and mobile apps for Android and iOS. The PlayN library was used to create the HTML5 version of Angry Birds.


In addition to developer tools, Google also has services like App Engine, AdMob and In-App Payments to host and monetize games.

YouTube Scrobbler

If you frequently watch music videos or listen to music on YouTube and you also use Last.fm, there's a Chrome extension that scrobbles these songs. The official Last.fm client supports players like iTunes and Windows Media Player, but YouTube is probably the largest online repository of free music and it can be used as a music player.

The Last.fm Scrobbler for Chrome detects the category of the video you're watching and tries to find the artist and the song title, then it sends this information to Last.fm. The first time when it scrobbles a song you'll see a Last.fm page that requests your permission.

The extension shows notifications when the track changes and it supports many other sites: Google Music, Pandora, MySpace, Google+ (the YouTube widget) and more. At the moment, you can't scrobble tracks in Google Music because Google changed the URL, but an update should fix this issue.


{ via Matthew }

March 7, 2012

New Google +1 Buttons

The ubiquitous +1 buttons will soon have a new look. The updated version is available when you subscribe to the Google+ Platform Preview, at least for now.

"Following in the footsteps of our new red and white Google+ icon, the +1 button is sporting a fresh coat of paint," informs Google.


While the new buttons are more consistent and include the Google+ branding, the old buttons are more colorful and more descriptive. "+1" is bigger and more obvious in the old buttons and that made them more clickable.

Here's the tiny +1 button from Google+:


... and here's the +1 button from Google Groups:



The small +1 buttons are not legible and it's not obvious that you're supposed to click them. As Fernando Fonseca says, "I understand the need to have a button that looks like the new logo but the problem is that a white background with a thin red line is hardly eye catching and hardly says 'Click me'."

You can compare the different versions of the +1 (v1) and +1 (v2) using the corresponding sprites. I'd choose the old buttons.

Update: There's still time to improve the buttons. Share your feedback here and here.

{ Thanks, Yu-Hsuan Lin. }

Gmail's New Loading Screen

Sometimes little things can make a difference. Gmail's updated loading screen makes Google's mail service look more like a native app and the transition to the actual interface is much smoother. The progress bar and the "loading" message are now centered and no longer look like an afterthought.


In the new Gmail interface you'll also see the loading page when you pick a different theme and that's annoying.

If you have a slow internet connection, you can enable the "inbox preview" lab feature to see a preview of the inbox while you wait for Gmail to load.

{ Thanks, Herin, James, John and Jonah. }

Google's Thank You Notes

Google sometimes displays some annotations below search snippets. Showing that one of the people you trust +1'd a page is useful and might help you decide to click a search result.

Now Google also adds a link that lets you send a thank you note to the person that +1'd page: "Your +1 helped me find this. Thank you!". It's a cute idea and this also helps Google find the recommendations that were really useful, but the links clutter Google's results pages. Maybe Google could show the "thank you" link when you +1 the page.



Another issue is that social annotations aren't necessary when it comes to the top result for a navigational query. Most people that search for [Yahoo] want to visit Yahoo's homepage or use services like Yahoo Mail, Yahoo News, so the annotations for these results are unnecessary. It's probably a better idea to show the annotations less often and only for the results that deserve to be highlighted.

{ via Search Engine Roundtable }

The Google+ Upgrade

After a strong start, Google+ could have lost its momentum, at least if we are to believe ComScore's numbers. "According to comScore, Google+ users averaged only three minutes on the site during January, a pittance compared to Facebook's average of 405 minutes per visitor."

That's a really low number, but I'm not sure it's accurate. Google+ is not a separate service like Google Finance or Google Scholar, it's the social fabric from many Google products. Below Google's navigation bar, there's always a share box and a notification button that lets you read comments and post your replies without visiting Google+. Google's search results include pages shared by your Google+ circles, YouTube's homepages shows videos shared by the people you follow in Google+ and many pages have +1 buttons. You're using Google+ even you're not visiting plus.google.com and that's because Google+ is an upgrade, not a new product.

"This is just the next version of Google. Everything is being upgraded. We already have users. We're now upgrading them to what we consider Google 2.0," says Vic Gundotra, Google VP.

Google's bet is so significant that Google+ simply can't fail. Google+ is just a fancy name for a new Google that knows more about you, so that it can offer a more personalized experience. Upgrading to Google+ will offer better search results, better ads, simple ways to share content, collaborate and communicate with the people you care about. It's the same Google made more powerful by a social upgrade.

Audio Books in Google Play?

It looks like Google Play, the unified online store launched yesterday, could add a new type of digital content: audio books. The Google Play help center includes an empty page titled "Audio Books".


There are also two genres with a similar name: "audio books" and "audiobooks", but the ebook store doesn't include audio books. Genres could be automatically generated.


Google has recently registered a lot of domains like googleplaymovies.com, googleplaynewspapers.com, googleplaymagazines.com, googleplaytv.com and this suggests that Google Play could offer subscriptions for magazines, newspapers and TV shows.

{ Thanks, Joel. }

March 6, 2012

YouTube Preview

YouTube started to roll out a few features that will make it easier to preview videos and to quickly jump to a certain scene. Just mouse over the seek bar and you'll see a thumbnail of the frame you've selected. The thumbnail is updated almost instantly when you pick a different frame.


This feature is obvious and you'll certainly notice it. There's also a way to preview multiple frames: just drag the handle along the seek bar and YouTube will "show a filmstrip of thumbnails of previous and upcoming scenes".


For movies and other videos longer than 90 minutes YouTube added a more advanced feature: a second seek bar that lets you preview one and a half minutes of video one second at a time.


These features aren't available to everyone yet, they'll be slowly rolled out in the coming weeks. For now, they only work in the Flash player. If you want to try them, they're enabled for videos longer than 90 minutes. Here's one of them: