2006-10-19

Getting Google-Eyed

Okay, I'm a regular reader of Ars Technica, which is a regular poster of Google news. Every time Google makes some nifty new toy, Ars posts about it.

So, when I look at the tiny toolbar in the top-left corner of my Gmail and Google Calendar pages and notice two new links, I'm intrigued. So, what do I do? I sign up for both Google Docs & Spreadsheets, and Picasa Web Albums.

I started with Docs & Spreadsheets, and I'd have to describe it as "not bad". It's still in beta (isn't everything?), and it shows. There are serious inconsistencies with the interface, and I experienced one point when the application said my connection had been lost, and along with it, my changes - oddly, I didn't actually lose any changes, but regardless, that's not a good sign. I wouldn't use it for anything work-related honestly, but I will say it makes a decent home word processor and spreadsheet suite. I like the collaboration and sharing tools; they're simple but effective. Revision control is a very nice feature as well; being a developer and used to using revision control when programming, I'm glad to see it catching on in other areas.

I uploaded some files by email, both in the body of the email (which works very smoothly, but takes a while to process), and as attachments (takes an extremely long time to process, and I ran into some problems, which I was able to resolve by searching the Google Group dedicated to the application.) I also tried editing and creating new documents through the web interface. I uploaded spreadsheets and text documents by email and by upload form, and created a new one of each via the web interface. Everything worked well, but there are some inconsistencies between the two applications (such as the way documents are renamed), and the interface for Spreadsheets can be irritating, as you have to switch between tabs to switch between formatting and data entry/formula editing. I don't know how many spreadsheet functions it supports, but probably not many - this might present some difficulties when importing more complex spreadsheets, so I wouldn't recommend it.

On the whole, however, it is an application I will continue to use for my personal use going forward, and for some documents I need to collaborate on for work purposes, that aren't mission-critical or highly confidential.

On to Picasa Web Albums. This works extremely well. There are a couple of minor bugs with the (again, beta) Picassa 2 software with the Web Albums upgrade. I already had and have used Picassa 2, but I had to download and install the new version seperately (no auto-update as Gtalk has.) There are some minor glitches with the upgrade that are unrelated to the web album feature - UI glitches with scrolling, for example - but the web album works quite well. You select your photos, click a button, give the album a title and description, and it resizes and uploads the photos to your free 250M of storage. For $25 per year you can upgrade to 6G of storage, plus the ability to post video.

You can re-caption, re-name, and reorganize photos via the web interface, and you can add to existing albums from within Picasa. The web page also gives convenient links to email your friends from your Gmail account, and the links are fairly easy to remember (it's basically your Gmail address). It also accepts uploads from Apple's iPhoto.

This is something I will definitely be using going forward, because I share a lot of photos to keep in touch with friends and family across the country. I would recommend it as a photo-sharing service, but it is not a social networking site; you are only intended to find someone's web album if they tell you about it. They do, however, offer methods of embedding your photo feed into your blog or (shudder) MySpace page.

Now, this got me thinking on everybody's favorite debate: What's next for Google? Well, they just announced they want to slow down on new product development, and spend more time refining their existing offerings and integrating them together. This is what Google Docs & Spreadsheets is about, and we're going to see more of that. Web albums was a simple matter of leveraging their existing technologies; we're going to see more of that, too.

I also see a few holes in their big push areas. They've got many-to-many text (Google Groups), one-to-one text (Gmail), live one-to-one text (Gtalk), one-to-many text (Blogger), and live one-to-one audio (Gtalk Voice Chat). I see live many-to-many text (chatrooms built onto Gtalk), live many-to-many audio (Gtalk conference calls), and possibly live one-to-one video (Gtalk video chat) on the horizon, easily. The reason I say possibly on one-to-one video as it's still not hugely popular, and it still doesn't work very well. However, Google is known for changing those traits in everything they touch, so they may be able to pull something out of their PhD-lined hat.

That's everybody's communications. They're also taking care of everybody's media, with Google Video and a recent YouTube acquisition, and of course Picasa and the new Web albums. What's missing is, of course, audio. I see an appeal to independent artists, and possibly another grab of public domain material (like their recent indexing of all books whose copyright had expired). I can definitely see an acquisition in this space, and I particularly like the idea of Last.fm coming under Google's wing. I think it'd be a really good matchup, and I think it'd do great things for both companies. But, of course, this is all conjecture - only time will tell what Big G has planned.
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