Search engines

Life in hypertext

My laptop needed some repair work. Limping by on a school machine during the day was made more than bearable by having the use of an iPod touch the rest of the time and access to an N810. None of these are my own. Of the three, the iPod touch is a revelation — so easy to use, the Gmail interface is (as of now) outstanding and surfing the web on it is often a joy. I don't yet know the N810 well enough to comment about it, but one thing that lets the iPod touch down is the laboriousness of entering text. I look forward to putting the N810's keyboard through its paces, but somehow I doubt it will prove as comfortable to use as the E70's thumb keyboard. The E70 is simply the best device I've ever owned for texting.

As ever when my laptop's down, I learn things. One thing I learned this time: wireless, mobile computing is getting pretty enjoyable all of a sudden. Like everyone else, I now want to try the Asus EEE. These are all devices we need to trial in school.

Meanwhile …

William Gibson (my bold):

One of the things I discovered while I was writing Pattern Recognition is that I now think that any contemporary novel today has a kind of Google novel aura around it, where somebody's going to google everything in the text. So people--and this happened to me with Pattern Recognition--would find my footprints so to speak: well, he got this from here, and this information is on this site.

(Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page, The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine — 1998, pdf: "Google is designed to provide higher quality search so as the Web continues to grow rapidly, information can be found easily. In order to accomplish this Google makes heavy use of hypertextual information consisting of link structure and link [anchor] text. Google also uses proximity and font information. … The analysis of link structure via PageRank allows Google to evaluate the quality of web pages. The use of link text as a description of what the link points to helps the search engine return relevant [and to some degree high quality] results. Finally, the use of proximity information helps increase relevance a great deal for many queries.")

II  Adam Greenfield:

… the book is an obsolete mediation between two different hypertext systems. For everything essential is found on the del.icio.us page of the researcher who writes it, and the reader who studies it assimilates it into his or her own blog.


Community Systems

Yesterday afternoon, I went to the OII to hear Ricardo Baeza-Yates, Director of Yahoo! Research Barcelona and Yahoo! Research Latin America in Santiago, Chile:

In this talk we explore the current impact of social media or social networks, commonly called Web 2.0, where content is generated by users in sites like Yahoo! Answers, Flickr, YouTube or Del.icio.us. This phenomenon puts forward new research challenges that involves not only computer science, but also economy and psychology, just to mention a couple of related fields. We call this emerging new science, community systems, and we mention some of the issues that we are studying, as well as further open problems.

The webcast will, as ever, appear here, but here are some figures, thoughts and ideas that stuck:

  • an estimated 5 billion people will be connected to the web by 2015
  • today, there are 1.8 billion mobile phones
  • 500 million people are expected to have mobile broadband connectivity by 2010
  • the volume of internet traffic has increased 20 times in the last 5 years
  • there are more than 110 million web servers

Yahoo:

  • handles >4 billion page views per day
  • processes 12 terabytes of data per day
  • handles 2 million mail+IM messages per day

Ricardo put up a slide of what I now think of as the Bradley Horowitz creators/synthesisers/consumers pyramid (see here), followed by another of the three groups arranged in concentric circles: the history of the web has been from 'public web' (first 10 years) to 'my web' to 'our web', and consuming has now become a form of content production.

And so to user-generated content. In leading early adopter South Korea, 43.2% of the population with internet access has published UGC and 76.2% has used UGC.  Examples of our web: Yahoo! Answers (the idea originated in South Korea), LAUNCHcast (Last.fm might have worked better with his audience yesterday, but the point was taken) and Flickr — in the case of the latter, fewer than 10 employees were "aided" by millions in the Flickr community. No surprise that several times Ricardo referred to James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds. (Pointers: espgame.org; peekaboom.org.)

Yahoo!'s vision: better search through people and our trillions of artifacts. Many questions and challenges (eg, How to deal with spam?, How to establish and factor in a user's reputation?, What role does the community of users play?, What are the incentive mechanisms?, Where else can we leverage the power of the people?), but the underlying drive is to put the wisdom of crowds to work, milking query actions (breakdown: 25% informational, 40% navigational and 35% transactional). (Pointer: Yahoo!'s Mindset research site.) Semi-gnomic conclusion: Yahoo! is not seeking to personalise the search query but to personalise the search task (= active information supply driven by user activity and context).

Worth watching the screencast when it's up. There's much more in Ricardo's talk than I've tried to catch here (search language, folksonomic tagging and the inter-relatedness of meanings that Yahoo! explores in search queries …), and I came away puzzled by a couple of things said or asked about blogs, but I liked the emphasis on the web as 'scientifically young'.


Getting it together

Christian Lindholm on the N95, Nokia's new N-series star:

The N95 is a major upgrade compared even to the N73 launch last summer.  For anyone who makes phones, the N95 must be a source of stress. The sheer level of complexity to engineer this device would make most engineers have sweat pearls in the forehead. This is the most sophisticated gizmo at 120g ever engineered. Congrats guys, my hat off. My very rough guess is that more than a thousand engineers worked directly full-time on the device around the world and across the ecosystem, most of them have worked very long hours. I am also sure that in the labs there are engineers and designers who already are bored stiff with it, busy making the successors, and like this they will blow your socks off when public. As an outsider I am constantly surprised by the seemingly acceleration of utility in some many domains. When I put the N95 next to my wife’s 6682, they seem to be from a different decade, and it is only two years ago. The N95 to me is yet again proof that we are living a mobile revolution that is about to transform society in a profound way. All that said would I recommend the N95 to friends and family the answer is yes.

And meanwhile, Google is sliding things together so they fit … more snugly:

Gmail started to show more links to Google Docs, Google Book Search displays maps for books that talk about many locations, while Personalized Homepage shows (buggy) feed snippets.

(Pity about the continuing hiccoughs.)

So good when technology works.

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Web and speed

I noticed the other day the two postings on TypePad Hacks about speeding up the rate at which your web page loads: TypePad Hacks: Keep Readers Happy With a Fast-Loading Blog, Part One and TypePad Hacks: Keep Readers Happy With a Fast-Loading Blog, Part Two. I'm not bothered by this as far as this weblog goes (I think it loads OK, though now I've mentioned it I'll probably find out that it loads incredibly slowly), and not being great as a practitioner of the dark arts of CSS coding, TypePad advanced templates, etc some of this passes me by, anyway. What did intrigue me, however, was this (from Part One):

If you have a two column blog with the sidebar on the left, consider changing your layout so that the sidebar is on the right. That way, your posts load first and your widgets can load at their leasure while visitors read your posts. If you have a three column blog, then try moving the slower widgets into the right-most column.

Now it's been mentioned, it's kind of obvious, I guess, that something must be telling the browser in which direction to read/load the blog, but it hadn't occurred to me before to think about this and I'm left wondering how universal the left/down-to-right directionality is — in weblog/webpage design generally, but also across cultures. (It's explained more fully in this quotation from A VC, cited by TypePad Hacks, about Fred Wilson's blog: 'The way things are coded in this blog layout, content is read [by the browser] first down, then to the right. This means, the browser needs to load all the widgets on the left, then your content, then the widgets on the right'.)

Then, today, I read this on Greg Linden's blog, Geeking with Greg:

Google VP Marissa Mayer just spoke at the Web 2.0 Conference and offered tidbits on what Google has learned about speed, the user experience, and user satisfaction. … Marissa ran an experiment where Google increased the number of search results to thirty. Traffic and revenue from Google searchers in the experimental group dropped by 20%. … The page with 10 results took .4 seconds to generate. The page with 30 results took .9 seconds. Half a second delay caused a 20% drop in traffic. Half a second delay killed user satisfaction.

This conclusion may be surprising -- people notice a half second delay? -- but we had a similar experience at Amazon.com. In A/B tests, we tried delaying the page in increments of 100 milliseconds and found that even very small delays would result in substantial and costly drops in revenue.

Back in January the BBC reported some research carried in Nature:

Internet users make up their minds about the quality of a website in the blink of an eye, a study shows. Researchers found that the brain makes decisions in just a 20th of a second of viewing a webpage. … The Canadian team showed volunteers glimpses of websites, lasting for only 50 milliseconds. The volunteers then had to rate the websites in terms of their aesthetic appeal. The researchers found that the speedily formed conclusions closely tallied with opinions of the websites that had been made after much longer periods of examination.

The researchers also believe that these quickly formed first impressions last because of what is known to psychologists as the "halo effect". If people believe a website looks good, then this positive quality will spread to other areas, such as the website's content. Since people like to be right, they will continue to use the website that made a good first impression, as this will further confirm that their initial decision was a good one.

As websites increasingly jostle for business, Dr Lindgaard added that companies should take note. "Unless the first impression is favourable, visitors will be out of your site before they even know that you might be offering more than your competitors," she warned.

The web — where sometimes almost every millisecond counts, it seems.


From the horse's mouth: Google's Global Counsel

Busy week last week, culminating with a trip to Brixton Academy on the Thursday to hear Pete Doherty and Babyshambles. There is musicianship and lyrical skill in there (I'm convinced of it! Some of my friends who are musicians are … less certain, shall we say), but this populist, narcissistic evening obscured most of that. (I found myself thinking how strangely reminiscent of Blair he is: needing to be loved, yet coming over so much of the time as considering himself … special.) We move on.

Friday afternoon and a quick trip to the where Andrew McLaughlin, Google's worldwide policy counsel, was speaking on :

Andrew McLaughlin is Head of Global Public Policy for Google Inc. Central policy issues for Google include privacy and data protection, censorship and content regulation, intellectual property (including copyright, patent, and trademark), communications and media policy, antitrust/competition, and the regulation of Internet networks and technologies. The leading countries for Google's government affairs activities include the US, Canada, Brazil, Japan, South Korea, China, India, Australia, Russia, Germany, France, the UK, Israel, Egypt, and Ireland. Andrew co-leads Google's Africa Strategy Group.

Now that was a well-spent hour+. Some notes: 

Google faces a number of challenges: 

  1. Censorship: repressive regimes are what one immediately thinks of here and of these China is the only one to which Google has made any accommodation. User-generated content is highly sensitive to the powers-that-be in Saudi Arabia, China, Iran … (So that's blogs, then.) Less obvious forms of censorship include interpretations of what "has to go" because of concerns about child protection and issues to do with cultural protection. Pay close attention to the EC Audio-Visual Services Directive (formerly, ) — an effort to create content control — and the Online Content Directive (I think I got this down right, but I can't find anything about it online). 
  2. Copyright: without Fair Use rights, Google would not exist. Copyright must be revised so as to seek a better balance between the rights of creators (to whose benefit copyright law is currently skewed) and the rights of users. Andrew showed three videos which, in different ways, re-mix copyright material: , and . (BSB was, he said, a huge phenomenon in China.) Currently, no meaningful Fair Use rights exist in Australia. 
  3. Discrimination by carriers: network neutrality; quality of service. 
  4. Security. For example, Google Earth maps the world and you can swoop in on … a Chinese nuclear facility. The UK's attitude is 'no security through obscurity', but China, Russia, India and others are not so happy. So far, Google hasn't blurred or blocked a single image at the request of a government. During the recent war in the Lebanon, there was no real time coverage of the action (within Google's technical ability to do) and served images are, on average and approximately, 18 months behind the present, except during national disasters when all the stops are pulled out and images are as current as possible. (This is all to avoid any unhelpful clash with governmental agencies and consequent, restrictive legislation.) Finally, out of concerns about privacy, image resolution will never go so low as to allow identification of individuals.

Google chooses not to geo-target users by ISP address and then use this to enforce a government's repressive/restrictive laws. So, users can go to to search for what Germany requires Google to block on Google Deutschland. (Yahoo! was forced to implement a ban in France on accessing , but this was in a specific case and established no generic principle.)

maintains a database of Cease and Desist orders.

Some positive things to celebrate or look forward to:

  1. : one day IM chat in two different languages will be possible. Saudi Arabia doesn't like the service (it was being used to translate English > English, generating an unblocked — new — URL in the process). 
  2. Cloud computing. 
  3. Ubiquitous connectivity: mobile telephony; spreading wireless access; increasing deployment of fiber connectivity. 
  4. Other specific initiatives: eg, , .

After the talk, I asked Andrew about Google Desktop and, specifically, : 'The latest version of Google Desktop provides a Search Across Computers feature. This feature will allow you to search your home computer from your work computer, for example'. (To access this option in Google Desktop Beta Preferences, right click on the Google Desktop icon in the system tray > Preferences > Google Account Features.) I wasn't surprised to hear that the take-up of this has been limited. Many of us seem to be happy-ish with our email residing on Google's servers, but putting our documents there seems to cross some kind of psychological barrier. I suspect that this will change over the next few years as we slide into using more tools that work both online and off, but users haven't taken to this just yet.

By the way, I note that : Microsoft and Google have joined forces with the British Library in calling on the government to radically overhaul the intellectual property (IP) law.


"The Google Generation"

The phrase Tony Blair used on Thursday in his conference speech is examined in today's Guardian:

"Google isn't actually something I associate with young people any more," says Andy Hobsbawm, the European chairman and co-founder of the digital marketing company Agency.com - and son of the decidedly non-digital Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm. "To me, it's part of the fabric of everyday living. It's too universal." By way of better signifying the youthful flash the PM was presumably after, Hobsbawm would recommend a quick dip into the discourse of marketing and advertising. "There are lots of different versions of the same concept," he explains. "It usually refers to the people for whom the internet and communications technology were in the world when they were born. A few years ago, somebody [Marc Prensky] wrote an article, Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, about the people for whom the world had always been that way, as against the ones who had to adapt to it. Everything else is just versions of that."

The broadest label, he explains, is Generation Y - those "born between 1977 and 2001, or thereabouts". Those who have focused specifically on the impact of technology have also talked about the Internet Generation ("probably born from the late 80s onwards"), and the IM - as in instant messaging - Generation. Then, in recent years, there has been much talk about the MySpace Generation, and even the Mypod Generation, "which is meant to be a combination of MySpace and iPod, but I think that's probably getting a bit silly".

Running through all these terms is a loose set of common assumptions: first, that this generation is globally attuned, propelling all kinds of cultural product, from Japanese cartoons to American indie rock bands, around the planet at extraordinary speed. How they might digest particular aspects of the media defies the old rules. In the US, for instance, there has been a great fuss about the fact that Jon Stewart's Daily Show is the most popular news outlet among those between 18 and 25. And their habits of interacting with the new media means that, often by word of mouth, small-scale internet operations can suddenly flower into huge concerns. Just as Napster heralded the decline of the compact disc, now YouTube makes traditional TV look positively stone age.

Most significantly, though, given the traits Tony Blair implicitly ascribes to the Google Generation, today's under-25s turn out not to conform to their caricature as consumerist slaves to all things "aspirational", but to be much more complicated. "Young people are still defined by what they consume - it's still important to have the right badges - but I'm not sure that's about any display of purchasing power," says Hobsbawm. "It's more about knowledge: being up with what's cool and interesting, defining yourself by what you do than rather what you buy."

And there's this, which certainly squares with how my sons and my younger friends are experiencing things, here in the UK and in Europe:

… the prime minister seemed to imply, they are the lucky pioneers of life on demand. But in stark contrast to all this, another version of the Google Generation represents today's young people as the victims of a historical curse. Earlier this year, there was a great buzz in the US about a book entitled Generation Debt, written by a 24-year-old Yale graduate named Anya Kamenetz, and cheerily subtitled "Why now is a terrible time to be young".

"I was born into a broke generation," she wrote. "I look around and I see people who have borrowed more to go to college than they can repay, who can't find a good job, can't save, can't make solid plans. Their credit card bills mount every month, while their lives stall on the first uphill slope. Born into a century of unimaginable prosperity in the richest country in the world, those of us between 18 and 35 have somehow been cheated out of our inheritance."

In Britain, the picture seems little different. "Debt is the ever-present conversation among my friends," says a university student I spoke to. "When we talk about the future, it's always, 'Will we ever be able to afford a house? Will we be able to get a decent pension?' It's kind of simultaneously normal and quite shocking. And even when it's kept in the background, it's there with just about all the people I know."

According to a view crystallised in the title of a recent report by the centre-right thinktank Reform, the Google Generation might easily be rebranded as the Ipod generation - "Insecure, pressured, over-taxed and debt-ridden". "You would think this generation have never had it so good, to quote another prime minister," says Andrew Haldenby, Reform's director. "The opportunities for international travel, education, very liberated social mores - it's a great time to be young, you would think. But then you start to look at people's circumstances and talk to young people themselves, and they expect to have a difficult career and be in a difficult economic position well into their 30s. They're probably going to have a low disposable income, difficulty getting on the housing ladder and high levels of debt."

By 2010, he estimates, the average graduate will be paying half their income in tax, loan repayments and newly high pension contributions. The future Haldenby foresees is of a glaring disjunction between the supposed opportunities of a hi-tech society and the lack of cash to actually pursue them.

John Harris goes on to look at the way this B-side of life in the Google Generation is reflected in contemporary pop songs. He concludes:

Those who are seeking to snare the attention of a supposedly digital generation should take note: among these people, the idea that new technology is worthy of comment is almost pathetically old-fashioned. Once you've implied that using the web is remarkable, you've probably lost them.

Trying to be politically hip with technology is just embarrassing, but this of course doesn't mean that we should settle for taking technology for granted. Good teachers spend a great deal of their time reminding themselves and their students that the world (and more) is remarkable —'worthy of comment'.

*

Talking of getting used to technology, I've just read Maciej Ceglowski's fine posting in his blog, Idle Words, about flying over the North Pole. It's a beautiful and characteristically amusing piece, finishing with this:

Passing over the North Pole hardly helps make the experience less dreamlike. Such flights were a novelty even into the 1950's; it's only within the last twenty years that routine passenger service over the Arctic have become technically possible, but already people are able to pull down the window shades and calmly watch the DaVinci Code or even just sleep through the whole spectacle. It makes me wonder if there is anything we can do to help our world recover its former vastness.

Back in 2004 I noted briefly how experiences of awe and wonder in relation to the net seem to have the power to excite and stir us, and that these experiences are in turn very important to a certain contemporary experience of interiority. That was a link to something Matt Jones wrote (reachable now via the Wayback Machine, here), linking to a John Naughton piece: 'Beautiful essay by Michael Benson in The Atlantic which brilliantly captures the sense of awe and wonder about the Net that first prompted me to write my book'. (A year ago I was couching this sense of awe-about-the-net in terms of 'net as labyrinthine library' — not so happy with that image now.)

More generally, imaginative, intelligent use of net-based and other technology in schools is helping us recover a sense of the world's still-remaining-vastness, and of our responsibilities therein, even as we continue to shrink distances and, to our great shame, make a Dusseldorf of everywhere. Out of so many examples I could take … yesterday evening I caught the first of the BBC's new 3-part series, Galapagos:

… the three fifty minute programmes explore the history, landscape and wildlife on the tiny cluster of islands, composed almost exclusively of volcanic rock, scattered in the South Pacific Ocean 600 miles west of mainland Ecuador. It was here that Darwin found the perfect conditions to formulate his evolutionary theory: far from the ravages of the continents, life evolved into a miniature world of specialised creatures who adapted to their harsh environment in a variety of ways. Blending photo-real 3D graphics with high-resolution satellite and aerial imagery, the programme reveals new perspectives on the Galapagos islands, with footage of its volcano summits, lava flows and impossibly blue sky and sea. Galapagos brings to viewers pictures of an incredible mix of polar and tropical species; from penguins and fur seals to flamingos and tropical fish, including evolutionary wonders such as Darwin's finches, land and marine iguanas, giant tortoises, waved albatrosses and sea turtles in some of their last habitats on earth.

BBC Post Production Bristol is providing a high definition tape-less post production solution to support Galapagos , to deliver high quality uncompressed HD programmes, whilst maintaining a smooth sustainable workflow. The ingest, storage, editing, effects, grading and archive system is based around a 9TB Sledgehammer HDIO NAS from Maximum Throughput and includes Lustre® and Smoke® from Autodesk Media and Entertainment. Identical to the post production solution BBC Post Production designed for the BBC's new landmark HD series Planet Earth , it ensures the highest quality of content is preserved and delivers an efficient and cost effective workflow. The programmes are being shot on the Panasonic Varicam, with Super 16mm used to capture particularly high speed moments, such as frigatebirds hunting on the wing. The main underwater work is being captured with Sony 750 and 900 cameras. Thermal cameras are being used to reveal the basking tactics of marine iguanas, whilst infra red cameras record petrels nesting at night and a digital stills kit condenses the passage of time with clouds, shadows, tides, stars and sun.

Series Producer, Patrick Morris says: "Never before has a series like this been made about the Galapagos Islands and, as natural history film makers, this compelling story goes right to the very heart of all that we do. The high definition pictures are beautiful and the post production solution provided by BBC Post Production Bristol will ensure that the highest quality is retained."

It could have been just "another nature programme", but it was really quite arresting: I don't watch much TV and this kept me watching — the strangeness of it all and some of the underlying science was engagingly visualised. I hope the next two episodes go into the science rather more, but it's encouraging to see what I assume is cutting-edge technology (not all of paragraph two makes sense to me, by any means!) being deployed to more than "Wow" ends.


Google and the Human (/Social/Cultural)

John Naughton's just posted on something I've been turning over in my mind, too — Google growing up?:

Robert Scoble has paid another visit to the Google campus. And he was impressed …  For example,

… every interaction I had with Googlers this time was different than the last time I was on campus. They seemed more humble. More comfortable. More inquisitive. … This is a different Google than I was used to. And it’s the small things that I noticed.

One other small thing I noticed? A lot more blog listening behavior. Carl Sjogreen, who runs the Google Calendar team, told me that the first thing he does every morning is do this search on Google’s Blogsearch service: “Google Calendar.” He says he answers everyone’s questions, even if you’re a kid in another country with only four readers.

If asked to identify quickly the Google/Yahoo! differences, one thing many of us would include would be the technology/human focus. danah (October, 2005): 

… today, Sergey Brin of Google appeared in my Search class as a surprise guest … He really rattled some feathers … with his response to the semantic web, tagging and librarianship. He took the techno-centric point of view that is so Google. Tagging inverts the relationship between man and machine. Tagging is only of interest and valuable if machines do it. … Will Google ever understand that culture has value?

Then this, from Tim O'Reilly, yesterday:

The launch of Google Image Labeler, a "game" that asks people to label images, and figures that images given the same label by multiple people are likely to be correct, continues the Web 2.0 trend towards bionic software, that is, software that combines machine and human intelligence. This is really just another version of the web 2.0 principle, harnessing collective intelligence, but with an emphasis on "harnessing" rather than on "collective." Like Distributed Proofreaders (the granddaddy in the space), Amazon's Mechanical Turk, and mycroft, but unlike, say, a Flickr tag cloud as a reflection of collective labeling of images, Google Image Labeler puts people explicitly to work.

And last month, there was Google Video apparently shifting in a more … human direction; towards the end of this post, I noted this.

Thomas wrote (back in May):

I really do not see the battle as being between Google and the others. The real battle is between Yahoo and Microsoft. Why? Both focus on the person and that person's use and need for information in their life and with their context. Information needs to be aggregated (My Yahoo is a great start, but it goes deeper and broader) and filtered based on interest and need. We are living in a flood of information that has crossed into information pollution territory. We need to remove the wretched stench of information to get back the sweet smell of information. We need to pull together our own creations across all of the places we create content. We need to attract information from others whom have similar interests, frameworks, and values (intellectual, social, political, technological, etc.). The only foundation piece Yahoo is missing is deep storage for each person's own information, files, and media.

In Thomas' words, there needs to be 'a proper focus on what those of us who look at regular people and their needs from information and media in their lives have been seeing. Yahoo gets it and is sitting on a gold mine'. … Whereas Google 'need a person-centered approach to their products. … Google has some excellent designers who are focussed on usable design for the people, but it seems that the technology is still king. That needs to change for Google to stay in the game.'

Hmm … 'puts people explicitly to work' (Tim O'Reilly) is interesting. It should surely be happening in a more "natural" way than that (ie, by careful design, informed by a thoroughly inward understanding of what makes our social species tick).

I remain to be convinced that Google has got it, but I'm getting to the point where I might be less surprised when they do.

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Some thoughts on mobile viewing

Ben posts about some developments on this front:

Om Malik and Michael Arrington are pondering Dave Winer’s move towards mobile-enabling the blogosphere. Specifically, his product OPML Editor will allow users to view content they’ve subscribed to on their mobile phone. This is definitely a useful feature; I certainly spend a fair amount of time viewing my Gmail on my phone (in lieu of a Blackberry or similar device), and the ability to subscribe to content and take it with you is brilliant. Similarly, Winer’s Yomoblog.com service for posting to weblogs by phone looks like it could be great.

Take a look at Dave's portable river ('published by my desktop computer, every night at 1am' — OPML Editor support page).

As Om Malik says, 'there are a lot of tools out there' that enable (or attempt to enable) our mobile lives. On a list of things I've played with and found useful, I'd include Litefeeds and Delicious Mona. On the blogging front, TypePad has just announced TypePad Mobile for posting to your TypePad blog from a mobile device (though there's this route, too). And Gmail on the phone (link) is something I also use a lot.

Ben goes on to recommend Opera Mini, 'an excellent browser that goes through Opera’s proxy server which automatically provides content-squeezing functionality'. I agree: it's very good.

Google has its own functionality for mobile search and reading websites, of course, which currently comes, *I think*, in these forms:

  • Google Mobile Web Search (access your phone's mobile web browser, type http://www.google.com in the URL field, type your search query and select Mobile Web); for UK users, www.google.co.uk is another option.   
  • www.google.com/wml (see here: 'offers Web Search and Mobile search. Mobile search restricts your search to the mobile index which contains sites that are specifically written to fit your mobile screen').   
  • Google's own mobile proxy (where you enter any URL and get a stripped-down version of the page — with the option of having images or not).

I can't speak for the following, not having made much use of them yet, but here they are:

  • Google personalised homepage for your mobile: set it up on your PC — US link here, UK here.   
  • Google Local XHTML — US here, UK here.

And there's the Gmail-for-mobiles that I mentioned above.

Google seems to advertise (ha) its specifically mobile services very little and I may have missed some obvious ones or have got some of the above wrong (it's a bit of a rabbit warren to investigate). Please add/amend accordingly.

Concerning mobile access of websites, I take to heart Chris Heathcote's view that 'well-written sites win' (link — ppt: slide 27). We don't need separate mobile sites and, although I use the Opera and Google proxy services, I wish sites didn't "have" to be re-purposed.  As The Man said, web pages ought to be designed to be read across platforms, across browsers and across devices: 

The Web is designed as a universal space. … The Web must operate independently of the hardware, software or network used to access it, of the perceived quality or appropriateness of the information on it, and of the culture, and language, and physical capabilities of those who access it. Hardware and network independence in particular have been crucial to the growth of the Web. In the past, network independence has been assured largely by the Internet architecture. The Internet connects all devices without regard to the type or size or band of device, nor with regard to the wireless or wired or optical infrastructure used. This is its great strength. … For a time, many Web site designers did not see the necessity for such device independence, and indicated that their site was "best viewed using screen set to 800x600". Those Web sites now look terrible on a phone or, for that matter, on a much larger screen. By contrast, many Web sites which use style sheets appropriately can look very good on a very wide range of screen sizes. Tim Berners-Lee

That's from a document Sir Tim wrote about the .mobi TLD proposal. He concluded: 'Dividing the Web into information destined for different devices, or different classes of user, or different classes of information, breaks the Web in a fundamental way'. The road ahead in teaching, with staff and pupils using their own mobile devices and their own desktops/docking stations, depends upon the web keeping this integrity:

The Web works by reference. As an information space, it is defined by the relationship between a URI and what one gets on using that URI. The URI is passed around, written, spoken, buried in links, bookmarked, traded while Instant Messaging and through email. People look up URIs in all sorts of conditions. It is fundamentally useful to be able to quote the URI for some information and then look up that URI in an entirely different context. ibid.

It's quite clear that teachers will need to be on top of the developing options for mobile viewing (and understand the arguments about web integrity). Is there a site (wiki) which collates and maintains links like these, preferably along with comments and reviews about user experience? If not, we ought to get together and create one.

*****

Update (31 August). For the sake of something like Google-completeness, I should perhaps add here:

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New from Google Scholar

Google Blog:

John Nash's papers that helped define the area of game theory don't refer to the area as game theory. … Now there's an additional way to find related work in Google Scholar, which should be helpful in such situations. For every Google Scholar search result, we try to automatically determine which articles in our repository are most closely related to it. You can see a list of these articles by clicking the "Related Articles" link that appears next to each result. The list of related articles is ranked primarily by how similar these articles are to the original result, but also takes into account the relevance of each paper. To go back to the game theory example, clicking on the Related Articles link for the first result for game theory enables users to discover several of Nash's seminal articles.

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Mobile isn't desktop

At Reboot, it was a pleasure to meet Timo Arnall. We had a short 'I've been reading your blog' conversation: like Marko Ahtisaari's blog, Timo's blog and del.icio.us links are important in shaping and stimulating my views about mobile devices, their design and implementation.

Via Timo (del.icio.us), this from Marek Pawlowski posting at MEX - the strategy forum for mobile user experience, discussing m-spatial's report for the last quarter ('The Mobile Local Search Index is a new quarterly report from m-spatial that tracks consumer usage of mobile local search services in the UK, highlighting the diverse and often quirky demands of mobile users. The Index is based on detailed local information searches being conducted on everything from demolition services and local battlefields to flying schools and political parties'):

On a macro-scale, mobile devices are becoming increasingly influential on their surroundings - whether it is a teenager walking down the street playing music from the speaker on their phone (has anyone else noticed how many people are doing this?) or a user scanning a screen-based barcode to gain access to a turnstyle (recently trialled by O2 at Twickenham Rugby stadium) - handsets are becoming remote controls for the real world.

… users are even more ‘mission-based’ in the mobile environment than I first suspected. They are using their handsets to accomplish very specific objectives - in this case, finding a particular brand with which they have an existing affinity. This is in contrast to the more generalised ’search, explore and browse’ model employed in the desktop environment.

… mobile services should be designed to help users achieve the objective they’ve already specified rather than lead them off at a tangent. This is the key difference between mobile and other mediums : advertising on the desktop, TV and radio is based around distracting and generating interest among users; mobile services should be invisible channels which help the user accomplish their mission.

The title of Marek Pawlowski's posting? 'Mobile users don’t search, they locate'.

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