Google novelties and the social web

I read earlier today (Google Talkabout) that if you set your GMail settings to 'US English' then GTalk would update to offer file transfer and voicemail — and also offer to show what music you're currently listening to. And it has, and it does:

I've tested the Voicemail facility, by the way, and it works beautifully: very simple to use (both to record/send and to receive/open) and it produces a very clear recording. (The 'Meep' is something we'll surely grow tired of very quickly, but it did remind me of the guy whose answer machine ran, 'Leave a message after the sheep'. So many people never stopped laughing after the 'Baa' that he had to change his greeting in order to get any messages.)

Changing the language settings also altered the top left of my screen in GMail:

Is this also new, or "just" something that's been there for a while for US users?

Picasaweb is beginning to attract some interest (and the purchase of Neven Vision adds spice). firsttube concluded a comparative review of Flickr and Picasaweb:

In the end, flickr and Picasaweb provide different things and a comparison isn't as apropos as you'd think. Picasa integrates with your current tools (Picasa on Win and Linux, iPhoto on Mac) and creates a simple interface to share and organize your photos. Flickr's strength comes from its thriving Web 2.0 community and collaboration and search. If you are seeking a place to store your online photos, either service will likely serve you perfectly well.

Ultimately, I have chosen Picasa because Flickr's interface is just too clunky for quickly accessing specific photos when you have a large number of photos in your photostream. However, I still use flickr, and fairly avidly, because the communities are great and the number of photos is simply astounding. It comes down to the fact that Picasaweb is a personal experience and flickr is a group one, and what I'm looking for for my photos is a simple way to show them to my family.

For me, the me/group distinction is telling. Richard MacManus posted yesterday, : 'A lot of people think the social aspect of this era of the Web is its defining characteristic. And judging by all the news above, it's hard to argue against that! It's fantastic too that Apple is getting into the spirit of things, while Microsoft and Yahoo continue to set the pace for the big companies. Social networking and Google are uneasy bedfellows, but hopefully even they will get into the act soon.'

So I was particularly interested in Google Video shifting in a more social direction, as Ben also noted:

Techcrunch has screenshots of the new Google Video interface. Google Video, of course, is Google’s Youtube competitor - which is faring badly in comparison. At first glance, aside from a page reformat, there are two features, either new or made significantly more prominent - comments, and “more from this user” - that Youtube has always had. In short, in order to compete, Google has added people into the mix.

Suddenly the dynamic changes. It’s not just a bucket where you throw video and hope someone will see it; people can now share videos with each other within the interface, and if you like one submission from a user, you can see everything else they’ve contributed. Rather than just the technology, it becomes a more social ecosystem, allowing users to filter content through other people they might be interested or have something in common with.

It will, indeed, be interesting to see how Google develops in the more human era of the social web.

Update: Google Talkabout has an excellent posting about the new features ('The new Google Talk features … have completed testing and are now available to everyone' — everyone? Other language users? US English users only?) written by one of their software engineers, here.

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Skype 2.6

Skype Preview 2.6 is out, but be warned:

You can see that it’s called a “preview”, which means it’s not even a beta yet. You won’t find it on any skype.com pages — it’s limited to the Developer Zone and the forum at this time. We only want those people who are comfortable with (possibly unstable) preview versions to download and use it — and report anything you find back to us.

The main change in this version, and the main reason for calling it a preview, is that we made some pretty significant changes in the audio handling part of Skype, which may make it unstable. So at this time the main goal of this preview is to test all the audio stuff. There are some other new or changed things that are also visible, but we’re focusing on the audio part for the time being. share.skype.com

More on the Preview here. I think it breaks new ground in offering a Skypecast tab:


And, a Skype extension for Firefox that 'turns phone numbers on websites into buttons which you can click to call from Skype':


I may not have spotted these, or versions of these, in earlier iterations of Skype, but I suspect they're new to 2.6.

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Last Thursday evening I was at the Saïd Business School to hear Saul Klein (blog), Vice-President of Marketing at Skype. An eye-opening talk.

When eBay bought Skype for $2.6bn last September, with an additional $1.5bn dependent upon performance targets, the deal surprised commentators:

… the high price for the transaction and the young nature of Skype's business prompted scepticism among some telecommunications industry executives and analysts, who questioned Ebay's ability to generate significant revenues from its new acquisition. FT

Since then the Skype user base has doubled in size. The company is young, only 2½ years old (launched in August, 2003), yet as of April this year it has more than 100 million users and a 67% CQGR: every 5 days, 1 million people join Skype. It has websites in 23 languages and accepts payment in 15 currencies. A year ago it employed just 100 people; today, 300.

From its inception, Skype has been intended to be a simple product — easy to use. A new user can be up and running within 2 to 3 minutes of downloading it. The software is under rapid development (changelog for Windows here; the latest beta version is 2.5). Currently, Skype allows up to 100 users to talk in a Skypecast and up to 5 people to conference call for free. (If you use an Intel Dual Core Processor machine then you can host 10 people conference calls for free.) Group chats can accommodate up to 50 contacts.

To understand more about the new Skypecast initiative, you can begin here. There's some background here:

Skypecasts enable people to discuss shared interests — anything from classic cars and cooking, to home design and computer support. Skypecasts are moderated by the ‘host’ who is able to mute, eject or pass the virtual microphone to participants when they wish to speak. Hosting or participating in a Skypecast is completely free.

There's more food for thought on Skype Journal. TypePad users are well set up:

Yesterday Skype launched their Skypecasts Directory, as well as a Widget that lets TypePad users promote upcoming Skypecasts (either their own or Skypecasts they're interested in) on their blog.

Ready to start talking with your readers?  Hosting a Skypecast is easy...

  1. Schedule your Skypecast. Got a topic for discussion? Got a time? Visit skypecasts.skype.com and schedule your Skypecast. It will be listed for anyone to discover and join.
  2. Promote it on your blog. Once you’re listed in the Skypecasts directory, promote your Skypecast on your blog. Link to your listing directly in your post, or use the Skypecast Widget for TypePad.
  3. Host your discussion. Connect using your Skype client to share your passion with your audience and have a bit of fun.

My school has just gone wireless in its boarding houses and some rapid work by two of my pupils has established that Google Talk and Skype work (both within the school's system and across the firewall). Very shortly, I'll be exploring the use of Skype conference calls with pupils.

Skype's program of development is both rapid and tightly focused around a well-defined product, with close attention paid to user-feedback (forums from day 1). Reviewing some of what Skype already offers (in addition to group chats, conference calls and Skypecasts) can't but impress: SkypeOut, SkypeIn, voicemail, Video (1 in 5 Skype users now video call), IM, SMS, data transfer/sharing (last month I noted Matt Webb's piece about Skype and there's no doubt we'll be making use of Skype for moving files around), cross-platform interoperability, integration with other apps, Skype Me, presence …  The appearance on the market of Skype-enabled mobiles is gathering pace. Also developing swiftly is Skype's engagement in eCommerce (Skype embedded in eBay auctions is already running as a trial in China — 25% of sellers use it) and the company expects its role in this market to be big.

Skype has so much going for it and the blogosphere is closely attentive. No wonder it was the third most recognised brand in 2005, and Saul used Blogpulse to demonstrate that, for the most part, Skype tracks above VoIP:


Skype is offering some powerful tools that will make a great impact on the way we work in education. I'm grateful to Saul for putting me in touch with their developer relations program team, and I hope we can begin to work with Skype both on the kinds of functionality that Skype already has (and we don't know about) and on new implementations that will be of value to schools.

And I want to put Skype in control of my home, too!

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Nokia's SmartPhone revolution

The Nokia N70 is a fine, fine phone. (I was fortunate to be sent one as part of Nokia's 360 SmartPhone Study.)  Jason Fried sang its praises last month: 'overall the N70 is the best phone I’ve ever used'. Marc Eisenstadt produced a very informative posting of his experiences with one (a 'Swiss-Army Phone') which is also a vade mecum for all phone buyers:

… there are some specific factors you need to consider when purchasing a ‘modern multi-purpose mobile (smart)phone’, and which don’t get mentioned in many reviews … :

1. Grab without thinking: If you have to think twice about whether to carry a gadget with you on Errand X or Trip Y or Meeting Z, then it’s too big. The N70 is an absolute winner on this front …

2. Thumb-centric vs pen-centric operation: if you’re making the jump to a smartphone (i.e. phone with PDA functionality), one key attribute you should consider is whether you prefer to enter short items with your thumb or with a pen …

3. Satisficing beats moving goalposts: when Nobel-prize winner Herb Simon invented ’satisficing’ in 1957, he meant (among other things) that people had a great gift for trimming a search space opting for solutions that were less-than-optimal but ‘just good enough’. Since Moore’s Law means there will always be a better gadget around the corner, and indeed the special-purpose gadgets (MP3 player, camera, etc) will get better even faster than an all-purpose Swiss Army Gadget, you just need to decide on your threshold of ‘just good enough’ acceptability for the features you want, and go for it.

… the N70 is a good all-rounder. The era of ‘jaw-dropping surprises’ is over: the fact that the N70 can do so much of what it does, and so well, ought to amaze us, but our expectations keep growing and we are increasingly hard to impress. … what are my biggest gripes?  Just two:

1. If you are a text-messaging fanatic, you will be unhappy with the N70: the keys are too small, and, most importantly, the ‘Clear/delete backwards key’ is in the wrong place, certainly for right-handed users. For me, this is an acceptable tradeoff given the good screen size and compact size of the phone (all things considered).

2. Scrolling through news/articles/messages/emails of more than, say, 30 lines in length is annoying because there is a ‘discontinuity jump’ as each new segment is rendered, which makes it hard for your brain to ‘do the right thing’, the way it can when scrolling even longish articles on most PDAs. …

So, there you have it.  Now to deploy my new productivity tool (by ignoring it). … Don’t get me wrong, this is one gorgeous phone! By ‘ignoring it’ … I mean ‘letting it blend unobtrusively into my activities, without fuss’.

I agree with Marc on his plus point 1 (but see below) and gripe number 1. As for one-handed (thumb-centric), my experience is that using a SmartPhone when busy makes one-handedness desirable. I'm not yet satisficed (?) with the camera: at 2 megapixel it's much better than what I've had before, but I still long for the day when I can leave my digital camera at home and just take my phone. And I have another gripe about the keypad: the menu/option keys are too close to the green and red (left and right) phone keys and also don't feel sufficiently different to the touch. I've mis-hit these a number of times now.

The N70 does seem to be a huge step on from the 6630 in the clarity of its software. (I haven't tried to work out why, but it immediately felt more intuitive and less like being parachuted into a jungle.) Its ease of navigation and use has encouraged me to run things on it such as LiteFeeds (RSS for mobile devices). I'm pleased with LiteFeeds, particularly as feed-reading on a mobile has been problematic until recently. (FeedBurner Mobile Feed 2.0 is not yet available, but I'd like to try it when it's out.)  Mobile Gmail works well. Audio-only podcasting is a no-no, but video can be done: see here (and there's a pdf guide here).

If I hadn't got the N70, I'd have been looking at the N90 (which Ross has blogged about here) — a far bulkier but very interesting transformer phone. My recent phones (SE P900, Nokia 6630) have been on the heavy side, and the N70's lightness is a delight. (If Christian Lindholm's right, mobile phones will soon be wearable, and the PDA will be a separate item again. And check out Nokia's 770 as reviewed by Russell Beattie and his challenge to Silicon Valley.) However, Ewan Spence's All About Symbian review of the N90 concludes:

To sum up, the N90 is Nokia’s first true cameraphone to focus on the camera, and it’s all the better for it. Yes, the unit has a number of quirks in the design, but the software, the operation and general polish of Series 60 continues, and makes the N90 the high-end phone of the moment in both Nokia’s N range and in terms of smartphones in general. It might be marketed with the camera as its killer feature, but with Series 60 it covers all the bases, and covers them well. Right now, there’s no solid reason to not look very, very seriously at the N90.

But back to light-and-thin: on the near horizon, the slide form factor N80 looks very interesting indeed. All About Symbian had a preview of an early version of this phone:

… in slide closed mode, the phone at 95.4 x 50 x 23.4 mm is essentially the smallest Nokia S60 phone yet. As a slider it is a few mm thicker than a monoblock such as the 6680, but this is hardly noticeable. It is bigger and heavier (134g) that the other modern S60 Slider, the Samsung D720, but that is a reflection of the extra functionality found in the N80. …

High resolution screen support makes a real difference – physically the screen has not changed in size, but the increased density of the pixels results in a much crisper display. … The new S60 browser, based on Safari's WebCore and JavascriptCore components, is also found on the N80. The 'minimap' feature allows you to see a full page at a glance and navigate around it, while other new features include 'visual history' and support for RSS feeds. … In use, the browser is much faster than Nokia's previous efforts (and) will start to change the way people think about browsing the web on a mobile device. Previously, sites aimed at PCs were only accessible using SSR (small screen rendering) technologies and this had usability problems since it was always limited by the intelligence of the re-rendering algorithms. Higher resolution screens, together with minimap, mean that it is possible to quite comfortably view any web site on the phone.

A 3 megapixel camera, Flash Lite, improved Java support, Nokia XpressMusic, UPnP and Wi-Fi (to name just a few of its features — possibly Skype connectivity, too!) add up to a very powerful mobile device:

With features such as UPnP (play music on any device anywhere wirelessly), Bluetooth 2.0 (wireless stereo headsets), 3G and Wi-Fi Connectivity (music download/purchase over the air) the N80 is the most feature rich and powerful digital media playback device on the market. Imagine the reaction that wireless headphones, wireless music sharing and playback around the home and over the air song download and purchase would get if they were features announced in a new iPod and you can start to grasp the significance of the feature set of the N80.

The smartphone is often touted as the ultimate convergence device, and the N80 is just one more step along that road. Nokia made it clear they see the N80 at the heart of the digital home with UPnP, with its auto-discovery and remote control properties as the enabling standard. But it is also clear that this is just the first stage and we can expect to see increasing integration with other devices around the home in the future, which will be achieved through the Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) 1.5 guidelines (which aims to enhance interoperability and user experience). All About Symbian

I blog all this because I am personally interested in what these slender, hand-held devices can deliver but I also believe that they will alter fundamentally the way schools and students operate. Moreover, although they are as yet so much the playthings of the richer countries these new generation phones have the potential to make the world more equitably connected — and for education that is also very exciting.

Or, if you prefer, as AAS concldues: all this is 'a story of four years of development in which the smartphone has moved from the initial concept smartphone to a series of feature-rich and powerful multimedia computers which will sell 100 million units in 2006. For the consumer electronics industry, it is an unprecedented story of product-line creation, growth and success and one that is largely unnoticed by mainstream technology pundits'.

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Rupert Murdoch: the end of an era

Emily Bell in today's Media Guardian (free registration required):

… what we once took from Murdoch, as an industry and as media journalists, was his ability to provide a shockingly radical lead: he was the disruptive technology which now is itself being disrupted. … the next wave of thinking will inevitably come from elsewhere. … these next thinkers will be unpopular already - their ideas may well have been laughed at or rejected within successful organisations. They may be social misfits who are not comfortable in organisations and societies which regard their thinking as unworkable and eccentric. In other words they will be classic entrepreneurs who can remake businesses far quicker than a Microsoft or a News Corp can.

Who are these people? Larry Page and Sergey Brin at Google now have a more profound daily impact on how the world communicates and what it consumes than either Murdoch or Gates. Their search engine software is forcing the mainstream media to rethink what they do with their content and threatens revenue streams we once regarded as untouchable. Craig Newmark, founder of Craig's List, who was in Britain last Monday to talk at an Oxford seminar, received far fewer column inches than Murdoch; yet his scruffy startup, offering free classified listings, has brought the local newspaper market in North America to its knees and threatens to do the same - or at least inspire the same - here. Meanwhile Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis, who were behind the powerful Kazaa file-sharing site, are now threatening the world's big telecoms companies with Skype, the internet telephony service bought by eBay.

The rise of this new generation of accidental entrepreneurs has been breathtaking in its speed, and the world they created through programming code is astonishing. Where will these developments lead us? Hard to say, but it is certain that the fog of the future will lift on a changed landscape, and in many ways it is sad but exciting that the old certainties - such as the value of Murdoch's instincts to the wider industry - have become outdated.

Overturning the tables: Google and VoIP

John Naughton in today's Observer:

VoIP has all the characteristics of a profoundly disruptive technology - that is to say, one which threatens to undermine the business models of huge companies. And because its potential victims are telcos which have invested billions in specialised networks and infrastructure for carrying revenue-bearing voice and data communications, it potentially makes Napster look like a tea party. …

Nobody I know in the industry doubts that, in the long run, almost all telephony will be done via the net, simply because it's the obvious way to do it. The $64 billion questions are: how do we get there from the Skype/Gizmo chaos of today, and how long will it take? By throwing its hat into the VoIP ring, Google has signalled that a really big player has arrived on the scene - and that could indeed be significant in the long run. …

Since its inception, Google has stuck to three basic principles. The first was to build and maintain the most powerful computing cluster ever seen. The second was to employ smart engineers and marketers to figure out revenue-bearing services that could be provided with such a system. The world knows Google for search, but that merely happened to be the first application that came along. The third (and perhaps the most important) article of Google faith is that the internet will in the end become the world's operating system - the hub of everything (including telephony), with the web browser the dominant user interface.

Google Talk


Inside Google's overview, here; Download Squad review, here ('Another big feature they're working on is "joint search," which would allow two or more Google Talk buddies using Google and surfing the web together'). John Battelle: 'Apparently all you need is a Jabber-compatible IM client (like iChat) and a gmail account. Now folks, tell me this is not a major community play. Just tell me'. Smash's World explains how to set it up for use with iChat, GAIM, and Trillian.

Phones, communications and the future

Joi Ito comments on PhoneGnome, the brainchild of David Beckemeyer:

The PhoneGnome is a box that you connect to your phone line and your Internet connection and attach a phone to. The magic happens when PhoneGnome figures out your phone number and auto-configures everything so that, in the future, all calls to other PhoneGnome users go over the Internet instead of the phone line. "Auto-configure" is a non-trivial thing and is the difficulty standing between normal users and SIP/Asterisk goodness and freedom. Under the hood, PhoneGnome is open standards based and is extendable in various ways, but David has kept it EXTREMELY simple so that anyone can use it and doesn't require you to have your computer turned on. You just pick up your phone and call like you normally would.

So, Skype or PhoneGnome? PhoneGnome asserts:

It will be interesting to see how this one plays out. (I read earlier this week of the supernode problems being reported with Skype.)


In an excellent posting, Paul Golding explores the future of mobile communications:

Mobile telephony is nothing new. We already had telephones before mobiles and the transition is a very obvious step and mostly a matter of economics (i.e. making it cheap enough to do). However, everything else we are likely to do with mobiles in the future will be new. We tend to think of a progression or evolution from voice-based devices to "data" devices. However, there isn't necessarily a continuum. The future is about mobile computing, which is quite a different paradigm from mobile phoning.

His short essay is very clear and sets out a compelling vision of what could now happen in mobile communications. He explains what Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) is, how it's an alternative to GSM ('GSM only allows "dial to talk", which is why we need SIP') made possible because of IMS, and what he believes its role will be in the future of mobile communications. His remarks are among the best I've read recently on the future of mobile communication and cannot be summarised easily:
… if the core of the mobile network is converted to SIP, instead of GSM (CDMA etc), then overnight the network can handle calls between any SIP-compatible devices, no matter how they implement the IP connection: over Cable, ADSL, WiFi, GPRS, Bluetooth, 3G etc. You can think of SIP like a Hotmail account. You can log-on from anywhere and then get your email. With SIP, you can log-on ("register") from anywhere and get your phone calls, voicemail etc.

… the essential nature of mobile technology is connecting people. This Person-to-Person (P2P) nature will be a dominant feature of mobile computing. We need to grasp what P2P "connecting" is all about. Today, we talk to each other. But, tomorrow, we shall:

Click to play, to share, to view, to update, to invite, to compare, to tag, to consult, to message, to conference … Click to connect!

… the crucial component is the user interface. Language escapes us at this point, because there is no word to describe the forthcoming SIP-based user experience. However, the missing ingredient is something called Presence. … SIP allows all the underlying connections and signalling to take place, including transfer of presence-state information. Presence, by which I really mean "buddy-centric" communication (people or object), is an essential component of mobile computing, as it really provides the "Universal client" (and metaphor) through which we shall interact with the digital world.

Mobilisation is the name of the process of folding more and more of our daily tasks into the mobile computing realm. This is a two-way process. Technology improves and produces enablers. Circumstances change, economically, socially, psychologically, that lead us to discover how the enablers might be useful to manage aspects of our changing world.

The buddy-driven presence paradigm will play a significant role in the mobilisation process, if only because it provides us with a model of the world ("world view") that we can work with through our mobile computers. Connecting with "buddies" seems a very natural paradigm. IMS allows operators to build an infrastructure that will support this paradigm.