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  1. Beating Google

    July 31st, 2008 - Category: Google, Usability, Web 2.0 | Comments Off on Beating Google

    Beating Google on search is hard. The latest entrant is Cuil, which recently launched amid much fanfare. Predictably, they’ve been lambasted by the techno blogs. Google is so good that you get a sense of whether a competitor has a chance within about 20 seconds. Cuil doesn’t smell like a winner.

    But but but. Whereas most Google clones copy Google’s interface pixel-by-pixel, Cuil’s interface is better, in some respects. For one thing, they cram more search results into the page, without making it look crowded. The category widgets work quite well, too: pretty yet functional. And it is surely a useful innovation to keep the links to the other results pages visible at the bottom of the window. My guess is that Google would be doing some of these things if they weren’t scared to death about messing up their famously simple and usable interface.

    Admittedly, Cuil’s results are a little strange. When I Google, er.. Cuil myself, the picture above is one of the first results. Thanks! 🙂

  2. Email is dead

    June 2nd, 2008 - Category: Google | Comments Off on Email is dead

    Well, not quite. But as this post at ReadWriteWeb points out, real-time is very much in the ascendant on the web. The latest evidence is Google’s launch of real-time stock quotes (also here).

    The mind boggles at all the productivity lost through inefficient use of email. The long emails that everyone hates to read. The never-arriving replies. The carefully worded requests for detailed information that are answered with “Yes that looks fine” in the subject line.

    As everyone gets more comfortable with instant messaging, its usage in the business world will explode, as it has with consumers. Already most tech-savvy companies are using them for internal communication. The next step will be to use them to talk to customers and vendors. The customer of the future won’t be willing to accept the typical email response you get from companies today: “Thank you for emailing us. We will try to answer your query within 48 hours”. Really? But you pick up the phone when a customer calls, right?

    One interesting consequence of the impending real-time revolution is that time zones will be back in fashion. They weren’t actually out of fashion, but email made them less important. Now, if you want to be available to your customers when they want to talk to you, you’ll need to think about when they’re awake. For a European company with a customer base in the US, that can mean unorthodox working hours.

    (Our own small contribution to the real-time revolution, LiveLeader, is a free, AJAX-driven embedded live chat product).

  3. Bye Bye Windows?

    April 11th, 2008 - Category: Cloud Computing, Google | Comments Off on Bye Bye Windows?

    Microsoft Windows is still amazingly ubiquitous. To a good approximation, everyone uses Windows. The actual figure is above 95%, measured by people’s browsers. (Compare this to opinion polls: nothing ever gets 100 % support. There’s always the 3 % who don’t agree to anything.)

    It may therefore come as a surprise that two Gartner analysts are quoted as saying that Windows is ‘collapsing’ (also here). The Windows software platform is too bloated and inflexible to be competitive, they say, not least because of backward compatibility. The Windows codebase is Microsoft’s Iraq – a quagmire.

    To those woes can be added Microsoft’s relative absence in the web space. I, for one, don’t use any of Microsoft’s web services. Not because of any ideological opposition, but because they’re not competitive. I try Live Search from time to time, to see how it stacks up against Google. It doesn’t. HotMail versus Gmail – puh-lease. I even signed up – in good faith – for Office Live when that came out. Nice try.

    That’s why Microsoft really needs Yahoo. People live their lives inside their browsers these days. True, the web does not yet solve all the problems that desktop apps do. I don’t know how many people do their video editing online, for instance. And Microsoft maintains its stranglehold with Office. But check out some of the features that are coming out on Google Docs: offline access, email notifications, gadget integration, and form support. The latter lets you publish web forms that submit directly into spreadsheets. Pretty cool. So Google is not only copying Office, they’re adding innovative, web-enabled features. Stiff competition on the horizon, in other words.

    But don’t underestimate market inertia. It’s going to take time to eat into Microsoft’s market share. With 95% market dominance, rumours of Windows’s imminent death are clearly somewhat exaggerated. I have a feeling we’ll be having much the same discussion in 10 years time.

  4. Spying with Google Analytics

    April 6th, 2008 - Category: Google | Comments Off on Spying with Google Analytics

    Google Analytics is a free web site statistics package, and a pretty indispensable tool for the webmaster of today. By injecting a small tracking script into your site’s HTML code, you can monitor your web site’s visitors in many interesting ways.

    A slightly overlooked feature is the ability to trigger “page views” via JavaScript. This is very powerful, because it means you can monitor all kinds of behaviour, not just which pages the user visits. Let’s say, for instance, that you have three different buttons leading to the same page, and you want to measure which one is most effective in luring visitors. By calling a JavaScript function when the user clicks on one of the buttons, you can tell Google Analytics that the user visited the “/buttons/yellow” page. This does not of course correspond to an actual page, but it shows up in your reports as if it were. Thus you can easily see which button performs best.

    Other things you can count and report on with this nifty feature include:

    • form submissions
    • which outbound links are clicked on
    • file downloads like PDFs, which do not show up in reports otherwise
    • user behaviour on shopping cart pages

    Check out this article explaining how to add the requisite code.

  5. Saving considered harmful

    April 2nd, 2008 - Category: Google, Usability | Comments Off on Saving considered harmful

    “Do you want to save your changes?” How many times a day does your computer ask you that question? Most programs do when you close them. When you ask Windows XP to shut down, the process takes a good minute extra because of all the programs that bug you about this. And it’s all utterly pointless.

    Back in the day when storage had a non-trivial cost, both in terms of the space and the time expended to store files, the question made sense. And it might still make sense in some cases. But for the majority of cases, there is a better option. That option is versioning. With versioning, every change is always saved, and the user moves easily between versions.

    Some companies have seen the light long ago. When I started using IntelliJ a few years ago, I was initially baffled at the lack of a Save button. Then I discovered that it was all done in the background, and that version management meant I never had to worry about saving again. Similarly, most of Google‘s products (such as Gmail) take care of saving for you. To an extent, this is because they’re on the web, and Google wants to make sure that you never lose data in the fragile environment that is the Internet browser. But the same philosophy is at work in Picasa, their desktop application picture manager. There, the Undo button has basically taken over for the Save button. The result is a form of version management.

    Full-blown versioning takes a little time and effort to incorporate into a program. However, the ability to maintain drafts goes a long way towards doing the job. When I close a program, I shouldn’t need to make decisions about saving. Instead, the program should maintain drafts of the files I have modified. When I reopen the program, the drafts should reappear.

    Unobtrusive mechanisms for maintaining state is what it’s all about. Taken a little further, the principle can be applied to all our interactions with a computer. Booting up, opening and closing programs and files is still done in much the same way as it was 20 years ago. And the way these processes were designed was heavily influenced by constraints that no longer apply. With the increased speed and reduced storage costs of today, software makers have the luxury of designing programs based on how the user naturally thinks. That means never asking the question “Would you like to save your changes?”

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