Confessions of a Quackbuster

This blog deals with healthcare consumer protection, and is therefore about quackery, healthfraud, chiropractic, and other forms of so-Called "Alternative" Medicine (sCAM).

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Google Gets Better. What's Up With That?

David Pogue
Google Gets Better. What's Up With That?

Published: August 25, 2005

EVER heard the old joke about the two psychiatrists who pass in a hallway? One says, "Hello there." The other thinks, "I wonder what he meant by that?"

In high-tech circles, that's pretty much what people are saying about Google these days. If you hadn't noticed, Google is no longer just an Internet search tool; it's now a full-blown software company. It develops elegant, efficient software programs - and then gives them away. In today's culture of cynicism, such generosity and software excellence seems highly suspicious; surely it's all a smokescreen for a darker, larger plot to suck us all in. What, exactly, is Google up to?

The mystery only intensified this week, as Google announced two more free software tools for Windows: a new version of Google Desktop Search and a free instant-messaging program called Google Talk.

The original version of Desktop Search, which Google unleashed last fall, brought the speed and effortlessness of Google's Internet search to your own PC. You'd type a few letters, and in a fraction of a second, you'd be looking at a complete list of files that included your search term - even if that term appeared inside the body of a document. It could even search e-mail, chat-session transcripts and the contents of Web pages you'd seen.

Google Desktop 1.0 certainly blew away Windows' own built-in search tool, which operates with all the speed of an anesthetized slug. But it was limited in three ways.

First, you had to operate it from within your Web browser, limiting its convenience. Second, because it could call up Web pages, e-mail messages and chat transcripts, Google Desktop alarmed people who, ahem, had something to hide from bosses or spouses. And finally, it could see inside only a limited number of document types. For example, it couldn't search PDF files, Web sites visited with any browser except Internet Explorer, or e-mail messages except those in Outlook or Outlook Express.

VERSION 2 , now available at google.com in what's technically in a public beta test version, attacks all of these drawbacks with a vengeance. In Version 2, you can begin a search with a keystroke or by clicking in the search box that's always on the screen. A pop-up menu of search results appears as you begin to type and narrows itself with each additional keystroke. When you see the item you want, you can open it by clicking or by walking up the list with the arrow keys and pressing Enter.

In other words, you can now find and open a certain program, document or control panel entirely from the keyboard, with blazing speed and simplicity. This is old news to Mac fans, of course; the Spotlight feature in Mac OS X 10.4 works the same way. But for Windows XP and 2000 veterans, getting such an omniscient, speedy search feature free is truly liberating. ( Microsoft plans something similar for the next version of Windows, due at the end of 2006.)

Google has also beefed up your privacy options. You can omit search categories like secure Web sites (banking sites, for example), password-protected Microsoft Office files, and so on, and you can even flag individual files so that they'll never appear in the search results again.

Finally, the program now recognizes many more document types: e-mail from Gmail, Outlook, Outlook Express, Netscape Mail, Thunderbird and Mozilla Mail; chat transcripts from AOL or MSN Messenger; Web pages you've visited using Internet Explorer, Firefox, Netscape or Mozilla; PDF files; and your Outlook calendar and address book. (And speaking of Outlook, Google Desktop now installs its own search bar right into Outlook, meaning that you can search your e-mail collection in the blink of a cursor.) The company expects to add more kinds of files to this list, thanks to a public plug-in protocol it has published online.

Yet believe it or not, the little search box is the last thing you'll notice when you install Google Desktop. The first thing you'll see is the Sidebar, a column of rectangular panels hugging the right edge of your screen. Each is a window onto a different kind of real-time information from the Internet.

Some are ho-hum, like your latest incoming Gmail and Outlook e-mail, news, stock and weather tickers. Others are refreshingly quirky: the Photos panel shows a continuous, two-inch-tall slideshow of pictures from your own collection, and the surprisingly useful Scratch Pad is a blank box where you can type casual notes throughout your workday (they're saved automatically). Each panel expands horizontally, drawer-like, to reveal more details when clicked.

The Sidebar is about as clean-looking as anyone could make it, but it's still a lot of clutter in a very small space, especially if you add new panels as they become available. On the other hand, you can tidy things up quite a bit: drag your Sidebar panels into a different order, hide the ones you don't use, or collapse them into one-line summaries.

Once again, Google isn't the first company to dream up a modular, Internet-connected suite of miniprograms; the Sidebar is a lot like Mac OS X's Dashboard or the shareware programs Desktop X and Konfabulator. But never mind that; you can't keep a good idea down, and this is a good one indeed.

Google's second revelation this week, Google Talk, lets you communicate with your buddies either by typing or, if your PC has a microphone and speaker, by speaking. As long as you and your conversation partner are at Windows computers, you can converse with spectacular sound quality.

Now, Google Talk 1.0 is probably the most stripped-down chat program on earth. No conference calling, video chats or direct person-to-person file transfers. (Features like these are common in rivals like Skype, iChat and the messenger programs from AOL, MSN and Yahoo.) So what, exactly, is Google trying to prove here?

Its mission, in fact, is far grander. Google Talk aims to end the ridiculous era of proprietary chat networks. At the moment, AOL, MSN and Yahoo each maintain separate, incompatible networks. The big boys each want to be alone in the sandbox, and the losers are their customers.

Google Talk, however, is based on an open, published standard that the company is making available to all. Already, Google Talk communicates with popular chat programs like iChat, Trillian, Adium, Psi and GAIM, but that's just the beginning. Google is making overtures to Yahoo, AOL and Microsoft about making their chat programs compatible; EarthLink has already agreed to join the federation; and Google is also inviting the makers of games, collaboration tools and even cellphones to join in what it hopes will one day be a grand, unified chat network.

In the meantime, Google Talk is significant for another reason: it requires a Gmail account. (Gmail is Google's free, Web-based e-mail service, whose two most famous aspects are its vast capacity - over two gigabytes of storage for each account - and the ads that appear, in small type, off to the right side of each message you read. The ads are computer-matched to keywords in the body of the message, which disturbs some privacy advocates.)

Until now, Gmail accounts were available by invitation only. Google let the service spread gradually and virally, giving each existing member a few additional invitations to extend. At one point, people were actually selling these invitations on eBay.

As of yesterday, however, all that has changed. Now anyone can get a Gmail account - and can therefore use Google Talk. But to prevent spammers and other abusers from snapping up Gmail accounts by the thousands, Google has designed a clever safeguard: when you apply for a Gmail account, you must provide a cellphone number.

Google sends a code to your phone, which you use to complete the registration. (Actually, you don't have to own a cellphone; you just have to know somebody with a cellphone. They can get the code for you, because each cellphone number is good for a number of registrations - just not hundreds of them.)

In a single week, then, Google, the software company, addressed deficiencies in Windows, tried to create a grand unified chat and voice network, and opened its clean, capable, capacious e-mail system to all comers. All of this software is beautifully done, quick to download and fun to use - not to mention free and (apart from the Gmail service) entirely free of ads and come-ons.

Wish they'd cut it out. Trying to figure out what this company's really up to is enough to drive you crazy.




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