Tag Archives: Google Talk

Google’s Missteps

By Jeremy Wagstaff

This one needed some correcting, for which apologies, and also, unsurprisingly, attracted some opprobrium. It’s Google Notebook, not Notes, and Jaiku’s founders are Finnish, not Swedish.

I’m a big fan of Google. A big fan. But I’ve finally realized what its problem is. It doesn’t know what the hell it’s doing.

Take its recent decision to close something called Google Wave.

Google Wave was introduced to much fanfare back in May 2009. I can’t really describe what it is, but I can tell you what Google called it. Email killer, a new version of the web, etc etc. “Wave is what email would look like if it were invented today,” said one of its creators.

Then, a few weeks back, they killed it. CEO Eric Schmidt said: “We liked the (user interface) and we liked a lot of the new features in it,” he was quoted as saying,  “(but) didn’t get enough traction, so we are taking those technologies and applying them to new technologies that are not announced.”

Schmidt explained Google’s policy like this: “Our policy is we try things. We celebrate our failures. This is a company where it is absolutely OK to try something that is very hard, have it not be successful, take the learning and apply it to something new.”

The point is not that Wave was rubbish. Or great. It’s that we never really got to try it out. When Schmidt says that “we tend to sort of release them and then see what happens” he’s telling the truth. Only it’s not really something he should be too proud about.

Quite a few of us worked quite hard to make Wave part of our lives. Not many of us, admittedly, but enough. Enough to be somewhat peeved to find it’s not going to be around much longer.

This isn’t the first time Google has done this. Google Notes Notebook was a way to collect snippets from the web and save them in the browser. Great, but Google killed that one off. They bought and killed off something called Jaiku, a better-than-Twitter service developed by some guys in Sweden Finland (thanks, Gabe,Adewale Oshineye and others). Of course, like Wave, they don’t actually shoot these things dead, they just go to some weird twilight zone where new people can’t sign up and existing users look kinda passé.

Like people who overstay a party that never really took off.

Who’s going to continue using a product that could disappear at any minute?

This, arguably, is fine when you’re not actually paying for the product. Well, not directly. But what happens when you shell out $500 for it?

That’s what happened when fools bought into Google’s foray into the cellphone world with their fancy Nexus One phone. What it called the Superphone, with plans to make lots more. “Imagine a thousand gphones!” said Schmidt

So people went out and bought it and yay! less than a year later Google closes down the online store where you can buy the thing and then, a few weeks after that, said that it’s not making any more phones.

Of course, Mr. Schmidt put a positive spin on it all.

But it’s not good enough.

I was one of those people who bought the phone because I love Google’s email service, its photo service, its online documents service, its RSS reader, its chat program, its maps. Its search engine. Pretty much everything it puts out. And I thought to myself: all this in a phone, made by the same guys, it’ll be heaven!

Only it wasn’t. The phone is good, but not great. I still use it, but my hope was that Google would be serious about all its products and pulling them together into one seamless service.

Never happened. And now, clearly, never will. Yes, Google make the operating system—the Android OS—so they still have a dog in the fight, but clearly they’ve decided that spending more time on the cellphone thing isn’t worth it for them.

Now these are the gripes of someone who feels a bit like a mug. But they’re also the ramblings of someone who feels there’s a fundamental problem with Google’s approach to the post-search world.

They don’t seem to get it. Buzz, their version of Twitter, is awful. It ignores the fundamentals of the service: it’s personal while also being impersonal, it’s chatty while at the same time having to be succinct. It’s not the same as email, and the people we share tweets with are not, necessarily, the people we email. So putting it together with Gmail was dumb.

Google has got to tread carefully. It’s not really had a hit for a while—since Gmail, probably, back in 2004. Yes, its Google Docs are good, but they’re not taking over the world. And the things they thought might take over the world—such as Wave—are poorly thought out, poorly promoted, poorly supported, and killed off with an insouciance that doesn’t only upset those people like me who took time and effort to build them into our workflow. It’ll also upset two other key groups: business users and investors.

No business user is going to start playing around with a Google product thinking it might be good for their company, because who knows when Mr.. Schmidt is going to pull out his hunting knife? And investors? Well, we’ve seen plenty of tech behemoths who were one- or two-hit wonders.

It’s not time up yet for Google. They’ve just launched a sort of phone service that could be a Skype killer, but who’s going to ditch Skype in their office for something that might not be around in a year’s time? They not only need to come up with good new products. They need to find ways to convince their users they’re not just playthings, given and taken back on a whim.

Video Chat in Gmail

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I’m a big fan of Google Talk (Gtalk) but hadn’t come across this before: Videochat inside the Google Talk widget inside Gmail. Does it get any better than this? (Probably, but this works pretty well. Great for those guys not using Windows, and therefore unable to use the great Gtalk client.)

Software, Slowly, Gets Better

Is it just me, or are software developers beginning to get their users? For a long time I’ve felt the only real innovation in software has been in online applications, Web 2.0 non-apps—simple services that exist in your browser—but now it seems that ordinary apps are getting better too.

Evernote, I feel, is one that’s really leading the charge. They’ve taken the feedback that us users have been giving them and have added, incremental release by incremental release, some really cool features. For example: now you can save searches in the Windows version. Reminds me of the old Enfish Tracker Pro, whose departure I still mourn. In fact, Evernote isn’t far off becoming a real database instead of a dumping ground for things you’ll read one day. Maybe.

Skype, too, have pulled their socks up. I hated 4.0  beta, not least for its big bumbling footprint. But the new version is better—a lot better. The main improvement is the option to make it look like your old Skype. But it has some nice new touches, including a chronology scroller that might interest Evernote’s legal department (Skype on the left, Evernote on the right):

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Move the bar on the right and you can move easily through old chats. Legal niceties aside, I think this kind of innovation is great to see, and almost restores my faith in designers realising that we don’t just use software in the here and now, but also as repositories of past heres and nows, if you know what I mean.

In short, our decision to commit to software is largely based on how much we will be able to get out of it. Not just in terms of hours saved in what we do now, but in what past information we’ll be able to get out of it. We have been using computers long enough now to have built up a huge repository of interactions and memos, and we want, nay we insist, to be able to get that stuff back. Quickly and easily. And, increasingly, to be able to move it to other places should we wish.

Google understands this relatively well. A chat in GTalk, for example, can be readily accessed via Gmail. And, now, we can also see and search our other data held within Google’s silos, right within Gmail, via some widgets from Google’s Gmail Labs. Here are two widgets that let you view your calendar:

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and here’s one to see your documents within Google Docs:

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Note the window at the top for searching through your document titles. This means one less step to access your data.

All these things have some basic concepts in common:

As I’ve mentioned, it’s about being able to get what you’ve put in out. Skype have listened to their customers and realised it’s less about the interface and more about the information the interface gives access to. If they were smart they’d find an easy way to send old chats to your email account or at least make it easy to search all your chats from one box. (I’m told that, or something like it, is coming in the ‘Gold’ version of  Skype 4.0 next year. Until now only group chats—three or more people can be saved to your contact list.)

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Secondly, software should, where possible, work with other people’s software. Emusic’s new download manager (above), for example, does something that has been missing ever since the service launched. Previously, if you wanted to include MP3 files you’d bought from the service in iTunes, you’d need to either drag them across into iTunes or re-introduce the folder into iTunes. The new version of the downloader tool now synchronizes automatically with iTunes, meaning you don’t need to do anything. Thank God for that.

There are tons of other things that software needs to do that it presently doesn’t. I could start listing them but I need to go to bed. But maybe in this downturn developers could take a note from some of these examples, and use the time to look more carefully at what users need, at how they use your software, and explore new and better ways for them to use it for what they do, not what you think they should do.

Watching TV With The Community

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Been watching the veep debates on Livestation, which has an interesting feature: a live chat connected to the program with some LiveStation folks guiding the discussion.

It works pretty well: It’s great to be able to watch TV with a bunch of other people, though I had one eye on that chat, and one eye on some Skype, Google Talk, twitter, Facebook and FriendFeed chat windows too.

This makes all sorts of sense, and I commend Livestation for doing this kind of thing. The IRC format is a bit old school; it would be nice to see something beyond the noisy chat format. Or, even better, being able to drag our other communities into the window to watch together.

But that’s down the road. This is a good way to share information—live and visual—and I think this is an exciting way forward.

Update: Livestation points out that the chat is directly connected to Al Jazeera via Russell Merryman, Head of New Media, who was feeding comments through to the studio to guide the post-debate discussion.

The Way Chat Should Be

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Great to see that Google Talk is adding improvements. I just noticed this one, for example: Drag a photo into a chat window and it appears in the chat itself. Click on the picture and a little progress bar lights up on the right as the recipient accepts the picture.

Resize the window and the picture resizes:

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This is good stuff, especially when you compare it with Skype, which for some reason no longer allows dragging of files or links into a chat.

Chat, in short, needs to fit the conversation. And conversation involves sharing things, looking at things together, and generally connecting to each other.

Switch to Google Talk. Skype, get your act together.

Google Talk as a Contact Database

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(This is a shorter version of a longer post at my sister blog, ten minut.es, which take a 10 minute look at new and old products, services and websites.)

One of the most undersung corners of the Google empire, in my view, is Google Talk, the search giant’s chat application (non Windows users can launch its gadget browser version.)

For one thing, it’s so uncluttered it makes every other chat application look like the aftermath of Christmas dinner. It’s smooth, fast and the sound quality is good. But what I think it’s best for are the features that aren’t really features. (Most of these won’t be useful if you don’t use Gmail.)

For example, searching for a contact’s email address is faster in GTalk than other applications I can find. Outlook is so slow it’s horrible and Google Desktop won’t really help you since the email address you’re looking for, if it appears at all, will be via an email address or something, even if you’ve set Google Desktop to index your contacts:

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Google Talk does this much better. So long as you’ve selected the Add people I communicate with often to my Friends List (Settings/General)

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GoogleTalk will add these names to its list, so that when you start typing their name in the search line their names will appear below, even if they’re not a Google Talk user:

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Move your mouse over one of the entries and their contact details will appear:

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Clicking on the email address (in blue) will either create a new message in Gmail or a new message in your default email client, depending on whether you’ve selected Open Gmail when I click on email links or not in your Settings:

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Now you have a quick way of scouring your contact book and creating emails. It’s possibly only marginally quicker than clicking on Compose Mail in Gmail, but I find Google Talk so fast it works well for me.

I feel Google could go further with this. What I’d love is if it could include in its search not just names but towns and other fields stored in your Gmail contact database. If I could quickly trawl through all my Gmail contacts for specific interests (who should I chat to about satellites and medical emergencies, for example) Google Talk would become a sort of first stop for organising my otherwise untamable contact list. (At the moment the best solution for this is my old favorite, PersonalBrain, which I’ve written about before.)

It’s not perfect, by any means. The built-in Chat within Gmail seems to have features that aren’t replicated in Google Talk, which would make this a better tool. Allowing you to include your AIM contacts inside Chat is one (unless I’m much mistaken this won’t work in Google Talk). The other is that when you add extra detail to your address book in Gmail — adding a photo, say — this information appears nicely inside the Gmail Chat:

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but not in Google Talk:

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I’d like to see Google improve on this.

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Google Talk May Not Be As Cheap As You Think

We should probably start being more careful about what we wish for. Google Talk is now offering, apparently because of public demand, histories of chats stored in your Gmail account. Useful stuff. But accessing those histories will involve seeing contextual ads next to them, as per ordinary Gmail messages.

The relevant part of the FAQ says

There are no ads in your chat sessions or your Quick Contacts list. Once a chat is saved, however, it becomes just like a Gmail message. And just as you may see relevant ads next to your Gmail messages, there now may be ads alongside your saved chats. Ads are only displayed when you’re viewing a saved chat, and as with all ads in Gmail, they are matched entirely by computers. Only ads classified as Family-Safe are shown and we are constantly improving our technologies to prevent displaying any inappropriate ads. One of the things many Gmail users have told us is how much they appreciate the unobtrusive text ads in Gmail, as opposed to the large, irrelevant, blinking banner ads they often see in other services, and many have even cited the usefulness of the ads in Gmail.

It’s a useful feature, but at some point shouldn’t we start asking ourselves whether all this stored information is not a tad dangerous, whether it’s held by Google or anyone else? Already we are a little lax about what we say when we’re emailing people, but this is nothing compared to instant messsaging. A throwaway line in chat will be stored — possibly forever — on someone else’s computer if you chat with them. Now, if you use this Gmail option, another copy will be stored on a computer you’ll never really be able to track down. (This latter element is not the case with Skype, for example, which archives the chats on your own computer.)

Here’s why. Note the changes to the Google Talk Privacy Notice. Notice, among other things, that your Google Talk “personal information” is no longer deleted after a reasonable period — although “activity information” is. Neither of these terms are laid out fully and unequivocably. Even if you do decide to delete chat histories stored in your Gmail account, “because of the way we maintain this service, such deletion may not be immediate, and residual copies may remain on backup systems media.” In other words, don’t assume those chats will ever completely disappear.

This is not just about Gmailing your chat histories. It’s about using chat itself. For a company determined not to do evil, Google is surprisingly coy about what data it stores about you. Look at these changes to the Privacy Policy for example (parentheses indicate removal since the last version of the Policy, underlined text indicates additions):

 When you use Google Talk, [[Google’s servers automatically]] we may record [[certain]] information about your [[use of the service]] usage, such as when you use Google Talk, the size of your contact list and the contacts you communicate with, and the frequency and size of data transfers. Information displayed or clicked on in the Google Talk interface (including UI elements, settings, and other information) is also recorded. [[We delete personal information from the Google Talk logs after a period of time reasonably necessary to do so. ]]

On one hand it’s great that Google shows us what has been changed, deleted or added to its policy. But then again, we’d have found out anyway. And although I want Google’s bots trawling through my half-formed thoughts on chat even less than I want them trawling through my email, this is not really about Google. It’s about us thinking hard about how we treat these tools — email, chat, even VoIP calls or webcam exchanges — when we realise that what we type (or possibly say, or show of ourselves) is going to be stored somewhere, for a long, long time. And one thing we’ve learned in the past few weeks is that ‘not being evil’ is not quite as absolute a conviction as we thought it was.

 

At Last, Some IM Interoperability

InformationWeek quotes AP as saying that Microsoft and Yahoo “Reach Instant Messaging Deal”:  

Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc have agreed to make their two instant-messaging programs work together, a partnership that could threaten market leader America Online, people familiar with the situation said. The deal was expected to be announced early Wednesday, these people told The Associated Press. One of them works closely with Microsoft. The other was briefed on the deal. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose details.

A Yahoo-Microsoft partnership, allowing users of the competing services to exchange messages seamlessly, would give the two companies nearly as many users combined as AOL has in total.

If true: Thank God. I use Trillian so have no real use for this but this makes a lot of sense. Not only, as the article points out, do Microsoft and Yahoo lag AOL/ICQ in terms of users, but (as the article doesn’t point out) Skype and Google Talk threaten to steal the rug from under their feet if they don’t get interoperability sorted out. First, because Google Talk is open so you can access it via, say, Trillian; but with Skype mixing voice, telephony, text (and later, video) the old smiley-driven instant messaging software is going to look a tad old fashioned.

Users have long been frustrated with not being able to instant message across platforms. Now they are going to increasingly insist on being able to conduct voice conversation, video conversations and teleconferencing with anyone else on instant messaging. Perhaps Microsoft and Yahoo belatedly realise that. Their enemy on this is not AOL: it’s Google and eBay/Skype.