Google’s New Interface: The Earth

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I’ve written before about how I think Google Earth, or something like it, will become a new form of interface — not just for looking for places and routes, but any kind of information. Some people call it the geo-web, but it’s actually bigger than that. Something like Google Earth will become an environment in its own right. I can imagine people using it to slice and dice company data, set up meetings, organize social networks.

Google is busy marching in this direction, and their newest offering is a great example of this: Google Book Search. This from Brandon Badger, product manager at Google Earth:

Did you ever wonder what Lewis and Clark said about your hometown as they passed through? What about if any other historical figures wrote about your part of the world? Earlier this year, we announced a first step toward geomapping the world’s literary information by starting to integrate information from Google Book Search into Google Maps. Today, the Google Book Search and Google Earth teams are excited to announce the next step: a new layer in Earth that allows you to explore locations through the lens of the world’s books.

Activating the layer peppers the earth with little yellow book icons — all over the place, like in this screenshot from Java:

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Click on one of the books and the reference will pop up, including the title of the book, its cover, author, number of pages etc, as well as the actual context of the reference. Click on a link to the page

Is it perfect? No. It’s automated, so a lot of these references are just wrong. Click on a yellow book in Borneo and you find a reference in William Gilmore Simms’ “Life of Francis Marrion” to Sampit, which is the name of a town there, but it’s likely confused with the river of the same name in South Carolina.

Many of the books in Google’s database are scanned, so errors are likely to arise from imperfect OCR. Click on a book above the Java town of Kudus, and you get a reference to a History of France, and someone called “Ninon da f Kudus”, which in fact turns out to be the caption for an illustration of Le Grand Dauphin and Ninon de l’Enclos, a French C17 courtesan.

But who cares? By being able to click on the links you can quickly find out whether the references are accurate or not, and I’m guessing Google is going to gradually tidy this up, if not themselves then by allowing us users to correct such errors. (So far there doesn’t seem to be a way to do this.)

This is powerful stuff, and a glimpse of a new way of looking, storing and retrieving information. Plus it’s kind of fun.

Google LatLong: Google Book Search in Google Earth

The Conversation Stops Here

This is a salutory reminder that, for all the talk these days of companies engaging the public and media in a conversation instead of just pumping out ads and slogans, not everyone is following suit. Here’s what I just received from a product manager at a regional Asian office for one of Japan’s biggest companies after I had requested a phone or email interview with the Japanese designers or product managers of a new device:

I did a quick check with our HQ in Japan and due to our company policy, we cannot arrange for such a phone interview or provide [you] with any unpublished materials or information to the media. Basically, we do not correspond with [any] news reporter/writer via phone or email without his presence. Also, approval from company’s management is need for any correspondence with the media.

I’m not going to give the name of the company because I don’t want to get the person in trouble; they were only trying to help by passing on my request to his bosses. But if you’ve ever wondered why we don’t always do such a good job of covering some companies products, you might spare a thought for the difficulties in actually reaching them with the most innocuous of queries. Shame is the product is a really good one.

Getting Dumb With PowerPoint?

I’m a fan of Edward Tufte, the guru of charts, but I’m still not sure about his view of PowerPoint. The New York Times Magazine has another article on his recent polemic against Microsoft’s presentation software. Tufte claimed, as the NYT piece says, that Microsoft’s ubiquitous software forces people to mutilate data beyond comprehension, infusing PowerPoint with ”an attitude of commercialism that turns everything into a sales pitch.”


Not that Microsoft gets it either: NYT quotes Simon Marks, the product manager for PowerPoint, as saying that the opposite is ‘data density’, shoving tons of data at an audience. You could do that with PowerPoint, he says, but it’s a matter of choice. ”If people were told they were going to have to sit through an incredibly dense presentation,” he adds, ”they wouldn’t want it.”

NYT’s conclusion: If you have nothing to say, maybe you need just the right tool to help you not say it.

News: Outlook Ex-press? Or Look Out Ex, Press? Or Press Outlook, Ex?

 From the Do Microsoft Have Any Idea What They’re Doing? Dept comes another story about Microsoft products not quite gelling with reality. ZDNet Australia last week interviewed Microsoft Office product manager Dan Leach who said that Microsoft planned to halt development of Outlook Express, the email client that comes bundled with the browser Internet Explorer. Basically Microsoft seemed to hope everybody would upgrade to the Outlook collossus.
 
Fast forward two days, and scratch all that.
 

“I sat down with the Windows team today,” ZDNet quoted Leach as saying, ”and they tell me my comments were inaccurate. Outlook Express was in sustain engineering, but customers asked for continued improvement, and we are doing that. Microsoft will continue its innovation around the email experience in Windows.”
 

Leach was either on the beach too long, or customers were upset, or Bill intervened. Whatever, I’m overjoyed I’m still going to have ‘the email experience in Windows’, whatever that is. Still, I’d rather go for Courier, Pegasus, or even the email client in Opera. None are perfect, but they’re sturdy.