Google Hangout – more of the same

Google Hangout launched with much gusto at Google I/O this year. There has been much talk about the project that was apparently codenamed Babel and that it would make the Google Messaging finally make sense. There are currently multiple ways to communicate with someone in a form of a conversation on the Google platform. The obvious one is of course Gmail and Google Talk. Then you have Google+ Messaging which apparently isn’t the same thing as communicating with someone during Google Hangout. Then there’s the little used and likely little known feature of being able to message someone while working on a document together. After much anticipation though, while there things about Google Hangouts that are great and there are things that are lacking, this initial release of Google Hangout is mostly just a new flavour of Google Talk.

Let’s start with the good

The Google Hangout Chrome Extension is phenomenal. I like that even though it’s a Chrome extension, it’s also pervasive and you can access it even when you’re in under windows as it hangs around at the bottom of the screen and on OsX, it also shows up on the notification bar. I actually have slowly replaced using Mac Messages with Google Hangout at least for my primary IM account. The app that is powered by the Chrome extension is also aesthetically quite visually appealing. It’s simple and clean like the new Google+ themes.  Google Hangouts (which is a replacement for Google Talk) on Android is also quite aesthetically pleasing as well.

The app itself has a few really nice features that I like especially on the Android version. I like that you now can add multiple people to the chat as well as include photos which they didn’t have before. The loads of of smileys isn’t particularly appealing to me but I know that’s one of the differentiators for apps like WhatsApp and Line.

More of the same

I do like that Hangouts is much more prevalent in Google+ as well. There was no way of accessing Google+ messages and if Hangouts is meant to replace Google Messages and Google Talk, this is definitely a good start. However, Google already had the Google Talk panel on the side from before.

While there is much said about Google Hangout video, Google Talk has been leveraging Google Hangout for video for a while. Yes, it’s awesome but it’s really no different then from before Google I/O.

It’s worse

One thing that really irks me and I didn’t realize this until Saturday when someone pointed out to me that you really can’t tell if someone is online on the Android client. That’s actually quite annoying. This is definitely a step backwards. I also don’t like the fact that Google+ Messages still exists. I would have hoped that they would have killed that app when they launched Google Hangouts.

There’s much to hope for with Google Hangouts as, just like Google+, I see a ton of  potential for Google Hangouts as it’s already a pretty solid messaging platform. I really hope they take the best of all the other messaging apps that they currently have and release the best of breed. 

Samsung Series 3 Chromebook – Initial Review

Samsung Series 3 Chromebook
Samsung Series 3 Chromebook

My review of the Samsung Series 3 Chromebook is based on having it for about 3 weeks. To understand why I really enjoy using the device, here’s a little background before jumping into the details of the review. I had been debating about getting a new computing device for a while now. I currently have a MacBook Pro that I absolutely love and does everything that I want still but it has a couple of shortcomings. The first is that the battery doesn’t last as long as it used to and the problem is compounded because I have 2 hard drives loaded in it. The other is that it gets hot to touch after a while. However, as a device that’s plugged in at my desk and hooked up to my Apple Thunderbolt Display, it still does it’s job incredibly well.

I needed a device that had the following attributes:

  1. Light – It’d be nice to be able to carry something that was less than a pound

  2. Decent keyboard – I want do some light work including writing out long email responses as well as moderate surfing for research. I also need to log on to servers to write SQL statements as well as do work with servers.

  3. Lasts for 5 to 6 hours without charging – I don’t want to be lugging a power cord

  4. Enough horsepower to write code – I don’t need to code daily but I do dabble in code from time to time

I debated among four devices – the MacBook Pro with Retina Display, MacBook Air, Microsoft Surface and a Chromebook of some sort and ultimately settled for the Google Chromebook. Among the Chromebooks, I debated between the Samsung Series 5, Acer and Chrome Pixel, Samsung Series 3 and settled for the Samsung Series 3 Chromebook.

The Chromebook comes with:

  • Samsung Exynos 5 Dual 1.7 GHz 1 MB cache CPU

  • 2 GB RAM

  • 16 GB HDD

  • 11.6″ 1366 x 768 Screen

  • 11.4″ x 8.09″ x 0.69″ big

  • 2.43 lbs

  • 1 x HDMI, 1 x USB 2.0, 1 x USB 3.0 ports

All in all, the specs for the Chromebook is rather unimpressive with the exception of the price and weight. It is very reminiscent of a small MacBook. The silver colour, the function keyboards at the top, the trackpad that has no buttons, and the trackpad navigation features (two finger right click, two finger scroll up and down) are all very MacBook’ish which made the transition very easy for me. While it does look like a MacBook, it lacks the finish of one. It feels extremely cheap and plasticky. As I got the Canadian version, it comes with an international keyboard that makes typing a bit frustrating for me.

Despite my negative remarks describing the product, it is truly an effective product for me. The Chromebook without any modifications is truly a browser attached to a keyboard. As I am someone that is deeply entrenched in web applications and sometimes very specifically Google web applications, this is a truly ideal device for me. I had originally purchased the Chromebook as a travel machine. Something that I would carry with me whenever I wasn’t at home given it’s lightweight and long battery life. I had only expected to do minor surfing on it, answer a few emails and use IM to quarterback the development from it while I was away from my primary laptop.

I find myself using the Chromebook around the house in the evenings. It’s nice to park my laptop at my desk and use this device to write my blogs, organize my thoughts and even plan my tasks. As I’m able to SSH from the Chromebook, it also allows me to do some lightweight work on my servers when I need to. Looking at my devices, the Chromebook fits between the Nexus 7 and the Macbook Pro. I like the Nexus 7 for consuming information like an e-reader and do light weight communication and my 15” Macbook Pro is meant to do a lot of heavy lifting when it comes to programming or if I have to open up multiple screens at the same time for me to do intensive work.

There are other features I haven’t explored yet – such as the HDMI output, the USB 3 connector as well as using the SD card slot. It’ll be interesting to see if the 2GB of RAM starts to become a problem for more extensive use of the device.

To summarize, the Chromebook is a lightweight, cost-effective device if the majority of the work you do is via online web applications.

Google Apps – Can it beat out Microsoft in the Enterprise in the long term?

I recently read this post through my google feed titled Google Still Doesn’t Get How to Beat Microsoft Office a while ago and thought this would be a great segway to some observations I had about Google Apps. For some context, I’m an avid Google Apps user. I use it for my personal domains (i.e. for both my business as well as my private domains) as well as professionally in an enterprise setting. The feedback in general are mixed like most things – some people love it, some people are ambivalent about it and some people loathe it. No real surprises there. I’m in the camp of those who really like it. Although I have Microsoft Office installed on every device I have – I even pay for a TechNet license so that I can always have the latest and greatest software available – but I find myself using it less and less for most things. For the most part, my needs can be met by using the word processor, spreadsheet and, yes, even the presentation app that they have. They are no where as good as Microsoft Office but for me they do the job. Even more importantly for me, no one has yet to complain when I either share with them my document either in through Google Docs or through the attached documents.

I’m working for a relatively young company now – we’ve been existence for less than a couple of years but we’re striving to grow. While I’m a tech-head, I would say most of my colleagues aren’t but they aren’t afraid of tech either. I suspect that we’re the sort of company that Google is targeting for and it’s a smart play, in my opinion. I suspect that many new tech startups use Google Apps as their default enterprise collaboration software because it’s free and relatively painless to set up. You get a whole bunch of really powerful tools to go with it even if you didn’t intend to use it to start. There are better tools in market than any of the Google Apps products but nothing easier to set up and nothing that works more seamlessly together. This is actually very similar to the Microsoft Office strategy back in its heyday. In a lot of ways, it’s actually a smart play not to worry about backwards compatibility. In the market that Google seems to be addressing, it’s not high on the priority list. And it’s actually one of the things that have persistently hindered Microsoft from growing as quickly as it needed because it was constantly going back to ensure software was compatible to products that are sometimes more than a decade old. In technology, that’s at least 5 generations old – it’s like trying to ensure that we can support horse buggies today.

In short, Google isn’t playing to win in the short term. Google seems to be attacking Microsoft but not head-on. It’s betting on the future and I think it’s a smart bet. It seems to be doing tactically and strategically. It also shows that Google knows it target market and isn’t wasting it’s effort on features that aren’t nearly as relevant as other things in the pipeline for them. I’d love to actually see some stats on this to see if my hypothesis holds.

Google, Motorola and other madness this week

This has been a pretty mad week in technology starting with Google’s purchase of Motorola Mobility for $12B followed by HP announced the folding of their PC business including their newly launched tablets featuring WebOS. There have been some articles about the Motorola purchase which I really enjoyed and some that I thought seem a bit short-sighted for various reasons. So here are some scattered thoughts about the events this week.

It’s all about defense
It’s really hard to imagine why Google would buy Motorola outside of its patents. While I wouldn’t second guess what Google’s patent defence would be or if I think it’s better or worse after the purchase, Google does believe that it’s worth $12B. Android is important to Google – not because of it’s $11M revenue through the Android Marketplace but it’s really important for their ad business. It’s the main reason why they got into it and then continues to give it away for free. The Android, Chrome and ChromeOS strategy all have the same goal which is really about further reach and control over how a user interacts with Google. It’s not difficult to recognize that the browser is quickly replacing the desktop when users aren’t mobile and users are consuming information on their mobile devices more and more each day. Outside of Microsoft’s accusation that Google intended to purchase Nortel’s patents to attack others, I haven’t been able to find an instance where Google attacked anyone based on patents outside of protecting others.

Strength in numbers
Android’s strength is in its ecosystem which is made of the OS, the manufacturers that use them, the software and the developers that develop the software. Android is important to Google and I would imagine even more important than Motorola. It is in Google’s best interest to keep the ecosystem they have in tact. If Google intends to get into the handset manufacturing business as an additional business, HTC would have been a much better buy. Google does not have the in-house expertise to turn around Motorola as a handset business. While I agree that Google may use the opportunity of owning Motorola to build phones in the way that they envision the phone, it by no means equate to other OEMs from creating other phones that are equally or are even more successful. That Nexus program to date proves that. The Nexus series are phones that are built very closely by OEM manufacturers to date starting with the Nexus One followed by the Nexus S but rarely are these phones the overwhelming favourites in terms of number of handsets purchased. In fact, the Nexus One was a complete flop. It is also the Nexus One experience that should indicate to both the market and OEM manufacturers that Google buying Motorola is unlikely a threat to their business. Building a business is much more than building a successful technical product – it’s also about marketing and partnerships. Google does not know how to do either well in the handset business and unfortunately (as I snakily remarked in my Google+ post) neither does Motorola.

Changing the game but not really
The OEM reaction of Google’s purchase of MMI is reminiscent of a two-year old child welcoming a newborn sibling into the family for the first time. The OEMs are tentative and cautious; they’re waiting to see what Google will do with MMI. On one hand, they’re a bit optimistic because the 25K odd patents could land an extra hand in protecting their Android investments. On the other hand, they’re also worried that Google might play favourites with Motorola by giving them special privileges. For Google to really protect Android, it will need the OEM support. Without OEM support, the number of Android handsets sold will plummet and likely resulting in the loss of developer interest and hence equating the demise of Android altogether. Motorola is nowhere near the top in terms of total number of Android handsets sold. It is in Google’s best interest to treat all their OEMs well if they intend to protect the Android platform. I think HTC recognizes this.

There’s plenty of room for everyone
For OEMs to compete with Apple, the only realistic choice is Android. No one is going to out-Apple Apple however the good news as the market has shown, not everyone wants an Apple. There are other factors that people look at when purchasing a phone including price point and form factor. While no one Android phone is dominant in market today, many companies, especially HTC and Samsung, have been able to make successful Android products that compete one another and make each of their parent companies money. Google is very interested in the number of devices activated; it is a metric they actively track. It is quite easy to imply that their own revenue is based on these activities and not so much from the revenue generated by manufacturers or from the marketplace.

I don’t get patents
I have to admit this – I don’t get the patent wars that we’re in. It’s obvious that it isn’t working and that it’s hurting innovation in the US especially at a time where innovation is one of the longer term answers to US economic success in the future. Some of the patent disputes are silly. I remember seeing this article and thinking to myself that yes, all tablets look like iPads but the author seem to also have missed that most devices look similar to each other long before the iPad. The Lenovo PC tablets look very similar to the Dell Latitude tablets that look very similar to the Asus tablets. It’s the nature of the beast. I’d hate to imagine if someone in home building patented open-concept homes or that cars have 4 wheels in the 1920s. Imagine how much further we’d be as a civilization.

WebOS is a failure of HP, not a failure of WebOS
Launching (or in this case re-launching) any new platform is hard. Even when Google first launched Android, it took many a year before it became the success that it is today. WebOS is a decent enough OS. While I read that HP spent a lot of money in terms of marketing it, I don’t think I’ve come across any ads for it. I suspect that HP marketed it like it was 1999 with tactics such as in store marketing, etc. The market has changed but HP hasn’t. I sincerely hope that someone else (even HTC) picks up WebOS. It deserves a much better fate than it got.

Hopes for Google Plus

I haven’t been a big fan of social networks to date. Largely because I believe that social networks are defined by people and not so much by software. Software does have a place though and can play a very big part. Until now, social networks have been synonymous with Facebook. For me, Facebook is a social channel like Twitter, Flickr, Buzz and email just to name a few.

The nice thing about Google’s social effort is that it isn’t about figuring out what features it has to prioritize to go to market with; it’s been mostly about how to package it so that it will be most interesting and useful to the members of a new community. Google was able to start with having Picasa as their default web album, YouTube for their videos, Talk for their messaging infrastructure and Gmail for email and relationships. The concern about not having enough data seems to be a bit unfounded in general.

Here is where I hope Google Plus will be different because it has a strong opportunity to be different. My biggest concern about Google Plus is that it will be another walled garden like the other channels today. If it is, it will have to try to persuade people to add another channel that is unlikely going to be unique. The theme of how Google can be different relates around consolidation and aggregation. This plays into some of Google’s key strength as part of the reason why their search is so powerful is that it intelligently identifies duplication and removes it from the search results.

I am starting to suffer from social channel burn out. Although I have joined as many channels as I know of today, I participate in very few which really defeats the purpose of a channel. One of the nice features that Google Plus has today is that it allows you the ability to interact with others through Google Plus and email. Hopefully, over time they will allow you to interact with people through the other channels as well and allow people to interact with others using the channel that is most meaningful to them. However, in doing do, Google has to duplicate the information at times as there is a strong likelihood that members of the same circle could need to be reached over multiple channels. Plus then needs to consolidate that information so it’s not represented multiple times in my stream otherwise it would generate a lot of noise. This would be no different then any other social channel today.

Personally, I find myself using Google Plus more and more. A large part of that has to do with Gmail being my primary email provider both personally and professionally. This decision makes sense; Gmail is where the concept of contacts and relationships are most prevalent. Lately, Google has also embedded Talk and Voice within Gmail, using it as a launch point for these services. While Google doesn’t work with Google Apps right now, there are plans to accelerate its availability to Google App users. However, making it available will not be enough. They also need a way to somehow consolidate the experience where my relationships between those accounts or personalities are not duplicated by rather aggregated in an intelligent way. Just as I hope that Google will find a way to aggregate the information coming through my stream, I am also hoping that Google will consolidate my critical services (email, chat, voice and video communications) through Plus as well.

There is without a doubt that social is a big deal for Google. In very many ways, it is the same reason why Android is and was important to Google – it’s a way to feed their gigantic advertising machine. It is a way of gathering more information about you so it can feed you more relevant advertisement to you. At the same time, they are also giving you access to the data you create and hopefully manage and own. Regardless of why they launch Google Plus or what features they launch, I hope they will be different because they need to be.

Google Voice

 

The other app that I absolutely fell in love with while I was in Hawaii was Google Voice for Android. Google Voice is the re-brand of Grand Central which Google purchased a while ago. What I love about it is that it is such a pragmatic and usable implementation of VOIP and mobile. Google Voice comes with all of the basic VOIP features such as call forwarding, dedicated phone number, cheap long distance and voice mail that can be forwarded to your email. It also comes with other premium features such as the ability to send SMS and transcribing voice mail to text. All for the whopping price of free.

 

What makes Google Voice, however is how it’s implemented. Google Voice gives you the option to override your current phone number. For instance, I have a Boston area code as my Google Voice number. When I was in Hawaii, my Google Voice number would be forwarded to the Hawaii number. When I call out from my phone, it shows my Boston number. The reason why this is great is because I typically get a new SIM card on most of my trips to the US. This allows me to provide my parents with one constant number where they can consistently reach me at. Since most pre-paid plans don’t cover long distance, routing my calls to Canada through Google Voice allows me to save quite a bit of money. When I’m back in Toronto, Google Voice is forwarded to my Skype number which is then forwarded to my Toronto number. I like this setup as I’m constantly on Skype and it allows me to intercept a call on my notebook if I’m at my desk. Similarly with SMS, I love how I can send and receive US SMS messages for free.

 

Given that it is a Google service, you can also execute most of these features from the web. For instance, I could call my brother from the web and it’ll connect the call from my brother to a phone number that I’ve preset on Google Voice. This is one of the ways I use to save money calling to the US.  I can also send SMS messages like I would send an email message. You also have the ability to listen to your voicemails from the web page. It’s the way managing telecommunication should be.

 

The only issue that I have with Google Voice is that it doesn’t work seamlessly in Canada. In order for me to use the service, I had to set up my account while I was in the US. There is no means to forward the call to a Canadian number unless you had a legacy GrandCentral number. There’s also a change in FroYo that I can’t validate. It seems like Google Voice is disabled in Canada. It will work if you had Google Voice set up before the upgrade. To enable it, you have to pop in a US SIM card and enable Google Voice over wifi. That being said, it’s an awesome service and I can’t wait to be able to use it fully here.

 

 

Google Navigation comes to Canada

After months of waiting, Google Navigation finally comes to Canada. I was lucky enough to have been able to play with it in my trip to Hawai earlier this year and have to say that I fell in love with it. I first dabbled with navigation on the Android with first MotoNav which I found quite confusing and CoPilot which I found better. After all the hype with Google navigation, I couldn’t help but be tempted to try it out.

The way I use Google Navigation is really an extension of Google Maps. In fact, that’s how I typically start my search. I typically try finding the location by address or by name. Once the location is found, one of the options on any point is “Navigate”

Things I like about Google Navigation:

Simple interface. As per Google’s trademark design, the interface is to the point. You have very limited options to what you can do with the screen that doesn’t deal with navigating to a point. If it can’t pinpoint your location via GPS, it keeps you in the route view which then allows you to figure out where you are visually.

Close integration with Google Maps. Let’s face it. For most people, if we are going to look for directions, given a choice, we would naturally use Google as our means to search for anything including direction. Google Navigation makes. This really easy to do through Google Maps.

Smart announcements. One of the small but smart choices when it comes to Google Navigation is how and when it announces things. Google Navigation will announce changes twice only: around 300m and 2km before the exit instead of the sometimes random announcements that was prevalent with Tomtom for Windows Mobile. Another thing that was really interesting is that on the highway, most of the exit announcements matched the signs on the highway making it easier to know when to exit.

It’s free. It’s a free product to use costing only data charges. It also works surprisingly well even on EDGE

Things I don’t love or worry about Google Navigation

The voice is annoying. While I don’t feel that I need the voice of Mr. T or Darth Vader to navigate me on my journey, the default voice on Google Navigation is quite unclear at times and pronunciation is more or less a crapshoot.

Accuracy of routing. While I trust that Google Maps will always have the latest point of interest, I do worry about how frequently will Google update there routing information. There are a number of times in Hawaii when I was routed through a back route to a location when a straighter and simpler path existed.

It’s dependent on live internet access. It works well until you don’t have data. This is bad in the scenario where you’re driving in rural areas (which is likely when you need it most) or if your data provider runs into issues.

Points of Interests functionality is inconsistent. The functionality is also known as Categories in Google Maps. I found that it worked well for me in Hawaii, I couldn’t seem to get it to work in Richmond Hill when I was looking for gas stations.

Despite it’s cons, Google Navigation is quite a usable product. It covers the most requested features for a GPS application and it’s the whopping price of free. I’m curious to see how other vendors plan to compete with Google to make their product more compelling.