Google and China

Lots going on today re: Google’s decision to possibly back out of China.

Harry McCracken, a WordPress.com VIP, just posted Exactly Right, Google. Exactly Right with a great summary of what this all means:

For as long as western companies have been doing business in China–under Chinese laws–there’s been a fundamental question that’s been a subject of immense controversy: Are they helping to make China more free, or are they helping the Chinese government prevent more freedom?

Until now, Google has been one of a number of U.S. Web companies that has willingly provided a censored version of its services in China as a prerequisite of doing business there. It’s maintained that providing the Chinese people with access to some information is better than denying them access to Google entirely, and its Chinese search engine has carried a disclaimer that some links are suppressed.

He also mentioned this:

“But I’m very proud of the fact that Automattic, the creators of WordPress and the company that hosts Techologizer, has refused to censor WordPress.com blogs in China”

It’s going to be very interesting to see what happens next.

WordPress.com Gears

It’s been live for a few days, but now we have officially announced Gears support for WordPress.com.

WordPress version 2.6 ( currently in beta ) also has Gears support.

So what is Gears ?

Gears? It is a browser extension like Flash or QuickTime/Media Player. However Gears works with the browser to enhance web based applications. It can create local database and file storage, and run JavaScript in the background to update them without slowing down the browser.

Gears has been in the making for over a year and is well known among the web developers. Currently it supports Firefox versions 2 & 3 and Internet Explorer versions 6 & 7. Safari 3 support is coming soon.

On WordPress.com it is used to store all images and other web page components from the admin area to the user’s PC, speeding up access and reducing unnecessary web traffic.

The speed increase is most noticeable when Internet is slow or on high latency and makes everybody’s blogging experience more enjoyable.

How do you turn it on for your blog ?

To enable this new feature, click on the “Turbo” link and follow it to Gears’ site to install it in your browser (if not already installed). Then the browser will have to be restarted and after logging back in WordPress, click the “Turbo” link again to give permission to Gears to work on WordPress.com.

After that Gears will download around 200 files and store them on your PC. It will also update them when needed automatically in the background, no other actions are required.

Update: you can follow the coverage over on techmeme: http://www.techmeme.com/080702/p72#a080702p72

Apparently My Family is Secretly Making Gmail Better

A few months ago I switched from gmail to google apps for personal email and subsequently also moved over a few of my family members.  Little did I know that these family members have been secretly working on new cool gmail features as part of Google’s “Labs” effort.

Take a look at what appears at the bottom of my google apps email settings page :)

And joining the “Bar-Cohen Family Mail team” has many benefits:

The team
We work on lots of different things: making email better, faster, and more fun, and developing new ways for users to share and communicate with each other. We take on hard computer science problems — like making large amounts of Javascript run insanely fast on different browsers, storing and scaling petabytes of data, and ridding the world of spam. And Gmail is like a start up inside Google. You can build and ship new stuff quickly, and enjoy all the great benefits Google is known for.

Gotta love it !  :)

Switched to Google Apps for Personal Email

Over the holidays I was testing Google Apps and except for a small false positive spam issue with google alerts — I was really impressed.

The reason I was testing it was to see if I could replace my gmail account with one of my own email accounts, using my own domain — but running on google apps. Google Apps essentially allows you to use all the Google services like email, docs, calendar, etc — but using your own domain (i.e. myname.com).

The main motivator for me was to have a permanent email address that had great web interface, and also pop/imap support for a desktop client.

My old personal email setup:
* hosting: running on my own server
* Spam: using SpamAssasin to filter out spam. It worked fairly well but required some maintenance overhead of keeping up with new versions and tweaking the spam’s whitelist was a chore
* Webmail: the default Squirrel webmail was good, but not amazing
* Search: using Thunderbird for search when you had gigs of email was tough, and webmail search was OK

My move to gmail:
Then in July 2004 I signed up to test gmail and was amazed. I was tired of endless mailboxes/archive rules/folders of the Outlook/Eudora/Thunderbird world. Gmail had:
* awesome search
* no folders ( but simple & powerful labels )
* virtually unlimited storage
* killer feature — the threaded view which I’m amazed hasn’t been copied by every mail provider (and conversely i’m amazed gmail doesn’t offer a non-threaded view for people who just hate the threaded model)
* really solid spam protection

In addition to gmail’s great features I found that I needed a google account to use i-google, google reader, google webmaster tools,etc and I quickly found myself just using the gmail address as my person email address, and forwarding all my old accounts to the gmail address. ( since then google has changed the google account setup so you can use a non-gmail address for google services )

I can still easily call up the Gmail welcome email:

You’re one of the very first people to use Gmail. Your input will help determine how it evolves, so we encourage you to send your feedback, suggestions and questions to us.

I recall emailing in and saying that they should support domain mapping so you could have email@yourdomain.com. Fast forward a few years, and google now has that option. I quickly set it up on google apps, made some DNS changes and was up and running in no time.

Google Apps
I’ve been using google apps for about a month now, and here are a few observations:
* the free version I’m using is perfect for my use. They do offer premium options of larger organizations.
* everything you would expect with gmail you have with google apps – including docs, calendar, etc
* the mobile blackberry app for google apps works great
* with the calendar there are some extra features for people “on your domain” to always have access to your calendar
* outside services that provide a way to grab your gmail address book ( such as facebook ) do not work with google apps – this could be considered a good thing for some people :)
* moving my gmail emails to google apps was relatively painless. Details & lots of discussion at Scott Hanselman’s blog.

WordPress.com Support:
If you have a blog at WordPress.com and are using a mapped domain as I now do with this blog, you can enable Google Apps for that same domain. Details are here in our faq.

Wish List:
* Fix the “on behalf of” issue. If you use multiple email addresses, gmail and google apps are easy to setup to receive those emails. But when you send out using those non gmail/google apps addresses, certain recipients – especially those using Outlook – will see a “on behalf of email@gmail.com” in the “From” field.UPDATE: Now fixed.

Conclusion:
Pretty much a no brainer. If you love gmail, want your own domain, and like having the safety to know that you can pop/imap your email, and move it at any time — google apps is a great choice.

The Great Sync on OS X: Google Calendar, Plaxo, address book, PocketMac and BlackBerry

While many people, including myself, can find plenty to gripe about with Outlook & MS Exchange , one thing that is rock solid is the over-the-air syncing with BlackBerry devices. Both email and calendar appointments sync fairly effortlessly and reliably.

In the non MS Exchange world syncing hasn’t been so easy, especially on the Mac side of the world. But with a bit of testing that I did recently with the google calendar mobile sync I think I’m finally in good shape.

Here is my setup.
- for contacts: The Plaxo Mac OS X app keeps my OS X address book and plaxo.com in sync. My contacts don’t sync over the air to my BlackBerry curve, but when I plug my blackberry in to charge ( using a USB cable ) I run PocketMac which then syncs the contacts. I expect a plaxo blackberry sync client to come out in the future.
- for email: The blackberry push email system does this all automatically, so no need to do anything extra.
- for calendar: This was a serious pain point for me. I use Google Calendar and for the last few months I’ve been forced to basically use the WAP site for Google Calendar when I was on the go. It worked OK, but it meant no offline support. Now that Google Sync has been released my calendar updates in real time on my Blackberry — and works the other way — updating Google Calendar OTA if I make changes on my BlackBerry.

So there you have it. Definitely not as elegant as it could be, but finally everything is in sync !

Google Apps email flags Google alerts (sent to gmail) as Spam

I’m playing around with google apps, and one great feature is the ability to import in existing gmail accounts – all email messages and even labels.

One thing I assumed was that no messages from my gmail spam folder would be imported – and that turned out to be true. But after the gmail import I noticed a bunch of message in the new google apps account’s spam folder. On closer inspection they were all legit messages including google alerts sent to my gmail account. A bit convoluted, but if this is still making sense to you, it looks like google apps email hasn’t white-listed google messages.

Odd, no ? See screenshot below showing google alerts for a stock I follow, MVIS:

google apps flags alerts as spam

BlackBerry update: battery died, google maps update and google calendar sync

* I was in DC wrapping up a trip last week when I couldn’t get my blackberry curve 8300 to boot-up. I figured the battery just drained to zero, but after plugging it in I quickly realized the battery was dead. Luckily I had access to another blackberry curve and was able to borrow that battery for a day. I called around to a few at&t stores in DC, and to my surprise they did not sell batteries. Anyway, long story short, after calling at&t customer care, they fedexed me a new battery and I’m back in action !

* The new google maps update came out a week or so ago ( from your mobile browser: http://google.com/gmm ) and it now has “My Location” which is pretty sweet. If you don’t have GPS, it can now use cell tower triangulation to approximate your location. When I was in NYC, it was accurate within a block. In DC it was within 500 meters or so, and in SF it seems to be within 1000 meters on average. So it’s by no means a replacement for GPS, but when doing a search for a cafe for example, it’s great that you can search within your area without putting in the street or zip code.

* Google Calendar Sync was just released. It syncs your google calendar to your blackberry’s native calendar – which for me has been a wish-list item for a long time. After running the initial sync, you may want to hop into the the options menu on the mobile app and make sure it’s grabbing all the calendars you wish to have. In my setup I have a few different calendars being imported into gCal, and the mobile app appears to default to only one calendar. So far it seems to work really well.

Google Maps Street View: Halloween style

google street view halloween pic A day early, but good to see the Google holiday treatment isn’t confined to just logos on google.com.

While trying to find a good cafe in SF today I noticed something a bit different in google maps street view mode.

It appears to be a witch on her broomstick in place of the normal icon.

Click over to google map and select “Street View” (upper right corner) to see it in action.

Google Maps Street View – wow & my thoughts

Google Street View

This is really getting impressive. Instead of just map mode, or even the satellite view, you can now see a street view as taken by a roving SUV. A9/Amazon had similar map tech for commercial streets, but discontinues it at some point. Google (GOOG) has taken this up a notch, and provided a great user experience.

With any new tech there is always an initial evaluation phase and hopefully some course corrections/improvements in the pipeline. There has been a lot of coverage that this new feature creates privacy concerns(nytimes.com). SFgate has a view showing a man attempting to jump over a fence perhaps — but who really know. And a bunch of people have picked up on some embarrassing/interesting photos – laudontech.com and mashable.com have coverage.

Here are my thoughts:

The good:

- extremely useful in scouting out new areas for apartments. I expect sites like craiglist to link to this directly in short order.

- useful for evaluating businesses locations, and any other commercial real estate deals.

- helpful for simulating what it’s like to navigate in a new area. Imagine you were planning a bike ride or a walk. Using the Street View you can really tell block by block what it’s like to go through those streets.

- I use Google Earth quite a bit too, but this on-the-ground angle is extra useful. Maybe this could be incorporated into GEarth down the line.

The Bad:

- Privacy concerns are real. We don’t know how often they update the photos ( maybe once a year ? ), but having your face show up outside a strip joint is a problem on all kinds of levels. For all we know, that man was just parking his car and was at the wrong place at the wrong time. A photo like this has no context and it’s at least semi-permanent in the google system.

The challenge:

- We all know that certain things are public, and being photographed in public is perfectly legal. We also know that divorce/marriage proceedings and other official court documents are public, and we want them to remain that way. The challenge today is the ease of accessing this public information. Going down to the courthouse to look something up took effort. Clicking your mouse a few times isn’t quite the same.

Conclusion:

I’m a supporter of all these kinds of services, including finding out how much your neighbor paid for that house. What I do recommend is the following:

1) Proper and expedient recourse: If you are going to put up photos or documents that are public and mistakes will inevidebly be made — make sure the public, and more importantly the individual who may be put in a bad spot, has a way to quickly and easily correct the record. (Update: looks like there is a process for requesting photo removals, and people have had some success )

2) Consider excluding personally identifiable information if it doesn’t add value. A person’s face on the side of the street probably doesn’t add much to the google maps street view service. The same technology that could identify our faces in photos ( I’m thinking the original Riya service for example ), could also probably allow google to identify any face and blur out the persons features.

3) Own your own identity. This is a bit more effort, but people need to own their own identity online – via blogs, social network profiles, etc – so that a search for your name doesn’t bring up some strange public record result as result #1 — but rather, it should return the site that you want it to.