Friday, May 17, 2013

Google unveils multiple product improvements

While many watching Google's announcements at this years Google I/O event will have been all eyes on Glass, there were several other significant unveilings that might have been overlooked by some.

The search giant has continually strived to improve and streamline its array of cloud based products, and this week brought more than a few changes.

Mapping a new direction

Google Maps is set for a major overhaul with a new improved interface and suggestions based upon a user's searches within the product. While there will no doubt be some privacy campaigners crying foul at Google's collecting of even more information about its users, the suggestions could make maps much more personal and geared to an individual's tastes and preferences. Streetview has also been augmented with further additions to Google's underwater exploits [BBC].

Google has partnered with The Catlin Seaview Survey, which is taking the pictures and using Google tools to upload the pictures to Google Maps. Richard Vevers of the Catlin Seaview Survey and Jenifer Austin Foulkes, a business product manager for Google Earth & Maps, talked up Google's efforts to bring underwater panoramic images to Google Maps. The Catlin Seaview Survey has two major goals for this project, Vevers said. One is to document the state of the reefs for scientific study. And the other is to bring awareness of both the beauty and fragility of the ocean ecosystem to the public in the hopes that people will take action to protect them. So far, the group has managed to compile images from six different locations including sites off the Philippines, Hawaii and the Great Barrier Reef off of Australia [CNET].

Music streaming

Second up was the announcement that Google Music would now offer a music streaming service in addition to its being a locker for one's own personal music collection. To date Google Music has only rolled out across the USA, Canada, Europe and a handful of other countries, but with the ability to store up to 20,000 tracks for free, and an unlimited number of purchased material from its music store, Google Music has grown in popularity.

Now with a streaming music service set to rival Spotify and Pandora, Google may well begin to dominate the online music arena [SkyGuardian / WSJ]. Spotify charges people $9.99 per month to listen to as many songs as they would like on any device. It also has a free, ad-supported version. Pandora charges $3.99 per month for its radio-style service and has a free, ad-supported version. Apple and Amazon are also trying to compete in cloud music storage and streaming but Google is far more competitive in terms of its pricing. Google is currently offering its streaming service for $7.99 for early adopters until the end of June after which it will cost $9.99. YouTube, which is also owned by Google, recently launched a subscription service for some channels [Daily Mail].

Upload own books

Then there was the announcement that users of Google Books can now upload their own 'books' in either a PDF or Epub format. Files may be uploaded or chosen from items already stored in Google Drive. After a short processing time the files are converted and available to be read as an eBook across all devices signed in to the same account and, in the case of Android devices, with the Google Books app installed [CNET].

This last announcement is particularly useful for those wanting to read documents on the go. The displaying of a book/document in Google Books is particularly comfortable, especially on a tablet, and has several advantages over trying to read a PDF on such a device.

By adding to Google Books the file may be read in Sepia, Night or Day mode. Bookmarks may be added and even notes, as well as being synced across all platforms. Furthermore any book can be pinned, or saved, to the device for offline reading, a distinct advantage when travelling to certain countries where censorship or other regional issues may prevent access to one's book collection.

While Amazon's Kindle app facilitate the uploading of files which are subsequently sent to selected devices, formatting can be hit or miss. In addition page-turning can be slow, despite the fact the document is saved on the device, making things like sheet music difficult to use. The new upload facility is also a snub to Apple's iBooks which as yet does not offer uploads.

GMail payments

Another announcement that may have passed some by was Google's joining its Wallet payment service with its email service allowing users to send payments to anyone, even those not using GMail using their Google Wallet account. The drawback is that it has not yet rolled out to everyone and will only be available to GMail users in the United States [Forbes]. Gmail is also getting a slight facelift with "quick action" buttons [PCMag]. In a blogpost Google said the quick actions will roll out over the next few weeks.

Tweaking Google+

Google+ also saw some changes both to the overall display interface with multiple columns as well as a few tools that will enable those uploading photos to give them a tweak. In all there were 41 changes, though some are hidden away and may not be immediately apparent. Auto Enhance will automatically adjust things like contrast, brightness and colour levels as well as offering some more socially-focused tweaks such as touching up skin to hide blemishes. Those not wishing to hide their bad photography can of course turn the feature off [CNET].

The search giant also announced plans which some see as competition to the iPad in the classroom with Android Engineering Director Chris Yerga taking to the stage to introduce Google Play for Education. Apple is by far the leader in the education space, but with its new educational app marketplace, Google is clearly positioning itself such that it can begin to make a real play at challenging that dominance.

Google has already begun to recruit content partners, with NASA and PBS among those that have already signed on to make their content available to users when the store goes live in the autumn. It is not yet clear whether the new marketplace will be geared only to US students or if Google has plans for a more international audience.

Disappointment & criticism

Despite some key and exciting updates to Google's toybox there was a sense of disappointment too. There were no mentions of the much anticipated Android 5 or Key Lime Pie as it expected to be called. Nor were any new Android devices unveiled. However, it is anticipated that such announcements will come later in the year.

While Google has generally made Android fans and users of its services happy, it has not been a week for celebration for the company which has found itself in hot water after being scolded by British MPs for evading tax [BBC / Guardian]. The issues on tax evasion has focused particularly on multi-national companies including Amazon, Apple and Starbucks who often set up their main offices in countries with a low tax rate. While considered unethical, there is nothing technically illegal about such practices, though it has raised scorn from politicians and newspapers which have whipped up public anger, especially in Britain which is still struggling through a recession and experiencing widescale government cutbacks.

Glass concerns

US politicians too have been seeking answers from the company and asking for reassurances that Google's new smart spectacles, known as Google Glass, will respect personal privacy [BBC]. In a letter [PDF], signed by eight members of Congress, it requests answers from the Silicon Valley based company, such as how it will prevent Glass from collecting sensitive private data without user consent. Congress gave Google until 14th June to respond [The Inquirer].

The new product, which has yet to be released to the public, has already been widely criticised, especially in the tabloid press. At one end of the scale some merely call the new device geeky, creepy or nerdy [BBC]. At the other end of the scale critics say that the device could open up a Pandora's Box as regards people's privacy [BBC / The Register].

Google have so far only said the new augmented glasses will only be available to those aged over 13 years old, though some might consider that too young given the responsibilities and potential safety issues at stake [BBC / Daily Mail] In fact Google's concern with younger children using the device is less to do with privacy that the potential affects on the eyes. "Don't let children under 13 use Glass as it could harm developing vision," Google states on its website.

View ahead

For tech heads everywhere this recent IO conference certainly brought some excitement. For the average user of Google's services, there will perhaps be only a few raised eyebrows, or even a little confusion as some struggle to find their way around new interfaces. Google has changed the face of the Internet, and while a few may grip at the collection of data, through which Google targets advertising, for the most part the search giant has bettered many people's way of using the web. From reading books, listening to music, sharing documents, keeping track of appointments in Google Calendar, tracking financial data or just conducting a search for information, to many the Mountain View Chocolate Factory, as it is sometimes referred, is almost indispensable.

Of course there will be others that will stick to Yahoo mail or Microsoft's revamped Outlook [formerly Hotmail]. And while there is perhaps an issue of Google monopolising the Internet, it has to be said that other Internet company's offerings fail in their ability to do the same job as well. Remember AltaVista or Hotbot? And how big was your storage space in Hotmail or Yahoo before Google's GMail offered a Gigabyte of storage? In 2004 when GMail launched, its rival Hotmail offered only 1/500th while Yahoo Mail offered a mere 1/250th of what Google was offering [Time]. Now Google gives users more than 10 Gb of free storage and a multitude of products that make its rivals seem like mere amateurs. 

Google+ may yet to have ousted Facebook, but they too may be feeling a little pressured, just as Microsoft, Apple and others are. The future of the Internet may well have Google written all over it. Indeed to coin the title of Google CEO Eric Schmidt's new book, we are perhaps facing The New Digital Age.

tvnewswatch, Yunnan, China

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