Sunday, September 6, 2009

In Google We Trust

Well, in Google I trust. I have to trust them as I've pretty much given over my entire digital identity to them. So, why am I drawn to Google services? What is it about them that makes them such a good fit for me? I decided to put together an article to run down those services I use including Gmail, Google Code, Google Docs, Picasa, and obviously Blogger now. Warning! This is purely an opinion piece for my own edification. There's not really any objective comparisons that will be made, but you might glean a bit of information that is interesting to you...or maybe not. So let's start with Gmail.


Ah, the gateway drug for me. I avoided it for quite a while because of the embedded ads. Like many, I didn't like the privacy ramifications of them targetting ads based on the contents of my emails. I also tend to want to control things when I can, and since I had a web server already I figured I could just use that for email accounts. But then I wanted webmail. I grew tired of migrating my inbox when I reinstalled/moved between operation systems. At the time the only options from my hosting provider were Squirrelmail and something called Horde. Pretty basic stuff, fine for checking things occasionally, but not for day to day use. I tried running RoundCube locally and playing with my MX records to redirect mail, but then I had to worry about uptime and redundancy. And although RoundCube had the promise of Ajax coolness it wasn't that great either, so I decided to give gmail a try.

So I created my current codertimt account and had it fetch mail from my other account(s). It took a little bit to get used to the threaded model, but now I can't stand any other way. I find the inteface to be clean and simple(a recurring theme driving my Google-lust) and fast. Labels are easily applied and worked and best of all I don't have to worry about storing or moving any mail messages. I just have to trust Google to not screw anything up. The ads are actually quite low key and I just try not to think about the privacy stuff. :) Again, trust.
Of course this need for threaded Gmail has screwed me up a bit in regards to my iphone mail usage. I can't stand to use the native mail app and since Google won't build anything but a web app, my iphone usage has been a little cumbersome. The iphone mobile web site is quite functional, but a bit on the slow side of the cellular network, I think a native app would be better in this regard since it wouldn't have to download any web page layout cruft and also wouldn't have to render in Safari. It's not too bad, but a pain and takes a while to login and check for new messages. I had considered setting up the mail app to check for new messages so I could be alerted, but never went to the trouble. I didn't want the repeated account and I wasn't sure if it would automatically update when I read new messages on the web or if I would have to open up the mail app and mark as read. I think it would over IMAP, but I never really made the attempt. Then with OS 3.0, Apple gave us Push alerts. And someone created a push app for gmail, so now I have an icon with overlay and notifications showing me new messages and I only have to open Safari to get them if I desire. Makes the iphone/gmail experiece much more pleasant.

The last thing that is very nice about having Google deal with your mail is when you need to find something, the search work great. I don't know if you're aware, but Google does search pretty well, and that carries over into Gmail. It's so much quicker/easier to find something on my Gmail account than when I have to dig up an old email from Outlook at work.

So, I'm sold on Gmail as being the best email service, but what else does Google have to offer? How about code repositories and document storage/editing?

Google Code
A few years ago I started development on a music player for an open source handheld gaming device called the GP2X. As any developer know, the worst feeling in the world is to lose source code after spending hours working on a project. And after having lost a local cvs repository by not backing it up, I decided I was going to use an off site code repository for this project. So I was immediately drawn to the big daddy of open source repos, Sourceforge. I created a sourceforge project late on Friday and at the end of the process discovered it had to be approved. After waiting a few hours into Saturday I decided to check out an alternative from Google I remembered hearing about. A quick signup and automatic approval process later I had secured

It's probably not as feature rich as sourceforge, but aside for my desire to be able to organize downloads it fits the bill nicely. The no frills presentation is clean and simple and makes it easy to find what your looking for. It has a small issue tracker which I don't use much, a wiki for documentation and most importantly a subversion repository to keep all of my code safe...I just have to trust Google once again not to lose anything.

Google Docs
Now, I'm not a big Office program user. I don't create large Excel spreadsheets or fancy Powerpoint presentations. I occasionally need to type up a document, that's about it. Long ago I stopped worrying about having a copy of MS Office at home, a download of OpenOffice more than meets my needs, but wouldn't it be nice if I could get to my little documents on whatever machine, without emailing them to myself.

Enter Google Docs. It works great for my simple purposes. I can start something while I'm at work and then just bring it up and finish at home. Or quickly type something up at home to print out at work. And I don't have to worry about it getting lost during a drive format now. Again, the uncluttered interface is easy to get around in, but all your basic functionality is there. It's useful also as a holding area for docs and pdfs. Although it's still not my promised Gdrive.

Google Docs are obviously not gohing to unseat Office anytime soon, but there are already some things such as document sharing, the architecture easily allow for and thus by default trumps the MS offering. Look for seamless collaborative editing once Google Wave hits and there might be cause for companies to take note. At least small companies, big coorporations will be stuck protecting their IP while the rest of the world takes to the clouds for teir computing... Anyway, enough of that, lets talk about something image manipulation.

One area of normal, everyday life where technology has majorly changed is photography. Gone are the days of having film developed for the everyman and enter the time of digital photo storage. We personally have images dating back to our first 0.8MP Digital Camera in 1999. So obviously we need a way to organize and share them.

My first decent digital camera was an HP Photosmart 812 and thus my first photo software was the HP software. Generally I only used it for printing though(which it did very well, to this day it's the only software I've found that realizes you can fit 3 4x6 photos on one piece of paper), I just used Windows Explorer to view thumbnails and did my simple editing(crop, resize, red-eye reduction) with the GIMP. As the photo collection has grown and my wife has become more involved with the process, this no longer was going to cut it.

A couple years ago, my wife bought a Kodak camera and installed the Easyshare software that came with it. She though it was nice and easy to use, I thought it was bloated, slow to load, slow to use and generally an unusable piece of crap. Unfortunately, the camera driver was tied to the software and when I tried to remove it the camera was no longer recognized. So I left it installed and tried to ignore it. I installed Picasa alongside it, but never really used it too much and couldn't convince her to work with enter Windows 7.

After installing Windows 7 I plugged in our Kodak Z1012 and it was immediately recognized by the OS. Here was my chance to break away from the Easyshare software. I installed Picasa again and so far am loving it. It has a very slick interface and is very fast. Things such as cropping and red-eye reduction are much easier than working in the GIMP and everything should be intuitive enough for the wife to transition. I think once she starts using it, she will realize how much better it truly is. And plugins like picasa2facebook which allows easy uploading to facebook albums will definitely help sway opinion in favor of Picasa. Speaking of uploading pics, that leads us to Picasa Web Albums.
From Screen Captures

Picasa Web Albums
Once we have our massive photo collection under control, we probably want to share some of these with the world right...or at least friends and families. Once I started organizing photos again, I realized I really need to make sure all of our memories are backed up somewhere. Well, I already knew this as in the past a rough Linux distro decided to format a partition I had asked it not to and for a 4 hour period or so, I though I had lost all my photos. Managed to recover them.

Anyway, I started looking for an online service to backup photos, plus share them. I thought I had found a good solution with flickr as they will store your pics in full resolution and you can get them back in full resolution with a Pro account. So I made an impulse purchase of a Pro account...turns out it's not that easy to get the pics back and their terms of service don't really guarantee they won't just delete your account if they see fit. In other words, they aren't really a backup service. Plus getting the 20GB of images would take awhile. I may try some other online backup service at some point, but for now I decided to just make copies on multiple drives...that should be pretty safe...

That brings us back to sharing our pics. I have a flickr Pro account now, so that seems like a good choice. I find a plugin to allow uploading from Picasa and all is well...right? Well as much as I want to use the account I paid for, I just don't find the flickr process/site compelling. I decide to try out Picasa Web Albums as they should have the best integration for Picasa anyway and quickly fell in love. Again, simple and clean interface. The pictures load tons faster than flickr. Easy to have a private album and send viewing invitations... So I'll be ready for our next family vacation... In the meantime, I'm just blogging about it...
Hey, what a lead-in. Obviously I'm using Blogger for this blog. I don't really have much to say about it. It's not an original Google product, so it doesn't have quite the same clean and simple feeling to it, although it's not too bad. I hate WYSIWYG editors and the code they create, but as long as I don't view the HTML too much it's not too bad. It integrates into Google quite well, setting up Adsense was quite simple. Otherwise it's just kind of a means to an end.

I'll finish up this little(hah) article with one of my newest favorite toys. Google Chrome. I am a long time Firefox proponent and it took me quite a while to even consider using Chrome. My experience with Nokia tablets, the iPhone Safari and playing with OSX Safari a little made me realize that Webkit based browsers can be quite nice. So I decided to give Chrome a try on the new Windows 7 install. The integrated Google search/url bar make so much sense and it make great use of screen space. Seems to be more memory efficient than Mozilla based browsers. Once again, I'm hooked. I'll still have to keep Firefox around for some web development stuff, but Chrome is now here for day to day.

That about wraps it up. I've pretty much trusted Google for all of my online activities. And it's mostly because their idea of UI design meshes well with mine. Keep it simple, and work well. It's the very same reason Google took over web search and the reason I stay with Google search over new options such a Bing. You may give me the best results in the world, but if your interface gets in they way, you still lose. Anyway, if you made it this far, thanks for reading.... Now go Google something.

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