Googlies From Google

The somewhat esoteric title of this post comes from a cricket bowling action. But it really sums up the (nice) surprises Google offers its clients. But first the good news for all you non-North American readers. GMail has finally gone public and is available for the US/Canada. The service will be rolled-out in phases to other regions.

In a departure from the usual service signup, GMail is currently available only to mobile phone users. The service sends an SMS invitation that you use to sign-up to the service. And your registration too is via SMS. This radical departure from the usual mail invitation process was necessiated to prevent spammer and robots from setting up disposable email IDs that when misused would have lost GMail considerable goodwill.

But Google is not just a search engine. And more recently a free web-based mail service. The company also offers a great software collection. Mostly of which is free with a few commercial versions. But even these often have a feature-limited free version available as well.

But before we snarf our way through the pack, do check out the new Jabber-based GoogleTalk client. The Beta is available for Windows 2000/XP/2003. With Linux and MacOS versions planned. It supports both text-based messaging and very clear VoIP. You need a GMail account ID to login to the service. The interface is simple. But the Beta has an annoying bug that only lets it connect to the Web via a proxy server! So unless you run a proxy, GoogleTalk won’t connect!

The chat interface is quite basic. There is a level meter for microphone and speaker. As well as a VoIP connection quality of service meter similar to a mobile phone’s signal strength display. VoIP seems very dependent on what your connection supports. I was audible to a friend. But his responses appeared to be coming from deep under the sea with lots of latency.

If you have a GMail ID. Don’t want to use VoIP. And are unable to get Google Talk to connect. Try any instant messaging client (Trillian Pro, GAIM) that supports the Jabber protocol. Your server name is talk.google.com. You can also apply command line hacks like /nomutex to open more than one instance including signing in twice using different IDs.

Other command line tips include /forcestart, /autostart, /register, /checkupdate, /nogaiaauth, /plaintextauth, /factoryreset, /gaiaserver and /create_sesion. Or you could try /mailto someiD@mail.com to open a GMail “Compose mail” dialog in your browser.

Equally interesting is Google Earth, a rich mapping application that helps you fly through a global database of Earth imagery. To which I was introduced a few day ago by my friend Jagan P. He’s very interested in old military aircraft (war birds) and runs the high-traffic Warbirds of India web site.

Warbirds of India now features Google Earth-derived imagery of the Indian Air Force Museum big aircraft collection piled together at one end of Delhi Indira Gandhi International Airport.

Bird's eye view of India's Rashtrapathi Bhavan, New Delhi courtesy Google EarthGoogle Earth needs a 128 kbps or better connection. But I was able to run it using my 115 kbps CDMA wireless connection too. The interface is very easy to use. Just type in the first search layer (e.g. India). Or pan-scan the globe to find your country of choice. Then zoom in slowly using the mouse wheel. Click and grab shifts map focus. You can also change viewing angles to look at 3-dimensional (3D) buildings. The bottom of the screen window displays the map coordinates. I was even able to locate my parents house complete with the 4 large trees that surround it! I then zipped off to Chandigarh and the Himalayan foot hills. Unfortunately the day the image was captured there was low cloud cover. It was hard to view ground features through all those white blobs.

Google Earth’s available in a free version with limited zoom and focus and a $400 Pro edition. Luckily the latter’s available as a 7-day trial that superimposes Trial Mode on the image. You have to register for a license key. Google Earth uses the commercial Keyhole satellite service for maps combined with Google’s native search APIs. Most images were taken over the past 3 years but not all areas are equally well represented. For more on coverage, click here. There’s also a whole site dedicated to Google Earth hacks.

And then there’s Blogger.com which is one of the more famous and widely used blogging services. Not strictly a downloadable application. Its actually a web-based service. Where you can register for free and begin posting your first blog really fast. Blogger offers its own free Blogspot publishing service. Or you can host your blog on your own server; as I did for a while. There’s a very vibrant user community. Which is good because Blogger Support is terrible. Yes, there is an FAQ and a Knowledge base. But unless the problem fits the solution exactly, there’s little hope of issue resolution. Harsh words perhaps, but I’ve been at the receiving end of the stick for a personal blog. Unfortunately spammers seems to have ‘discovered’ Blogger and there are lots of single post Blogs acting as gateway pages.

Equally well-known is the Google Toolbar for Internet Explorer and for Firefox. Besides the usual web search, pop-up blocking, page rank display, and search term highlighting within a results page. This toolbar offers an AutoLink feature linking (US addresses only) a favored dining-out or vacation spot to a map of the area. AutoLink can also track consignment numbers to delivery status, VIN numbers (US) to vehicle history and publication ISBN numbers to Amazon.com listings. AutoFill saves form data and let’s you insert it with a single mouse click. Private credit card information are encrypted into a protected container to prevent misuse.

The SpellCheck (derived from GMail’s inline spell-checker) tracks spellings in any web form including web-based email and discussion forums. Did you know that spellers derived from the Google edition are available as plug-ins for the other text area-based editors. As also for blogging tools like the open-source WordPress?

The Toolbar’s WordTranslator feature is meant for non-English speakers. And hovering the mouse cursor over an English word offers its Chinese (Traditional, Simplified), Japanese, Korean, French, Italian, German and Spanish versions. There’s also a web-based version that you can use to translate between 116 different languages, including a few weird one like Bork (Swedish Chef), Elmer Fudd (from Bugs Buggy cartoons who swaps W for R), and Klingon (of Star Trek fame).

The Google Desktop search application offers full text indexing for email, files, music, photos, chat transcripts and web pages viewed. It also helps gather live Web data using its Sidebar feature. This displays new email, weather and stock information, personalized news, RSS/Atom feeds, and more. Quick Find launches applications and displays search results as you type without opening the browser. Beta 2 extends Outlook integration so you can launch the application from within Outlook and view the results immediately. Google Desktop also offers index encryption. And a Developer SDK and plug-ins are available. As is a separate Enterprise Edition.

The Hello service is an extension of the Picasa utility. And lets you connect directly with friends to share digital pictures. Its a sort of instant picture messenger. You select the images to share and click send. And supports exchange of full-resolution, print-quality images.

Picasa is a neat image manager. That’s great if you have a digital camera. Its far more powerful that the free tools included with most cameras. As also Windows XP. Of course this is not Adobe PhotoExpress (which is actually a scaled down version of the Photoshop graphics editing suite). But Picasa is more than adequate for what if offers. Use it find, edit and share pictures stored on your hard disk. Every time Picasa is launched, it auto-locates images and sorts them into albums organized by date with recognizable folder names. Also available is editing tools that let you clean up images. Then email or print photos, burn to a CD-/RVD, post to a blog or share via Hello.

And a quick view of something non-Google. PassMark DiskCheckup (free for personal use) uses SMART (Self Monitoring Analysis & Reporting Technology) interface between the PC’s BIOS and installed hard disks to monitors possible long term drive failure including Spin Up times, start/stops, hours powered on and temperature. DiskCheckup displays the current SMART values with the Threshold value for a particular attribute. as well as drive serial number, model number, cylinders, tracks and sectors per track.

That’s enough for you to chew on. I’m on a two week hiatus from the column. And the next edition will be on September 19, 2005. Be there.

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