Why I hate the new Google Maps

I finally allowed myself to be pushed into using the new Google Maps instead of the old familiar one.

Here are all the things that I cannot do as easily as previously.

1 – have it open by default with my own location rather than the blanket map of the USA

2 – immediately find my own list of custom maps. It’s an extra click and I have to know that it appears as a drop down from the search bar. Custom maps have become a lot more complicated to create and manage, too, with “layers” and so on. And there’s a different set of marker icons, differently styled from the old ones. So modifying an existing map, such as the one I maintain for Brighton Early Music Festival, won’t be straightforward if I want to maintain consistent styling.

3 – sharing has changed. It used to be simple: create a map, and embed the HTML provided. Now, for example, the Brighton Early Music Festival map doesn’t properly display the venue markers. Never had a problem before. Still working on this one!

4 – “search nearby” was a simple click from the pin marker on the old version. These pin markers have got “smart” which means that if I search for Victoria Coach Station, when I click or hover on the pin what I get is a list of all the coach services which leave from there. If I right click, I get three options: Directions to here; Directions from here; and What’s here, which doesn’t seem to do anything. If I search for Ebury Street (essentially the same location) I get a pin with no smart hover at all. But the marker does not now pop up nearby information, Directions, Save and Search Nearby options.

5 – no accessible help without going out to separate web pages; and even then the instructions don’t make sense. For example, Google says that “Search nearby” is on a drop down you find by clicking the search box. No, it doesn’t. Not in Firefox. It does, though, appear to work in Chrome. I don’t like being pushed to a different browser.

6 – having found Search nearby, I get given (of course) a set of strange, supposedly related, links. Well I suppose this is what Google does. But for me, it gets in the way.

7 – extra panels and drop-downs obscure parts of the map I’m trying to look at

Now all this, and more, is partly the natural response to changing a familiar application. Let’s assume that overall the product is fuller-featured and more flexible than the old version, and its links to the rest of Google’s information are more capable. But software vendors in general are not always good at user-oriented upgrades. Keep the backward compatibility unless there’s a really, really good reason not to. Icon redesigns, and added complexity in the user interface, are not good reasons.

I’m exploring alternatives. Apple’s new map application doesn’t have near the same level of functionality, and older offerings such as Streetmap haven’t really moved on either. But for (UK) route planning, for example, I’m now using either AA or RAC route planner – which still have the simple, straightforward A-to-B interface.

• Google Maps (new version)
• How to search “nearby” in new Google Maps? Google Forum, 11 Jun 2013
• Google Removes “Search Nearby” Function From Updated Google Maps, contributor to Slashdot, 16 Jan 2014
• Route planners from the AA and RAC
Streetmap (UK)

Google needs content needs Google: listen to Eric Schmidt

Yesterday’s Guardian Media section has a spread trailing a lecture to be given to a media audience on Friday, by Eric Schmidt of Google, at the Edinburgh International Television Festival. The MacTaggart Lecture is sponsored by Media Guardian.

Mainly, the article’s an analysis of the interaction between Google (or search more widely) and the content providers, charting the way the relationship has developed.

Google isn’t a content provider and, largely, has been able to move on from the “copyright busting” image promoted by content providers who targetted both its search business and the range of clips from shows posted on YouTube (owned by Google, of course). Content ID helps: Google’s search capability is harnessed to identifying “pirated” material on YouTube, and providers can either have them removed, advertise against them, or capitalise on them in other ways. YouTube viewers are, after all, a self-generating fan club.

In more depth, the article reviews how the definition of “television” has changed: many people, and a lot of popular content, is now viewed online from archive rather than at the time of broadcast. The BBC’s iPlayer, and other channels’ similar services, facilitate this. And if you watch a commercial channel’s online replay, adverts that get interpolated into the stream. TV replay isn’t killing broadcast advertising; it’s facilitating it.

In the words of the article: “Google needs content creators in order to thrive. Good content drives search, and search drives advertising.” The lecture will be streamed live from 18.45 UK time on Friday: see the link below.

• ‘Google needs television industry’ will be message at Edinburgh, Media Guardian, 21 Aug 2011 (the printed copy Google: let’s make profits, not war was published 22 Aug)
• Dr. Eric Schmidt to deliver MacTaggart Lecture, Edinburgh International Television Festival. The list of past speakers is here.
• Relay of lecture, Friday 26 August, 18.45 BST; see http://www.youtube.com/user/mgeitf and click the link for the 2011 lecture (the link here is current, but may change)
• YouTube ContentID

Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity University, Silicon Valley

Getting back to earth after a great summer culminating in the wedding of my elder son, I came back to the Guardian’s report of this summer’s Singularity University summer school in Silicon Valley. At first view, it sounds like geek heaven: nine weeks in the former Moffett Airfield base, with high profile names like Vint Cerf, Nobel prizewinners and investors; and covering topics from the sub-microscopic (nanotechnology) to the super-macro scale (space science). Participants paid US$25K to attend. What’s it about?

Singularity University (SU from now on) has as its masthead mission: “Preparing humanity for accelerating technological change”. At greater length, this becomes: to “assemble, educate and inspire … leaders who strive to understand and facilitate the development of exponentially advancing technologies in order to address humanity’s grand challenges”. The masthead is somewhat misleading; this is about leading and driving technology, not just reacting to it; but it is about using technology to respond to and overcome “some of the planet’s major problems”.

It was, the Guardian says, the brainchild of the legendary Ray Kurzweil (Chancellor) and space flight pioneer Peter Diamandis (Vice Chancellor). There’s significant support from Google and from Stanford University; Cerf, of course, is now on the Google staff and Stanford’s links include their Media-X research mediation network for industry.

I won’t go over the list of ideas and projects which the Guardian’s report describes; follow the link below to read the article, or go to SU’s overview video linked below.

But the article is perhaps misleading. When I read it, I had the impression of a one-off  summer school. Far from it: SU runs ongoing executive programmes and graduate programmes, and the reported graduate session this year was a pilot for an annual event. The pilot was limited to 40 students. In future, the numbers will be treble this.

Check it out! And by the way, when you land on the home page, there’s a rotating series of photos from this year’s event. There are three panels at left. Two of them link to intake information. It isn’t immediately obvious that the third is the caption for the current pic. The Overview, from the top menu, provides a list of SU’s guiding lights.

The singularity, if I’ve understood it correctly (and only from the outline, not from reading the book), is the point at which human intelligence becomes primarily non-biological: the future Kurzweil envisages is one where the electronic brain-power we deploy comes to dominate human intelligence. So you might also like to look at Ray Kurzweil’s singularity.com website, with details of his book “The Singularity is Near” and links to notes which are, in his view, pointers in that direction.

• Singularity University
• A school for changing the world, The Guardian (Technology section), 3 Sept 2009. There are links to coverage in The Guardian’s weekly tech podcast, and to a picture gallery
The Singulary is Near: book, and other resources

Bing(o) or B(or)ing?

Lots of developments recently for Microsoft-watchers to get their teeth into. I’ve not picked up the individual announcements here, because lots of other people do it; but it’s time for a round up.

So the most recent announcement is Microsoft’s at-long-last deal with Yahoo! which will move Microsoft’s Bing search technology into Yahoo’s space. Subject to regulatory approval it might go live next year.

Well I haven’t seriously tried Bing, so this isn’t a technical evaluation. But for a business analysis of the potential impact of the deal (or lack of it), there’s an interesting discussion on Knowledge@Wharton. In brief, they suggest, the real target of Bing wasn’t Google but precisely to achieve the kind of deal now done with Yahoo. And that the impact on market share will be negligible despite the marketing deals. People like Google. And perhaps that the smaller deal will “invite less anti-trust scrutiny” than last year’s proposal to swallow Yahoo entire.

There’s a joint website called “Choice. Value. Innovation”, set up as if it were a fully fledged independent company with “Investor Relations” and “Press Room”. Draw your own conclusions.

What else? BOPS of course; Microsoft’s Business Online Productivity Suite. The “Standard” package capitalises on existing brands (or tweaks them to work outside the office perimeter): Exchange Online, SharePoint Online, Office Live Meeting, and Office Communications Online.

So BOPS It doesn’t occupy the same space as Google Docs or other offerings like ThinkFree (who I visited with a study tour to Silicon Valley in 2006 and, I must admit, didn’t think they’d still be here by now). It does overlap Google Wave, which I reviewed recently. Gizmodo reports that Office 2010 Web apps will be free; Office Live, Windows Live and Azure exist. Either we can believe that Microsoft is still playing catch-up, when there’s so much technology already out there that’s integrated and works; or we can see the pattern of a lot of pieces about to come together and create something really powerful

Microsoft still owns the business IT mindset. Gartner quote a case study with a headlinecollaboration cost reduction of 20% So what do you think?

• Microsoft-Yahoo a Yawn for Google, Knowledge@Wharton, 29 Jul 2009
Microsoft, Yahoo! Change Search Landscape, Microsoft Press Pass, 29 Jul 2009, featuring videos from both Ballmer of Microsoft and Bartz of Yahoo!
Choice, Value. Innovation.
Business Productivity Online Standard Suite, Microsoft
Move to Microsoft BPOS Cuts Collaboration Costs by 20%, Gartner, 9 Jul 2009 (client access only to full document)
Microsoft Office 2010 Web Apps Will Be Free; Testing Starts Today, Gizmodo, 13 Jul 2009
• Microsoft Windows Live
• Microsoft Office Live and Office Live Small Business Edition
• Microsoft Windows Azure

Chrome, Microsoft and Linux

So Google’s Chrome OS is finally seeing the light of day, with the pitch that it’s a lightweight software base designed to get people up and active on the web easily. A few comments.

First: it’s new in the sense that Mac OS X was new; it’s built on Unix – Linux this time (ok I do know the difference) instead of BSD, but the principle is the same.

Second: maybe this explains why the Chrome browser hasn’t made it to the Mac market. Seems like the browser was just the pilot for this larger project, to carry the fight to Microsoft.

Third: interestingly, in my newspaper (The Guardian), the Chrome OS announcement makes it into the main news pages but the technology section, in the print edition, carries two other apparently unconnected articles. The combination is interesting. One is a long interview with Google’s Marissa Mayer about the future of search which, Mayer suggests, is tied up with real-time information (and that means Twitter). The other is a Victor Keegan Opinion column discussing why Asus dropped Linux as its netbook platform in favour of Windows and a string of non-free services. Keegan, though, hasn’t caught up on the Chrome OS announcement. It would be interesting to know what he thinks.

Oh, and hidden in the Mayer interview is the interesting snippet that Google has been conducting research on which shade of blue for a link is most likely to encourage a user to click through. More blue is better than more green, apparently. I must check my website!

• Introducing the Google Chrome OS, Official Google Blog, 7 Jul 2009
• Google targets Microsoft with new operating system, Guardian, 8 Jul 2009 (print edition 9th July) – it’s worth doing a search on the Guardian website for “Chrome OS” as there are several other articles
• Did Microsoft force Asus to axe Linux?, Victor Keegan, Guardian, 8 Jul 2009 (print edition 9th July)

Catch the Wave

I finally found time to view the video of Google Wave at the Google I/O 2009 developers’ conference. It’s nearly an hour and a half, so I’m starting this after about a third of it … If you’re in the collaboration business as a user, provider, or advisor, go watch it!

How many times have you tried to persuade colleagues that discussions should happen in the collaboration database, not via email? So we don’t have messages clogging the system. So  the discussion doesn’t diverge into multiple threads. So newcomers can catch up without someone having to send back copies of everything that’s gone one. Well, Wave starts by disposing of that problem. Because “a Wave” is a single threaded collection in one place, and it can look like email, or a collaboratively co-authored document, or a discussion, or any combination. And there’s replay, so even if you come late to a conversation you can see how it got to where it is – if it matters. And it can look like instant messaging too, if you and your colleague(s) are both online to Wave at the same time.

Lots of smart integration stuff. Embed your Wave in a blog – then updates can happen from the Wave client, or the blog page, or anywhere else it happens to be visible, and all manifestations update in real time. There’s only one copy – remember? Add pictures. And because Wave takes advantage of today’s network capabilities, edits can show up on everyone’s screens at once. Even concurrent edits. Even if they are backtracking stuff that was “sent” previously: no more sending emails to correct the correction you sent to the original incorrect email. Interactive meetings, anyone? On a mobile? It’s all there.

For the heavily technical: Wave relies on HTML 5 and, for one element which the new standard can’t handle,  a little of Gears. Google are pressing for this element to become part of the standard. For the object oriented among you: it screams Model-View-Controller out of every simultaneous update!

It’s been two years in the making, and this is only a preview (it will make it into the traditional Google Beta, i.e. release, later this year). Why now? For the same reason that Wave will be open sourced: Google wants to fire the imagination of smart developers, and harness them not just to build more smart apps in Wave but to improve the underlying platform too.

Even if you never adopt the tool itself, when it goes public later on, the ideas and the understanding about how collaboration works are an education in themselves. Email is decades old, so are bulletin boards. Why should we still work like that? Oh – and Wave can do translation in real time. As you type.

• HTML 5, W3C development (this is currently the Editor’s Draft 23 June 2009)
• Went Walkabout. Brought back Google Wave Google Blog, 28 May 2009
• Google Wave home page: the video is embedded here, plus news and the chance to sign up when the release comes along

Return to work (2): who needs a new search engine?

A Basex newsletter alerted me to Cuil, a new search engine which claims to index three times as much of the Web as Google and to do a better job of relevance.

Well, I’m not sure. I tested it on the query of the moment: a tool that IBM Research in Haifa are calling the Pensieve. If you’re not a Harry Potter fan, that won’t mean much; but suffice it to say that I expect any search for just Pensieve to throw up more Potter than IBM.

Cuil has no “Advanced Search” facility, at least not yet. So I searched for “IBM Pensieve” (in that order). Cuil does a nice job of displaying its first eight or ten results; it’s a nicely styled page and, at first sight, a lot easier to navigate than Google’s list. But that’s just a nice style sheet I guess. What matters most is results.

So: Cuil’s first two results were both references to the primary research on IBM’s research pages. It was unfortunate that both of them, when clicked, gave Error 404; IBM have presumably moved them since they were indexed. Cuil also found a reference to research at Purdue University which is part of the project. But the rest of the 8 results were irrelevant.

Google’s first page of results were all connected to the IBM project. But none of them were direct references to the primary research. The one ibm.com reference was to a video page spanning a range of topics. The rest were commentary from a range of sources.

But Google improved when I added “ibm.com” to the search terms and delivered the link you see below – better, in fact, than the one I found for myself by using the search on ibm.com. Cuil, at this point, returned no hits.

Watch this space, I guess. But I ain’t switching my default search engine just yet

PS – Pensieve uses the images, sounds, and text recorded on mobile devices to help people recall names, faces, conversations and other important information.

• Cuil
• Made in IBM Labs: IBM Research Develops Technology to Aid Human Memory, IBM Press Room, 29 Jul 2008 (with video)