Google Instant Search

Image representing Google Search as depicted i...
Image via CrunchBase

Google have been teasing a big new announcement for a few days now. They had the dynamic doodle with coloured balls, then the following day they teased instant search further by introducing another doodle which started off gray, but coloured in each letter of the logo as you typed.

Later on Wednesday they launched instant search, and on paper it looks like a very cool and interesting innovation in search, and perhaps the logical next step. On first impressions, I’m not entirely convinced. While they say it definitely improves your search time and while that is true to a point, to me it seems very distracting to be shown all of the results as you’re typing as it takes your mind off the original text you were planning to input. It also must be using a lot of extra server power to compute and send these results in real time and I don’t know whether if the benefits are worth the effort for Google.

I also think that the service seems a bit buggy at the moment and there may be a few questionable design choices. When you visit the Google homepage now, you still have the same logo (albeit considerably larger), the same search box, and the same two buttons underneath it. The problem is, the search button is useless now as the results load before you can even think to click it. If you click on the I’m feeling lucky button now, you get taken to the Google Doodles history page. This seems like a kind of last minute addition as something else to use the old button for.

Once you settle on your desired search term and can see your results, you still end up with a drop down box of possibly related searches. While this may prove useful I just find it so fiddly and not really as streamlined as it could be. You also have the ability to perform an I’m feeling lucky operation when you hover over the right side of each. This is where the function has gone, and it seems to have taken a back seat in this new design.

This box also gets in the way of seeing the results further down the page which to me isn’t what I want. You can remove it with an enter press, but it feels like a hassle even though you’re still only pressing enter once just like before. Somehow it doesn’t feel as quick as it used to be, but maybe it’s just a question of getting used to the change.

The one other bug I found with the new search is that when you delete your text from the box, the search page remains but becomes mostly blank. I think it would have been a nice touch to take you back to the homepage if you empty the box completely. When I just tried this, the page even has scollbars to go quite a long way down an empty white page. This looks quite unfinished and shoddy by Google’s standards. It’s not a major problem that breaks the experience, but still, I wish it was a bit more polished before they released it to the world.

The buttons still exist on the instant search page either for aesthetics, or for purpose if non-instant search shares the same page. However, from what I’ve seen, the pages do look different. When I disabled instant, the logo became smaller and the search box narrower which would indicate that you are redirected based on your browser compatibility or preferences. This seemingly shows that the keeping of the buttons is purely a style and tradition based decision rather than for a purpose.

If this is the case, I’d like to see the buttons gone to help to further differentiate instant from traditional search and to give a more minimal look. Especially for people who use a custom background, who will value clean space more than most. Hopefully Google will take steps to make the experience as smooth and simple as possible. I don’t think it’s quite there yet but it just needs a little bit of fine tuning and it’ll be perfect.


GMail Updates: Google Voice and Priority Inbox

Google have been doing a lot of interesting things with everyone’s favourite free email service recently. GMail has been a bit stagnent for a long time up until recently. They started with a little refresh of the left navigation. They made contacts and tasks a bigger focus at the top of the page, while also adding a proper button for the compose new message function where before it was plain text. These updates were nice and probably long overdue, but they didn’t stop there.

The next new addition was the integration of Google Voice technology into gmail. You can make free US and Canada calls from within the email window, and you don’t need a Google Voice account. You do need one if you want to have a number that can be called from other phones, similar to Skype‘s online number, or if you want to call other countries. Since the product isn’t officially available outside the US and Canada yet it’s probably not recommended.

It’s not a new concept to call phones from the internet or even receiving calls from phones on your computer thanks to Skype and their pioneering efforts. However, this is the first time we’ve really seen an implementation of VOIP in a browser like this. It’s quite hard to get your head around the fact that you can do this now, and it’s just the tip of the iceberg as far as the future of internet based communication looks set to integrate tightly with landline phones and maybe even replace them in the longer term.

Shortly following the voice update, Google have turned their attention to revolutionising the humble inbox. Nothing has really changed in how email inboxes work for many years, essentially they’ve remained unchanged since email began almost. Google have now launched Priority Inbox, a new view in GMail which is optional. What it does is group email into defined groups in the same inbox view. Important messages appear at the top. Starred messages in the middle and everything else underneath. You can modify the groups to work to your preferences, but those are the default settings, and they work well.

After you’ve set up priority inbox to your specific tastes, you then just use your email as normal. Gmail will learn from how you interact with your mail which is important and which isn’t, and you can give it a helping hand by manually tagging messages as important or unimportant. Hopefully it will end up successfully sorting important mail from newsletters and other throwaway messages to give the greatest effect. It’s definitely a nice improvement to Gmail and I would suggest all users go and update their accounts straight away. There should be a link in red in the top right of the screen, you can then watch an intro video and get started.


Google IO: HTML5 and Chrome Web Store

The main focus of Google’s first keynote at Google IO was HTML5 and the future of web applications. In recent times, it’s become possible to do more and more things in the browser that we used to have to download dedicated apps for. With new technologies like HTML5, so much more is possible and Google are really pushing it as a major part of computing going forward. It’s a part of their strategy for the desktop with Chrome and Chrome OS, mobile with android and the living room with Google TV. It was always in the background throughout their entire conference with a presence in everything that was being talked out.

The chrome web store is a natural progression of web apps and makes them accessible in a way more akin to traditional applications. You can “install” apps to your new tab page in either chrome browser or chrome OS. Installing is really only installing a high resolution icon which acts as a bookmark to the app itself, although parts of the apps may be installed onto the local drive for offline access, but that’s pure speculation on my part.

I think this is something which really lends itself well to the minimalist, predominantly online nature of chrome OS and I think it’s an important step in allowing the average user to be able to keep tabs on their email, calendar, documents, social networking sites and more, which are all browser based in their primary form. I think it’s important to differentiate real web apps from regular web sites and have a separate place for all your most used tools.

I can’t wait to see what HTML5 will allow us to do in the near future, and the web store rekindles my excitement for chrome OS.


Google IO: Android 2.2 Froyo Thoughts

Android has really been picking up steam recently and I have to say I didn’t expect it to start challenging Apple so soon. Yes, it has been 18 months, but that isn’t really that long when you’re faced with a monumental task of creating a brand new mobile operating system from scratch. Not only that, but trying to get a foothold in the marketplace with many established companies already creating impressive stuff of their own. Finally, they had to forge relationships with as many device manufacturers and mobile carriers as possible all over the world.

The stats that Google had to present at Google IO were very impressive. 100,000 new phone activations per day is a huge number. They are also now lead in US mobile browser usage, beating out the iPhone. Of course Apple only sell one phone and google have many partners making android handsets, but even so, this is impressive.

Another reason why this is impressive is because until recently, and to some extent even now, Android in my opinion is more of a geeky and less mainstream OS than the iPhone, and far less polished in terms of performance or intuitiveness. Maybe I’m just out of the loop and this is old news, but it appears that Froyo is taking further big steps in improving these areas. iPhone and Apple in general always seem to do the little things exceptionally well, and this is an area Google need to work on. The integration with iTunes is a huge selling point. The way everything syncs, including contacts and calendars with the desktop versions of those apps is so seamless. No other mobile company can match it, or at least until now potentially.

I use Google for a lot of things. If they can integrate their services such as contacts and mail to an extent where it is smooth enough to compare well with Apple’s syncing solution, then maybe Android can equal Apple in that department. In that vein, Google announced a multitude of changes intended to bring them right up to par with the iPhone OS. They’ve improved the browser considerably, even claiming that it is now the fastest mobile browser. I’m not sure I believe that but if it’s true then it’s fantastic for them. Other improvements include updating of apps on the device itself including auto-updating as well as a new desktop browser store which can instigate downloads over-the-air which is a nice feature.

There are many other smaller but significant improvements. These include better enterprise features, the ability to install apps on an SD card and a number of new APIs including a new advanced push notification system which takes Apple’s interpretation a step further with notifications that can automatically open apps and perform tasks on their own.

Overall, Android is very much on the up and Apple should be very wary of their threat. Google are not to be underestimated. They have an unorthodox business model but it seems to work well for them and Android seems to be very close to the level of Apple’s iPhone OS. I think it’s going to take them another 6 months to a year to catch up fully if they can at all, but with the market penetration they now have, the developers are going to be coming thick and fast in support.