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Shaky September For Google

September wasn't very nice for Google and its users. Just yesterday, Gmail was hit with its second outage in the space of three weeks, and while this one wasn't as bad as the one that hit on September 1, it's enough to make many of us question whether doing everything the Google way really is a good idea.

Google is pretty much the industry leader of cloud computing, where people can access Office applications and save their work on the Internet. It's a largely more accessible and more cost-effective business solution than, say, Microsoft Office. The success of Google Apps in the past few years has enticed other players in the industry, including Microsoft, to develop their own cloud-based offerings.

But now that even Google is having trouble keeping its servers up indefinitely, it's confirming what most skeptics are worried about -- that if Google goes, so does all your work.

I myself am not that keen about the cloud. I think I've written before that I'm not really that confident about leaving my work on the Internet and being stuck whenever I'm offline. Sorry, but I'd much rather do it the old-fashioned way.

Speaking of the old-fashioned way, Google's new offering, SideWiki, is also coming under fire. Back in the day, bloggers enjoyed the way people would comment on their writings. But SideWiki, an application that Google Toolbar users can use to comment on certain websites, might be intruding on something bloggers consider sacred.

Of course, Google plans to rule the Internet unconditionally one day. SideWiki is apparently a means of gathering information from certain sites, through viewer commentary, to accomplish that end. Naturally, bloggers aren't happy with the idea that comments that would otherwise have been posted on their sites instead end up in Imperial Google's index.

But that's okay -- it's probably only a matter of time before spammers take to SideWiki and flood it with so much useless information that Google will have to take it down. But if Google does find a way to filter out the ne'er-do-wells, THEN SideWiki just might be something to watch.

First Ever Twitter Opera Makes Its Debut

If you've been following my site for a while, you probably remember my posts about "Live Music" (the first-ever crowdsourced animated feature) and "Twitterdammerung" (the first-ever crowdsourced opera). "Live Music" has managed to earn its share of fans and enemies -- which was expected -- but very few people, me included, thought a Twitter opera would fall flat on its face.

"Twitterdammerung," the Twitter opera, was pieced together over the last several months from contributions from 900 Twitter users. Contributions naturally were only 140 characters or less, and what London's Royal Opera House had come up some time back -- the first act, where the protagonist was kidnapped by a flock of birds and a talking cat makes an appearance -- kind of made me shake my head.

Well, "Twitterdammerung" made its debut in London's Covent Garden -- to a surprisingly positive reception. Reviews have returned that the opera was simply silly from start to finish, and the audience was roaring with laughter throughout most of the show. And while many parts obviously needed some touching up (there's only so much you can do with three days of rehearsals), some parts, particularly the musical ones, were pretty good.

Opera critic Igor Toronyi-Lalic was there when it happened, and like most of us, he expected the entire Twitter opera to be an embarrassment (judging from previews that made him say "Yikes"). He said that, in the end, the Twitter opera was a cheap gimmick, but was a pretty good one as far as cheap gimmicks go.

Then again, maybe it wasn't fair to include the Twitter opera in the normal "old-fashioned" opera stereotype. You can't really expect a Michael Bay experience in the opera house.

I'd love to see the Twitter opera myself, but finding an opera house in the region where I work is harder than getting out of a Malaysian traffic jam, so I'll wait for it to come out on YouTube. :)

Google Caught In "Skank" Blogger Row

It's not like Google to get caught up in bad publicity, but that's exactly what the search giant is in after revealing the identity of an anonymous blogger using its Blogger.com service. US courts recently ordered Google to relinquish the owner of the "Skanks In NYC" blog, which verbally attacked 36-year old Canadian model Liskula Cohen.

After being identified, the blogger, 29-year old Rosemary Port, is now threatening to sue Google for $15 million -- all for violating her right to privacy.

Poor Google. It's walking a knife's edge between protecting the First Amendment and complying with the Manhattan Supreme Court.

Naturally, the blogosphere has been buzzing about the whole case since it exploded into the scene last week. All of a sudden anonymous bloggers are shutting down their blogs for fears of being exposed, and there are dire warnings that freedom of speech is about to take a huge leap backward -- quite a real threat, if you ask me, since the Cohen vs Port story has already caused it to step aside once.

I'd much rather talk about Google than Cohen and Port -- whatever their story was, it's for the gossip column. What I'm more worried about is the future of blogging. The rest of the civilized world looks up to America as the stronghold of free speech and privacy rights. Where the leaders of China, Iran, and other totalitarian countries actively search for and pursue dissident bloggers, Americans have always enjoyed the freedom of speech on the Internet.

Until now.

What's worse, all the fallout came from a word war between two women -- I mean, ladies, please. Did you really have to drag the rest of the world into this?

I seriously hope Google can deal with the ramifications and come up with a reasonable solution for all parties concerned. I guess this is the first time I've really worried for the big G.

Google To Make AdSense A Little Less Embarrassing

I'm pretty much a sucker for good taste in film and advertising, as you've probably noticed in some of my posts in the past. I know that it's easy to step on people's sensibilities when you're careless with your ads, but if you do it on purpose, well -- do me a favor and don't have kids.

Google, on the other hand, is a different story -- we all know that most of the big G's revenue comes from advertising. Google AdSense works by looking through a partner website's web copy for certain keywords and phrases, then comes up with relevant text ads that the site's visitors are likely to click on. Most of the time, the text ads I get while surfing are so spot-on that I sometimes wonder just how the heck Google knows me.

Unfortunately, this isn't always the case -- sometimes the Google ads that come up are either inappropriate, embarrassing, or downright wrong. Here are some really bad ads compiled by Nicholas Carlson of BusinessInsider.com:

http://www.businessinsider.com/googles-worst-ads-ever-2009-8#terrorist-m...

On one hand, we can't really blame the system for coming up with such boo-boos (AdSense isn't human, so yeah, it can't have kids anyway). On the other hand, it's Google we're talking about -- don't you think they would have noticed the problem much sooner?

Thankfully, Google is "rolling out a series of enhancements" to AdSense to improve its contextual targeting process, which I hope means even more accurate ads for their partners and fewer embarrassing ones for the rest of us.

Gmail Surpasses AOL, Now After Hotmail

Gmail, Google's popular e-mail service, finally came out of beta around six weeks ago. The move capped off five long years of development, and also launched other Google apps like Calendar and Google Docs into alpha stage. So far, things have been looking up -- way up.

Gmail has just surpassed AOL in total number of unique visitors this month. It scored 37 million, edging past AOL's 36.4 million. It would seem that Gmail has finally hit its growth spurt after being mired in perpetual beta for five years. It also doesn't seem likely that AOL will ever catch up with Gmail again -- this year, Gmail saw an 25% increase in traffic, while AOL's declined by 22%.

Gmail is still in third place behind Hotmail, which has 47 million unique users, and market leader Yahoo, with 106 million. It's probably going to take a while to catch up, but will Gmail eventually pass Hotmail, which like many other Microsoft products were at one time almighty and untouchable?

It seems very likely. Hotmail's growth of 8% is easily overshadowed by Gmail's 25%, and I'm pretty sure Google's trend won't stop anytime soon. So, yup, it's easy to say Microsoft has yet another problem on its hands.

The great thing about Gmail is that it's the email server of choice for power users. Google is also doing what Apple is doing right in their respective markets -- instead of trying to amass as many users as they can, they instead target their efforts towards the power users, or the premium end of the market.

I'm sure power users are the most likely to click on ads and such, and they're also the ones who tend to influence their lessers to follow suit. So I guess all that time being mired in beta development stages is finally paying off for Gmail -- Google has some really smart people on its roster.

Twitter Opera -- The Next Crowdsourced Work Of Art?

You might remember my article on "Live Music," the first-ever crowdsourced animated film. It only ran for five minutes, and the Romeo-and-Juliet-esque plot wasn't something to write home about, but it was good enough to merit a screening by Sony. The simple fact that hundreds of thousands of Facebook users lent their talents to bring the short to life was by itself "Live Music's" main draw.

Of course, "Live Music" wasn't the first crowdsourced work of art to be created -- what makes it so special is the fact that it made mainstream fame. Crowdsourced success stories are hard to come by -- for instance, there were attempts to create crowdsourced novels, which all ended up dead on the water. (Sometimes the road less traveled doesn't make all the difference, after all -- the greatest stories are almost always told from a single mind.)

But apparently that's not going to stop London's Royal Opera House to announce the first-ever crowdsourced opera. The writers are creating an opera based on ideas by contributors on Twitter. That means you could contribute to the storyline one line, one scene, one action at a time -- in 140 characters or less.

So far, so good -- Act 1, Scene 1 has already been completed, with the protagonist being kidnapped by a flock of birds and is now held captive in a tower, awaiting rescue. Oh, and there's also a talking ginger cat in the cast, too. Hmmm.

Okay, so I've never really been a fan of opera. But I AM a fan of crowdsourcing and other advances the Internet has gifted civilization, and this is enough to make me keep an eye on this story. If this proves so popular that it gets young people interested in opera all over again, then I might need to tweak my preferences in the performing arts.

Now I'm wondering if John Mayer, Miley Cyrus, and Lil Wayne are going to contribute too.

Yahoo Revamps Homepage To Match Google's

Yahoo's in the middle of revamping in hopes of catching up with Google (actually, I think everyone is), and just recently released a brand-spanking-new homepage for their users. Taking the cue from Google, the new homepage now lets its users customize it to their liking -- even letting them browse other websites like Facebook and Twitter on the homepage itself.

The new homepage doesn't have movable Apps like iGoogle, but it does have a sidebar of options that expand when you hover your pointer over them. There were buttons for cars, business, horoscopes, games, jobs, and Facebook, as well as Yahoo Messenger and Mail. You could also customize this part of the page by adding your own preferred homepages, as well.

I tried adding Engine Alpha to the sidebar, and it immediately showed on top of the list. When I hovered over it, though, there wasn't much to see in the expanded field -- just a link to the site, and no preview. Hopefully the preview options improve down the line.

But one thing I do like about the new homepage is the lack of ads. Yahoo scrubbed its "marketplace" section entirely, so the whole thing looks very clean and minimalistic. Not quite as flashy as Apple and not quite as functionalist as Google, but a comfy middle ground. (The ads were relegated to the sidebar, and only showed when a button expanded to the preview.)

Yahoo has been pretty aggressive with their revamping efforts lately -- they closed once-popular online applications like Yahoo 360 (their social media platform) and Yahoo Briefcase, and integrated everything into a new, singular interface that represents Facebook. Yahoo Mail users see this new interface the moment they log on, and some would swear it's looking more like Facebook and Twitter with every new update.

It's obviously a step in the right direction -- moving to what works always is -- but there's only one thing that worries me. Yahoo is trying to make their new homepage a sort of kick-off point for their users, with all their favorite pages a click away. But guess what? Browser bookmarks do the same thing, and you can browse to your favorite pages straight from a blank page.

Still, I'm sure there are a lot of people out there with faith in Yahoo -- a 20% market share isn't something to laugh at, and the merger talks with Microsoft are definitely something to keep an eye on. Yahoo plans to release their new homepage in a few days, and a mobile version of it over the weekend.

Microsoft To Offer Its Own "Google Apps"

First, Microsoft gnawed into Google's market share in the search engine with the reasonably successful "Bing" search engine last May. Two months later, Google's reprisal came in the form of Chrome OS, a new operating system that's ultimately going to put most of a PC's functionality on cloud computing. Back then I had a feeling that it was only a matter of time before Microsoft counter-attacked with yet another Google-aimed venture.

I was right -- now Microsoft is out to challenge Google Apps by offering a free version of its Microsoft Office Suite on the cloud. That's right -- Microsoft is coming out with its own Google Apps, and it's a very risky move at that.

Everyone knows Microsoft earns billions of dollars each year with its Microsoft Office suite of programs, and there's no doubt that despite its hangups, it's still the office suite with the most bang for the buck. Google Apps is free and offers much of MS Office's functionality, but can't really cope with the kind of work that bigger players do.

Basically, I think Microsoft is walking a fine line between offering more functionality than Google Apps, but less than its standard offline Office suite. It will be interesting to see what happens if Microsoft can pull it off, but equally painful to see if the entire plan fails.

I'm personally not a fan of doing my work on the cloud -- with the Internet speeds I'm getting in Malaysia and Thailand, working with Google Apps is clunky at best. What's worse, broadband lines in this part of the world are prone to going down anytime -- what happens when I lose my connection in the middle of an important project? The mere thought of it is enough to keep most of my work offline.

I prefer working with open-source office suites like OpenOffice -- it's free, it's functional, and it feels like the real thing. Just tweak the default file types and you have every bit of MS Office XP's functionality.

But I'll have to admit that cloud computing really is the future of the way we work today -- gone is the monopoly that Microsoft once held over the industry. People are now looking for cheaper ways to do work, and Google Apps has largely filled that need -- there are about 15 million users of the online App right now.

"Microsoft Apps" is set to be released in 2010, so Google still has time to work on its next reprisal. But with its own Office suite in place and OS on the way, it's pretty much got Microsoft backed up against the wall.

Google Going Up Against Real Estate Giants... And Microsoft

Seems like there's never a dull moment at Google these days. Just days after announcing tweaks to its search engine (that very likely sent Bing's creators in a panic), the guys at Google came out with two big announcements that may change the world as we know it. Well, almost.

The first big change came with a Google Maps tweak. Google Maps in Australia and New Zealand now tell give users detailed information about land values, rental rates, and other real estate-related bits of data. This is apparently to help people find homes, buy land, and basically do what most big names in real estate do.

Of course, the announcement put the big names in real estate on edge. Some see it as Google trying to dabble encroaching in their lucrative business, although no one's really sure how this will impact the industry. For now, I'm sure users will love the idea that it's easier to find a cheap place to live in Australia. Now if only they'll unveil the service in Singapore...

The second big thing to come out of the Google grapevine this week is the announcement of an entire operating system. Google's planning to unveil Google Chrome OS next year, and it will power various systems from netbooks to fully-loaded desktop PC's.

Naturally, the first question to pop up was whether Google was cannibalizing Android. The answer, of course, was no -- Android is meant to run on mobile devices and netbooks, while Chrome OS will run on netbooks, laptops, and PC's. The little overlap will prove to be insignificant, Google says.

Chrome OS will be borrowing heavily from Android's architecture, but will be running its own show. Google has been leading the drive to cloud computing for the past several years. The Chrome browser will essentially be the OS, since you'll pretty much be doing all your work there.

There's just one problem. Working on the cloud is all well and good, and it's very optimistic to think that it's going to be the future of computing. But what happens when the world gets overloaded by Chrome OS users? Will the world's digital infrastructure cope with bandwidth-hungry cloud computers?

I'd like to think Google has that covered too, but I guess there are things that even Google can't control. I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

Of Apple, Google, And Digital Decency

Apple recently dipped into yet another iPhone controversy this weekend. Apparently one of its $2 Apps, called "Hottest Girls," got the axe after its developers began posting images of topless women in it. It's the second iPhone App to be approved, then taken down, in recent times.

Apple's App Store is a marvel in marketing and technology, and saw over one billion purchases by Apple device users over the past year. It has games and helpful programs, such as those that tell you when the next bus is going to arrive at your bus stop -- but it also has Apps that can run contrary to digital decency.

Many of Apple's Apps feature scantily-clad women, but the "Hottest Girls" App is the first in recorded history to show nudity. Apple immediately asked its developer to remove the offending content before taking the App off the App Store for good.

This is obviously a move on Apple's part to remind users and developers that they still have the final say when it comes to what Apps make it to the App Store. But the move did raise two points of criticism:

#1 - People complained at how Apple banned certain Apps for explicit language, yet briefly allowed the notorious "Baby Shaker" App, which many thought promoted child abuse.

#2 - Some people say iPhone users can access porn websites anytime they want anyway, so taking down the "Hottest Girls" App was a moot point.

When it comes to public decency, I guess it's all Apple can do when they screen their Apps, device features, and everything else that go into their devices carefully before offering them for public consumption. But they can't control the Internet, so digital decency rules are out of their hands.

But is it really possible to enforce digital decency?

I doubt it, but with what Google is doing these days, we just might live to see the day when the Big G controls the entire Internet.

-~o~-

Google is steadily rolling out its Google Voice service -- which bundles all your phone numbers into one -- and is actively working on Google Wave, which just might bundle everything you do on the Internet into one Google service. With the way Google is "defragmenting" people's digital lives these days, I think the idea of an overall Internet authority isn't too far-fetched.