Where is my Google Operating System?

    About 9 months ago, on my former blog I wrote a short post about what a prospective Google Operating System might be like. At that point Google had not yet started it's massive Web 2.0 rollout in full steam. In fact, the only major offerings they had, besides search, was Gmail, Maps and Blogger. But 9 months on things have changed considerably. Google has put out a number of new Web 2.0 products, including Google Calendar, Reader, Notebook, personalized Start pages, Picasa for Linux and most recently, it's Spreadsheet. Also, let's not forget that it has bought Writely, released Google Desktop and come up with video search. So where does this all leave us?

    There are a number of things to consider. Firstly, Google has been getting a fair amount of falk recently for putting out too many new applications and not really concentrating on developing or improving existing ones. This is not criticism to be taken lightly, especially since there is a certain amount of truth behind it. Google Labs, currently has a number of projects that seem to be distinctly in suspended animation. Add to that the fact some ot it's newer offerings have been acutely mediocre. Google calendar falls behind other services like Kiko and 30boxes and Notebook seems like a poorly thought out cross between a del.icio.us competitor and post-it notes. Google's latest offering, Spreadsheet, came as something as a surprise, eapecially since they seem to have been sitting on their acquisition of Writely for the past few months. But as this recent blog post says, Spreadsheet may just be one of Google's better ideas for some time.

    Once again I ask: what is Google up to? Yes, we all know that they want to take over the world, but the real interesting question is: how? Google seems poised to release a fully-featured web-based office suite and be able to integrate it nicely with their existing superb email system, creating a one-stop online groupware product for enterprises and businesses. In other words, everything that your average office needs to do including writing documents, keeping track of data, exchanging that data, both internally and externally can be done using a seamless system powered by Google. the next step then, would be to integrate this functionality directly into the user's computer so that the net and Google's collaboration tools become an integrated part of your desktop. This could be done by expanding Google Desktop, but a far better solution already exists: Firefox. It's already a top class browser and it probably won't take too long to integrate it tightly with Google's server backends (especially considering the incredible talent they have hanging around). As you may well imagine, this would explain Google's extensive support of Firefox development. And in the long term, there's no reason why Google should stop there when they can build there own operating system, designed from the bottom up to break down the division between your computer and the World Wide Web (not to mention Google's Web 2.0 empire).

    Now I know what you're thinking: This is all very interesting, but what about Google NOW? Well, let's just say that Google doesn't exactly make it a point to make it's plans known to the public all the time. However by the end of the year we should certainly see a Google influenced version of Writely being made available (currently all signups are closed) and this would be tied in strongly with their Spreadsheet, Gmail and Calendar apps. Besides that there's not really much that can be said for certain. A Flickr or YouTube competitor may be in the offing and maybe more desktop products. But one thing's for certain; Whatever Google's plans may be,for the short term it doesn't look like they're going to let up their Web 2.0 onslaught, and as long as they give away their products for free, I think we can all just sit back and make use of some good software (and hope that the rest gets improved). 

    Tune in tomorrow for a look at whether Zoho Writer can beat your current desktop Word Processor. 

New Slashdot Look

My favourite technology news website Slashdot has revealed a new look and feel. Unfortunately, I can't say how long the look has been up because I get Slashdot newsletters in the email and usually don't actually go to the site. But now that I have seen it, I like it. Things look more organized and the sidebars and individual posts are better defined than they were before and the site looks far more professional now. Though I must say, I wish they had chosen a lighter colour scheme, maybe with a few blues or greens. One thing that recently struck be about Slashdot is that even in this day of news services like Digg and Reddit, Slashdot manages to remain the electronic Mecca for many thousands of technophiles, without any of the "community" features that newer news services provides. I guess it just goes to show that if you are competent and good at your job, you can do without bells and whistles. More later.

Experimental Computer Interfaces

    Here's the dirt: the computer as we know it has been around for around 15 years. But in that time, and digital computers have been around since the 1970s. In that time the way we interact with our computers has stayed more or less the same. Type in stuff using a keyboard, and more recently use a mouse to point, click and drag. Despite the massive leaps in other areas of computer technology, these things have pretty much stayed the same. Wireless devices and trackballs may seem different, but they really are just variations on the same theme.

    But how exactly would you interact with a computer if you're not going type in commands or use a mouse? The first thing comes into mind s of course Star Trek stlye voice interface. But this isn't nearly as simple as it sounds. Not only is the technology far from being suitable for daily use, there are a number of practical difficulties. Firstly, do you really want to be talking to your computer all the time? Can you imagine how incredibly noisy it will be in offices with everyone talking all the time? And just think about how impossible it will be to carry on a converstion with your spouse while checking your email. So voice intefaces might be cool for "computer, microwave my food NOW" but you wouldn't want to use it all the time. (Besides, no sane programmer would dictate all his code)

    So, if we're not going to use our mouths to get our work done, we'll just use the next best thing, namely, our hands. Remember the holographic computer interface from Minority Report? Looked cool right? Well, here's the news, a company is actually making something quite similar. Now that could be quite nice, not to mention fun (a bit like dancing i suppose) and you probably would get a fair bit of exercise as well, with moving your arms about like that. But then again there are practical problems. Seriously, how many of us would give over one of our walls to a souped up computer screen? And standing up and doing a weird dance, just to put out a blog post? No thanks. It might be good for specialized things, like movie editing where it would be great to drag and join various segments quickly, but not really for everyday use. And besides, the electricity bills that would bring up would make it prohibitively expensive. 

    The fact of the matter is that the keyboard mouse combo is really a damn good way to inerface with your computer. And you really can't get a way of putting down information that is more efficient than typing it out. Sure you can save it as an audio or video file, but editing them really isn't the easiest thing in the world. So is the keyboard here to say? Not so fast! While we've been all out checking the hip and cool and futuristic interfaces, there's been something that's been staring us in the face, literally: the computer screen. Look at this way, the main parts of our interface are the screen, the mouse and the keyboard.So why not roll them into one? The touchscreen! Sure the tablet PC and Microsoft's Origami ave flunked pretty badly, but that doesn't mean the concept is bad. Imagine a screen built into your tabletop, which can be raised to a small angle. Most of the time it acts as a normal screen, you simply use your fingers to find your way about (the details of navigation will be dependent on the software). When you need a keyboard, the bottom third of the screen is taken over by a transparent onscreen keypad, and the best thing is that the since the keyboard is software based, you could easily change it for different purposes and maybe make specialized keypads for gaming, graphics work oreven blogging. And you can say goodbye to moving your eyes up and down from the screen to your keyboard and no more moving your hand from the keyboard to mouse every once in a while. 

    If you have any other ideas, tell me about it and I might feature it. 

Book Review: Beginning Ubuntu Linux

I’ve come across numerous Linux books since I started using Linux about a year ago. From what I’ve seen Linux books generally fall into two categories: Firstly, books that are about specific distros (Mandrake, Red Hat, SUSE etc.) and books that are about general Linux topics (like BASH scripting, networking, security). For people who are beginning Linux, it’s the first category that is most useful. Most such books are about the popular distros. In the past they have included the likes of Red Hat and SUSE. Recently Ubuntu Linux has joined the ranks of the popular and mass user distros, and Beginning Ubuntu Linux is one of the first books written specifically to give a helping hand to people who are beginning their Linux journey with Ubuntu. And that includes people like me.

This book is different in many ways from other similar books that I’ve come across in the last year; in fact in seems to be as different from other books as Ubuntu is from other major distros. The back of the book says that the book is “Written for newcomers to Linux, yet comprehensive enough to appeal to even seasoned users”. And they are quite right about it. The book does not just cover how to get Ubuntu installed and running, it also takes a good look at the common applications that any computer uses: office and mulitmedia programs, internet software and even some slightly more advanced topics like making backups, networking with other computers, making sense of the Linux filesystem and optimizing your system for better performance.

Most Linux users, especially new users today are exiles from the world of Windows and for them adjusting to the Linux world can sometimes be a challenge. This book accepts the fact that most of it’s readers will be coming from Windows and will need a helping hand figuring things out. The two most important questions asked by any Windows exile are: “Can I use my favourite Windows programs in Linux?” and “Do I have to type in a lot of weird commands?”. This book anticipates these questions and makes a determined and sincere effort to gently introduce the Linux newbie to Linux equivalents of comon Windows programs and also to the weird and wonderful thing that is the command line. I especially liked the chapters devoted to the intricacies of the BASH shell, and even though I’ve spent a good deal of time at the Command Line, I still learnt a new trick or two.

But of course do actually get the most out of the book, you have to have Ubuntu installed on your computer. There is an in depth guide to installing Ubuntu, which holds your hand through the whole process and even helps you through the often confusing process of partitioning and also tells you what to do if you run into one of the common errors. it then goes on to take you on a tour of Ubuntu’s GNOME desktop and helps you set up your hardware and get connected to your home network and the Internet. There are also sections to guide you through conecting scanners and cameras and using USB storage devices and installing graphics card drivers. There is also a section on installing a firewall and securing your computer (which includes an introduction to the user system in Linux).

The book is replete with screenshots, which make sure that the user encounters no confusion while installing and configuring her or his system and the layout is clear and simple. But what impressed most about the book is not how well it guides the new user, but that the book begins with an extensive account of the history of Linux and the free softare movement. And it is one of the few books that I have encountered that give due credit to both Richard M. Stallman and Linuz Torvalds acknowledges the part played by the FSF and GNU software. The book ensures that only will a reader become an adept Linux user, she or he will know about the people and the ideas behind Linux and understand appreciate the differences between Free and proprietary software.

In the end it all boils down to this: is it really worth paying $39.99 for this book? The answer is yes. If you’re a new Linux user, this book will certainly save you a lot of time scouring forums and documentation for solutions to simple problems and answers to common questions. Even if you’re reached the stage when you can manage linux without too much of a fuss (like me) you can still hope to learn a good few things from this book. And thanks to the spirit of humanity and free software, you also save bandwidth charges because this book comes with a complete, no-strings-attached copy of Ubuntu on CD. If you’ve been hearing about Linux, but have been waiting for someone to hold your hand when you take the plunge, just get this book and get wet!

Puppy Linux 2.0 released

    Seems to be distro party this month. Not only has my favourite Linux Distro ubuntu come out with it's newest release, my current operating system and favourite LiveCD, Puppy has also released a new version. Although this doesn't feature many visible changes like Ubuntu does, there's been a lot of work done under the hood and some parts have been rewritten from scratch. So go ahead and give it go, don't worry about bandwidth, it's just 70MB. I haven't given it a try yet, but I will soon.