Category Archives: Google

In July, Google announced their plan to develop a lightweight operating system based on their successful Chrome browser. Intending to be open source, speedy, secure and simple, this would be their attempt to re-think the operating system as Chrome previously ‘re-imagined’ the browser.

It was Google’s aim to get users from start-up and on to the Web in a matter of seconds.

The Chrome OS would be the kind of system targeted at Netbooks, catering for the modern generation of computer user for whom the majority (if not all) of interaction takes place on the Web.

The OS would pretty much just be a browser in fact. All the user’s applications and data would (and would have to) be stored in the cloud; as stateless data and Web-based apps.

With that in mind Google could completely go back to basics and redesign the underlying security architecture of an OS. Because it was their plan to run everything ‘in the browser’, the underlying system would no longer need the capabilities of a normal operating system, for example, the ability to install applications or the need for security precautions to handle them. There is also no file storage, so you wouldn’t even need any real kind of storage space or file system in the traditional sense.

This all results in the user never needing to deal with viruses, malware or updates for applications or their security system. It also means the OS will be up and running in seconds of booting up – and thus, ready almost immediately to get on to the Web.

A couple weeks ago, Google held a special event announcing the official release of the product and previewed some of the features on a live webcast (covered by TechCrunch and ReadWriteWeb).

They followed it up with a short introductory video explaining some of their decisions and what users can expect in the full version:

Their YouTube channel also has a recording of the announcement and the audio of the Webcast is archived here.

As part of that announcement Google publicly released the code to the open source community and called for contributors to engage with their developers and start working with the code.

If you’re interested in doing that, the Chromium wiki has a how-to on getting and building the source and TechCrunch wrote up a step-by-step guide to getting started.

This also meant that you could download and build the source to have a play, so I thought I’d give it a go.

Getting and Installing Chromium OS

TechCrunch’s coverage has a guide to running the Chromium OS on a virtual machine, essentially software that replicates the behaviour of a standalone physical machine. This means you don’t have to install this OS instead of your native system or worry about any operations performed by Chromium affecting your current platform, it’s running in a secure sandbox.

They link to two disk images, one built by GDGT (which requires a free registration) and a Pirate Bay hosted torrent file.

At the time of this writing, the torrent file and image is considered to be safe, though as Jason Kincaid writes, this could at some point be re-written to be unsafe.

Now although it’s obvious, I’ll point out (as the article does) that this is a very early release of Chromium, so isn’t as near fully featured as that we’ve seen demonstrated. That version too is itself unfinished. This build has also not been put together by Google.

Neither is this intended to run on a virtual machine, so you won’t get anywhere near the performance that you would for real. This is the usually the case for any system running on a VM, but because pretty much the whole deal with Chromium is the speed, what we’ll be seeing should not be considered ‘as is’, it just a method to give you a bit of a sneak preview instead.

Using VMWare

Usually, VMWare Player is my preferred choice for virtualisations. However the build comes as a VMDK file and VMWare Player runs from a VMX file. The VMDK file is the appliance, the VMX file is a descriptor (processing instructions that the Player relies on).

VMX files are easily written in a text editor and I found an example which I modified to run as part of my development environment, which follows below.

Simply save this file as VMX format and run it from VMWare Player:

.encoding = “UTF-8″
displayName = “Chrome OS”
guestOS = “other”
memsize = “1024″

ethernet0.present= “true”
ethernet0.startConnected = “true”
ethernet0.virtualDev = “e1000″
ethernet0.connectionType = “bridged”
ethernet0.addressType = “generated”
ethernet0.generatedAddress = “00:0c:29:cd:8d:e6″
ethernet0.generatedAddressOffset = “0″

usb.present = “true”

sound.present = “false”
sound.autodetect = “true”
sound.virtualDev = “es1371″
sound.fileName = “-1″
sound.startConnected = “true”

ide0:0.present = “true”
ide0:0.deviceType = “disk”
ide0:0.mode = “persistent”
ide0:0.redo = “”
ide0:0.writeThrough = “false”
ide0:0.startConnected = “false”

virtualHW.version = “3″

config.version = “8″

floppy0.present = “false”

Depending on your settings, you may have to change the ethernet0.connectionType to “nat” and the ide0:0.fileName to your VMDK filename – if you got the torrent version, that will be “chromeos-image-999.999.32309.211410-a1.vmdk“. I also gave it a little more memory.

Using VirtualBox

TechCrunch recommend using VirtualBox, a cross-platform virtualisation. VirtualBox can run straight from the VMDK so don’t worry about a VMX file – just follow the instructions.

First Impressions

Initially, everything is a bit sparse and you may wonder if you’ve done everything properly (have a look at the screenshots below), but this is just a reminder that what we’re playing with here isn’t ready at all – the video demo is a far more polished version than this and we’ll keep that in mind.

Chrome login screen Chrome boot screen

When it gets going though, we start to see some of those familiar features.

There’s the application menu, not a drop down menu in our version but a ‘pinned’ tab – the drop down must have been put in later.

I started to play with some of the apps, they’re exactly the same here as they are on any other platform – they work completely as they should – Google’s Calendar, Docs and Reader to name a few.

Chrome application menu Chrome Calendar

Saying that though, why wouldn’t they? These ‘apps’ are just the webpages we’re used to, actually you’ll see exactly the same as visiting ‘‘ and ‘‘. There is zero difference, just like visiting ‘‘ works plenty fine too.

The fact they’re called ‘apps’ is just semantic thing, just a way of thinking about them as products launched from some kind of desktop-analogy, rather than destinations found at the end of a search engine. I’ll come back to this later.

Then I started to play with the apps that launch in ‘panels’ – the first hint of something that looks native to Chromium.

There’s appropriations of the Calendar again and Google Talk.

Chrome Calendar in panels Chrome Chat

But then the illusion was slightly shattered when I notice ‘View: Mobile’ link at the bottom of the calendar and chose to click ‘Desktop’, which just showed just the other Calendar view (the first one, above), all displayed in that little window with scrollbars – because, again, it’s just a Web page we’ve loaded here, but in a custom view.

The chat is pretty much the same as the Google Talk, and includes voice chat.

This was actually a bit disappointing, of course I know that the Chromium OS is pretty much just Chrome and that everything is a Web page really, but I expected these apps to have detected that I’m visiting on the Chromium OS and serve a more tailored interface. I wanted some kind of dedicated experience basec on the app knowing that I’d be seeing everything through one of these panels.

Having said that, the Chromium OS project site has a whole section dedicated to the User Experience, which describes the ‘motivations, assumptions, and directions’ behind the interface design. It shows much of their work in-progress.

On their screenshots of the latest version, these windows seem to be more developed, the chat doesn’t have the default controls and there’s a notification panel that looks like it nicely ties up the application in some kind of native Growl equivalent – see here.

By the looks of it something like that could be achieved as simply as combining RSS and Javascript (maybe it does – it’s all Web pages remember), but putting it in a custom panel, presented in custom ‘chrome’, would give it a lot more strength and me more confidence.

The majority of the links from this application menu, in fact, are just to Web pages, rather than apps in these custom windows.

One of them links to a straightforward enough Chess game, demonstrating Chromium’s support for Flash. It comes with Flash Player installed (currently the latest stable release) and it runs just fine.

Chrome Flash support Chrome Chess

A new paradigm

On the idea of using only Web applications, looking at Web apps versus desktop apps, I think for a long time people have been wary of becoming completely dependant on them.

When I say ‘Web apps’ here, I don’t mean everything that you could consider to be an app or just any kind of RIA, arguably any ‘site’ is or could be ‘an application’. Instead I’m going to refer to the purely stateless apps, where the software, user settings and data are all stored somewhere in the cloud – on a server somewhere as opposed to the user’s local machine. Here I’m referring to the kinds of Web applications that are direct parallels of popular desktop apps, think the likes of the Google Docs suite.

For example, I know of a few people who dabble with Google Documents (Google’s word processor), but won’t use it exclusively over Microsoft Word, they use it for the odd document or quick note but not anything of length or real importance. Likewise with Google Spreadsheets as a possible choice over Microsoft Excel.

I think Spreadsheets is a different game, Excel is really quite powerful and has a lot more advanced features, though I’m no spreadsheet wizard. With Documents however, with the feature set far closer to that of Word or any enterprise desktop word processor, what’s the problem halting full adoption?

Is it a trust issue? Are people wary of Google or concerned about losing their data?

I’m a big fan of Documents, I use it for all my writing, I don’t own Microsoft Word and anyway, I like it. I’m writing this post using Documents because I prefer the environment over WordPress’ authoring tool, I’m confident that my data is safe and secure.

And then there’s email, I don’t use a desktop client at all for my personal email, I use Google Mail. But compared to the rest of the Google app suite, Google Mail is seen as something quite different.

For some reason, Google Mail is set apart from the rest of the Google Docs applications, not seen on par, even though your data there is equally as secure or insecure, and backed-up or prone to loss there as it is with the apps on Docs. They run alongside each other, they have the same authors, same security, the same look and feel even.

So why is this? Is it just the case that Google Mail has been around for longer, so we’ve just gotten used to it? It has had a longer development life, but those advances are duplicated across to other software.

I wonder how many of the people who choose not to use Documents for trust, security or want of having their documents saved locally, do use Google Mail but haven’t ever exported their mail and backed-up an archive on their computer?

I think two things set Google Mail apart. Firstly, it’s just better than most mail clients – it’s fast, responsive, it shows emails in threads (which was pretty new at the time) and since then we’ve gotten hooked and now can’t possibly drop it for any of those old clunky desktop clients.

Secondly, probably because of that first reason, it seems we’ve kind of ‘forgotten’ that it’s a Web app – that’s just a load of that temperamental HTML and Javascript substance writing data to the browser, but not only is it so powerful that it can trump the desktop software, it’s extremely reliable so we seem to think that it surely can’t just be a Web page like any other page in our browser.

Not only are we forgetting that actually there really is no difference between Google Mail and any other page (other than excellent engineering), but that there is a difference between it and one the desktop alternatives.

What I’m talking about here is that we should consider our way of thinking about these applications. It’s not a new observation that the gap between desktop applications and Web-based applications is closing, Google Mail is probably the best example of that – perhaps the killer app in that respect. It just seems surprising that the Chromium OS has zero file storage, you do not save anything –  but it really shouldn’t be.

I talked about suspending disbelief in convincing myself that some of the Web pages I was looking at were actually apps and not just normal HTML pages – but does it really matter?

Take the application menu, note it’s similarities to the application interface on the iPhone which also collates Web links and native ‘applications’ together. Both treat them as one and the same with an icon treatment that doesn’t distinguish between the two.

Ultimately, if we get the desired result – on the basis that trust and security is in place and what we want to get done, gets done – I don’t think it matters if the program is Web-based or ‘desktop’-based, as much as it doesn’t matter if the app is written in HTML, AJAX or Flash instead of C or VBA.

When Adobe first starting talking about AIR, describing it as something like a desktop runtime for Flash, I didn’t think anyone would consider any Flash app to stand on equal footing to traditionally written desktop software (again, from the likes of C or VBA). At that time no-one really took Flash anywhere near as seriously as they do now. But now look at all the Twitter clients we use, the BBC iPlayer.

I digress. What I’m saying is that everything on the Web is constantly evolving.

Google Mail is the application that proved that stateless computing ‘can be done’ and can be accepted as the norm. Chromium then, has the potential to be the software that proves true stateless computing ‘can be done’ and is a confident first step to introducing that as the norm.

Chromium loads some Web apps natively, others it loads as if they were native. With apps like these, if you were the kind of user that didn’t know or didn’t care that they only served online, you wouldn’t be any the wiser because of the way in which Chromium unblinkingly presents them.

I’m reminded of the ‘What is a browser?’ video and how initially I thought of the people as being quite naive, but in retrospect I don’t think it matters what a browser is, it’s what you do with it.

For a lot of people the search engine (Google or otherwise) is synonymous with the Web, or is the Web. Not removing choice, I don’t see a problem with these apps being synonymous with ‘mail’, or ‘chat’ or ‘calendar’ for users who wish to use them.

We’re pretty much always online now and Chromium is targeting the Netbook type system (also to note perhaps, the TechCrunch article says you cannot download and install Chrome on any machine – you will have to buy a new one), Chromium could really work. As I say, if it does it’ll enforce this new paradigm of how we think about these apps.

NB: There are fall backs for offline use – recently Google announced that they are dropping Gears for HTML5 APIs and offline storage, but I won’t go into that now and anyway, replacing normal computer usage isn’t what this is about.

In the end I couldn’t survive the whole day on Chromium because of the virtual machine’s performance, but I got to wondering whether I could sustain myself on completely stateless computing if I was handed the real Chromium to try out for a period of time.

With the help of Wakoopa, I looked at the most popular apps for various platforms and chose those I use the most, for each I came up with a currently cloud-based alternative – all of which I’ve used at least once when circumstance has called for it.

Here’s a sample of what’s available:

Desktop Web-based
Internet Browser N/A
Mail Google Mail, Google Wave, Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail etc
iTunes/Spotify, Pandora
Instant Messaging Google Talk, Google Mail
Skype/Voip As above, GizmoCall, or any webcam supporting site
DVD/Video player Hulu, YouTube (Now supports TV and ‘films‘)
Word Processing Google Documents
Microsoft Excel Google Spreadsheets
Adobe Photoshop Splashup, Picnik
Twitter client Brizzly, Twitter ;)
RSS aggregator Google Reader
Code IDE CodeRun – can edit, run and compile various languages including PHP, ASP.NET and Silverlight

There are far more than I’ve listed here – what I’m saying is, this isn’t a phase this is just development.

So Chromium is looking promising, no doubt more official releases will be on the cards for next year. Until then, if anyone does happen to have a Chromium-ready Netbook they want me to Beta test.. I’m up for the challenge. :)

Last year Facebook released Facebook Connect and about the same time Google released Friend Connect, they’re two very similar services that allow users to connect with information and with their friends of the respective native platforms from third-party enabled sites. The intention, as I’ve written about before, is to add a layer of social interaction to ‘non-social’ sites, to connect your information and activity on these third-party sites to your information and activity (and contacts) on the original platforms.

Then in March, Yahoo! announced their service sign-on, called Yahoo! Updates.

Now, this week, Twitter have announced their connection service, called ‘Sign in with Twitter‘. It too gives you a secure authenticated access to your information and contacts, in exactly the same way the others do – except this time, it’s Twitter.

Sign in with Twitter

You might ask if we have three, do we need a fourth? Have you ever used any of the other three?

But don’t dismiss it, or think it Twitter are jumping on to any kind of bandwagon, Twitter’s implementation is fundamentally different to the others – and it could cause quite a stir.

The problem with the other services (ultimately the problem with the platforms) is, more than often not, they are completely closed and non-portable. Although you can sign-in to a third-party site and access your data, there’s a lot of limitation to what you can retrieve and publish. These popular social networks have grown and amassed huge amounts of members and data which they horde and keep to themselves. I’m not talking about privacy, I’m referring to data portability.

The infrastructures are like locked-in silos of information and each built differently, because, either, they never considered that you’d want to make your data portable or they didn’t then want (or see value) in you moving your data anywhere else. The services they’ve created to ‘connect’ to your data are also proprietary methods – custom built to channel in and out of those silos. Each of those services too, are singularities, they won’t work with each other.

Twitter though, have come up with a solution that adheres to agreed upon standards, specifically, by using OAuth to facilitate it’s connection. Technically, it’s significantly different, but in practice, you can expect it to do everything the others can do.

The community’s thoughts

Yahoo’s Eran Hammer-Lahav (a frequent contributor to OAuth) has written a good post discussing his thoughts, he says it’s ‘Open done right’ – no proprietary ‘special sauce’ clouds interoperability as happens with Facebook Connect. I think he’s right.

He looks at what happened when Facebook Connect was introduced, that they essentially offered third-party sites two key features: the ability to use existing Facebook accounts for their own needs, and access Facebook social data to enhance the site. The value of Facebook Connect is to save sites the need to build their own social layer. Twitter though, is not about yet another layer, but doing more with that you’ve already got.

Marshall Kirkpatrick also wrote about the announcement, his metaphor for the other ‘connection’ services best describes how they function – ‘it’s letting sites borrow the data – not setting data free’.

But then he talks about Twitter ‘as a platform’, and I think this is where things get interesting. He says:

Twitter is a fundamentally different beast.

All social networking services these days want to be “a platform” – but it’s really true for Twitter. From desktop apps to social connection analysis programs, to services that will Twitter through your account when a baby monitoring garment feels a kick in utero – there’s countless technologies being built on top of Twitter.”

He’s right. Twitter apps do pretty much anything and everything you can think of on top of Twitter, not just the primary use of sending and receiving tweets. I love all the OAuth and open standards adoption – but that’s because I’m a developer, but thinking about Twitter as a platform makes me wonder what kind of effect this will have on the users, how it could effect the climate, even landcape, of social media if, already being great, Twitter is given some real power

People have long questioned Twitter’s future – it’s business model, how it can be monetised, those things are important – but where can it otherwise go and how can it expand? Does it need to ‘expand’? It’s service is great it doesn’t need to start spouting needless extras and I don’t think it will. But in widening it’s connectivity, it’s adaptability, I think could change our perception of Twitter – it’s longevity and road map, the way we use it and think of ourselves using it.

My Thoughts

Irrelevant of Richard Madeley or Oprah Winfrey’s evangelism, Twitter is an undeniable success.

When Facebook reworked and redesigned their feed and messaging model, I almost couldn’t believe it. What was the ‘status’ updates, basically IS Twitter now, and that’s it’s backbone. It’s Twitter’s messaging model, it asks ‘What’s on your mind?’.

I’m probably not the only one who thought this, I’d guess any complaints about this being a bit of a blatant rip-off were bogged down by all the negativity about the interface redesign.

I think Facebook realised that Twitter has become a real rival. I think (and I guess Facebook also think) that as people become more web-savvy and literate to these sociable websites, they want to cleanse.

The great appeal of Twitter for me was, ingeniously, they took a tiny part of Facebook (this is how I saw it two years ago anyway) and made it their complete function – simple, short updates. Snippets of personal insight or creative wisdom, it didn’t matter really, what was important was it ignored the fuss and noise of whatever else Facebook had flying around it’s own ecology (and this was before Facebook applications came around) and took a bold single straight route through the middle of it.

Looking back, a lot of Facebook’s early adoption could be attributed to people growing restless with the noise and fuss of MySpace at the time – Facebook then was a clean and more structured an option.

I remember Twitter was almost ridiculed for basing it’s whole premise on such a minute part of Facebook’s huge machine. Now look at the turnaround.

Now people are growing up out of Web 2.0 craze. A lot went on, there was a lot of ‘buzz’, but a lot of progress was made in connecting things. People now are far more connected, but perhaps they’re over-connected, struggling from what Joseph Smarr calls ‘social media fatigue’. People they have multiple accounts in a ton of dispersed and unconnected sites around the web – true, each unique and successful for it’s own achievements – but it can’t go on.

Twitter for me is streamlined, cleansed, publishing. Whether talking about what I’m doing or finding out information from people or about topics that I follow, the 140 character limit constrains these utterances to be concise and straight-to-the-point pieces of information. The ‘@’ replies and hashtags are brilliant mechanisms conceived to create connections between people and objects where there is almost no space to do so.

I use my blog to write longer discourse, I use my Twitter to link to it. Likewise with the music I listen to, I can tweet Spotify URIs. I link to events and anything particularly good I’ve found (and probably bookmarked with Delicious) I’ll tweet that out too.

Twitter for me is like a central nervous system for my online activities. I won’t say ‘backbone’ – because it’s not that heavy. Specifically a nervous system in the way it intricately connects my online life, spindling and extending out links, almost to itself be like a lifestream in micro.

Recently, I saw Dave Winer‘s ‘Continuous Bootstrap‘ which although is admittedly a bit of fun, describes the succession of platforms deemed social media ‘leaders’ (see the full post here).

What I initially noticed is that he aligns successful platforms – blogging, podcasting – with a single application: Twitter. It doesn’t matter whether he is actually suggesting that Twitter alone is as successful as any single publishing form, but it did make me wonder if Twitter, rather than being the current ‘holder of the baton’, will actually be the spawn for whatever kind of Web-wide platform does become popular next.

If the real Data Portability revolution is going to kick in, if it’s on the cusp of starting right now and everything will truly become networked and connected – would you rather it was your Twitter connections and voice that formed that basis for you or your Facebook profile?

I know I’d much rather read explore the connections I’ve made through Twitter. The kind of information I’d get back from the type of people who’d connect in this way would be far more relevant from my pool of Twitter connections rather than the old school friends and family members (notoriously) who’ve added me on Facebook, the kind that just add you for the sake of it.

If Web 3.0 (or whatever you want to call it) is coming soon, I’d rather detox. Twitter is slimmer and still feels fresh to start it out with. For me, Facebook feels far too heavy now, out of date and messy. Maybe I’m being unfair and I feel that way because I’ve fallen out of touch with it and now I visit less frequently, but all the negativity hasn’t done it any favours – and those complaints aren’t unfounded.

Yahoo! have announced Yahoo! Updates, their answer to Facebook Connect and Google Friend Connect.

I’ve spoken about Friend Connect and Facebook Connect a of couple times already as they vie for the mantle of the primary single sign-on for social web applications, but I hadn’t heard anything about Yahoo! offering an implementation on their part – but it turns out to be a pretty good challenge.

They announced on their Developer Network Blog yesterday, that it’s a collaboration with JS-Kit, a leading distributed social network that currently connects over 600,000 sites through powering comments and ratings services. JS-Kit have already got some huge implementations, including sites for AOL, Evite, and Sun Microsystems.

As the JS-Kit blog explains, in this scenario these third-party sites can share user-generated content (e.g. blog comments) directly to a user’s social connections on Yahoo! via the “Updates from My Connections” feed.

This new capability offers a potentially massive new distribution channel for content and a great engine for driving referral traffic from Yahoo!’s global audience. The integration with the Yahoo! Social Directory API enables these sites to allow users to leverage their Yahoo! identity and display their Yahoo! profile photo with their comments. By enabling commenters to use their Yahoo! profile commenting, publishers can build a stronger sense of community at their sites.

Yahoo! have implemented the OAuth open standard to achieve this, a trusted connection to third party sites, not only making users more willing to add content, but by leveraging the social profile data already stored by Yahoo!, makes the commenting and rating an easier process.

This in turn not only means no need for re-registration (cue repetitive form filling), but also a singular, portable syndication of activity can be aggregated on Yahoo! for those users, which, as Marshall Kilpatrick suggests, could then be used by site owners to access verified information about their readers’ profiles and interests.

If this were possible, this could be used to serve more relevant content to those users as well as offer those site owners assurance as to who is contributing to their sites.

Yahoo! talked about their Open Strategy back in October, so it’s good (and about time!) to see some of this come to fruition. They’ve hit the ground running, but the JS-Kit support won’t win this alone – those sites also support Facebook Connect.

I’m more impressed with Yahoo! for consistently championing open standards, as they do with SearchMonkey also, so hope this will expand to other networks in the future. But as much as I enjoy a third contender to the table heating things up, I hope this doesn’t result in three (or more) incompatible platforms heading in their own directions and we’re back to square one.

Quite out of the blue and without notification of it’s launch as far as I’ve been able to find, Google seem to be exposing semantic data in their global search results.

Try searching for ‘What is the capital city of England?’ or ‘Who is Bill Clinton’s wife?’ and you’ll see sourced direct answers returned at the top of your search results.

It’s hard to tell if these direct results are actually semantic expressions or just presented to appear that way – in the expected Semantic triple of subject-predicate-object. The list of sources definitely don’t structure their information with semantic expression, so perhaps quite an amount of logic and natural language processing is being done on Google’s part to process non- or semi-structured data.

I’ve tried to find out before what Google have been up to concerning semantic technology but found little. The coverage over at ReadWriteWeb reports that neither they or their Semantic Web contacts had heard or seen anything about this before, but the community feedback suggests there’s been variations of this for some time – including a three year old Google program called ‘Direct Answers’ – but none of the coverage of that program offers the kind of examples we’re seeing here.

Marshall Kirkpatrick points to a blog post of Matt Cutts, Google search algorithm engineer, but it seems to be a dead link now. Though trailing through Google’s caches, it seems to find him quote:

Many of the data points are being pulled in from the structured part of Wikipedia entries, which is interesting. Other sources are wide ranging, from a license plate website to Jason Calacanis’s Mahalo.

If Google are constructing semantic data from semi-structured or non-structured source data, then there’s undoubtedly some quite powerful semantic processing technology in place. I highly doubt this will be the final product of their development with such technologies, simply the first we’ve noticed – most likely why it’s slipped under most people’s notice.

The inaccuracy is also an issue. Try searching ‘Who is Bob Dylan’s wife?’ – and you’ll see Sara Lownds (his ex-wife) returned. Seeing these direct answers reminds me of True Knowledge.

Even their example questions though, are far more complex – for example, ‘Who owns Universal Studios?‘, ‘Is the Chrysler building taller than the Eiffel Tower?‘, ‘What is the half life of plutonium 239?‘.

More importantly, if it doesn’t know that answer, it won’t ‘guess’ – it’ll tell you it doesn’t know and ask you to deconstruct your query in order to expand it’s knowledge base so it can find the answer later.

As Marshall says, this is all speculation based on limited observation – and low visibility of Google’s development. Hopefully there’ll be more soon!

Whilst I’m on the subject of Google and trying to finish half-written drafts hanging over from last year, I thought I’d briefly mention the release of Analytics for Flash.

Aside from capturing all the obvious generic statistics you’d expect from a Flash tracking package – and by being fluidly compatible with the main JavaScript library is capable of outputting all the core functionality of the existing Analytics components – the metrics offered by Google Analytics for Flash can be particularly designed to offer interesting insight into other aspects of your users’ activity you may not first expect. For example, you can collect data that can help you gauge levels of usability or (kind of) the implementation of design success. Seemingly you can monitor the behaviour of the users’ interaction during their visit too – as well as the length of the visit itself.

It’s all technically possibly, with Google’s introduction of event tracking that can be fired from custom interactions – whether that be a button click or video view or anything else. Along with that, the event can carry a payload, later received by your Analytics dashboard for your interpretation. It sounds simple – but it’s capable of being very powerful.

Previously, tracking your Flash content would be in isolation. That is to say, you could fire a tracking event when a user accesses a page of Flash content, but from there you were blind to their progress until navigating again.

This payload though, not only could detail traffic to specific sections within a Flash application (although in turn, separate events could be created for those) but could return data specific to that user and session. For example, the total time the user has spent in a particular place, or the site as a whole.

Depending on how complex you wish to be (and how many stats you want to trawl though later) this could offer very valuable data. But that data need not only be of value to an agency or advertiser. Counts for clicks on specific buttons aren’t anything new when you want to find out how many people click a ‘News’ link first, or if anyone notices the ‘Help’ button. This can be far more granular – to the point, as above, where the data could be used to inform decisions on say, design or usability.

Take a standard Flash video player as a media component you’re used to seeing on a daily basis. You can easily picture the common control bar. But how many people actually use those ‘Rewind’ and ‘Fast forward’ buttons? Could the design be improved?

Admittedly with Flash video components, you’re unlikely to see those nowadays ;) – but that (as I’ve picked this example) is the result of user testing, something this kind of tracking can’t replace – Jesse Warden has a strong sense of this in his post about Flash Analytics.

Anyway, the custom events let you send as (overly-) complex amount of data as you wish. Flash of course can be used everywhere, deployed as widgets or embedded on blogs anywhere on the Web. These Analytics though, are part of your application itself. So you can track its usage outside of the original HTML page the previous iteration of Analytics would have restrained you to.

And it’s free! Check out the code repo.

You ain’t a beauty, but hey you’re alright.