Wednesday, July 18, 2007

How To Be The Next Google

The tech world spins fast, and it keeps getting faster with each passing day. Hundreds of startups are popping up every day, hoping to be the next big thing on the web, few make the cut. Ten years ago Google was one such startup who made the cut, and made it big. Google is now one of the giants of the tech world, on par with companies like Microsoft, and Yahoo. And every startup today has one dream, to be the next Google.
The web has always been about content and providing the right content to the right people. In the olden days of the web, MSN and Yahoo! became huge because they presented a variety of content, so that there would be something for everybody. Eventually Google improved search enough so that people could simply search, and get back results (such as websites, blog posts, articles,etc) that might interest them. Nowadays search doesn't cut it anymore, you have to enter a correctly worded search term and then shuffle through the results to find the one you want. Ideally, you should not have to search at all, stories and articles of interest should find you, not the other way around. They should be brought to you in a sort of "Personalized Inbox".

Now, I know what you are thinking, that's what RSS feeds are for. But for RSS feeds to work you need to subscribe to each individual feed. Also, not all posts from a blog might interest you. RSS, as great as it is, is not the solution.

Sites like Techmeme and particularly Digg, try to present the recently popular stories for a niche, but even with these sites you are getting only the stories that the majority of the users find interesting. Therefore, you may find the some, or even most of the stories don't interest you.

The mockup to the left is concept design of how a "personalized inbox" might be. It is generally a cross between Digg and StumbleUpon, where the stories on the frontpage aren't simply determined by the popularity but also by you interests, which can be determined in a number of ways, the most simple of which is by the nature of stories that you read and liked previously, or by matching you with other users of similar taste. Either way the more you use the site the more accurate it becomes, until you reach the point when each and every story that end up on your page in perfectly suited to your taste.

Let me quickly describe the mockup. The top portion is the search box, which should work like Google, except the results should be tailored to your interests. Below that is the Editor's Pick section that provides you with urgent or breaking news in your niche. Underneath that follows the stories, which is what the site is about. On the right there is a module that shows the most popular media (such as images or videos or even podcasts), and beneath that is list of your RSS Feeds of sites or blogs that you love or want to keep track of, religiously. At the bottom is the most popular stories, which is simply what the current Digg homepage is like, this module will help you discover new articles.

Now the mockup is far from perfectly, but the concept behind it is clear. The current generation of personalized homepages, like Netvibes and, are nothing more than glorified feed aggregators, and they need to evolve beyond that to bring forth a truly innovative product. After all, the tech world spins fast, and its about time we got a "new Google".

Sunday, July 15, 2007

How To Improve Digg

Digg is a great site, one that I visit daily. But as cool as it is there are a number of flaws with it. And as such I decided to make some suggestions for a future revisions.

5. Picture Section: This is probably the single most wanted feature by most of Digg users. One in every ten stories that get submitted to digg is a picture, so creating a new picture section would make a lot of sense. The main problem is that most sites do not want you to link to a photo directly, because it uses up their bandwidth but they don't gain any ad earnings or readers, as opposed to when articles are dugg.
One possible solution might be to only allow users to post direct links to images from a fixed list of sites such as flickr and imageshack. And when posting images that appear on articles (i.e. in a blog), the user has to link to the actual article.

4. Advertisements: Currently the is littered with Google AdSense. This could be extremely annoying. I'm certain Kevin Rose is probably thinking up other possible ways to monetize Digg. One rather obvious way would be to allow "Sponsored Digg Items" to appear on the Digg frontpage. This would work in the picture section as well, where sponsors could post image ads.
One problem that might arise in a possible revolt from digg users who might not like the idea of advertisements posted as digg articles. A possible solution would be to post the advertisements in the "Upcoming section" of the site in a separate "Advertisement" category, with the ads being promoted to the frontpage if it receive enough diggs. The advantage of this would be that only quality adverts would make it to the front page. Although there is a possibilty that no-one might end digging adverts.

3. Cache: A cache would be useful not only for reducing the digg effect, but to allow users to visit articles that they have dugg in the past. The original content might have been deleted or changed but if digg keeps a cache of the site, it won't be a problem.

2. Better Search: Currently Digg's search implementation is rather weak, and completely useless to most people. Improving the search engine and implementing it as a major feature could make Digg the Google of the social bookmarking niche.

1. Personalization: This is the most important feature that Digg should implement, and probably will implement if they want to stay in the game. Currently the stories on the frontpage are determined by what the majority of the users like, but that doesn't mean you will like it. Also because of the large volume of articles being submitted and dugg up, the frontpage changes way too frequently, so you might miss articles that you would have liked.
Digg could implement a method in the the articles that are presented to you on the frontpage as well as the "Upcoming" section are determined by your actions in the past, such as the stories you dugg or buried in the past, or by matching your interests with that of other users. Personalization will have a huge impact on how digg is used, because it will mean that ultimate, once Digg learns what you like and don't like, you'll only be receiving stories that you'll love.

"Clippings" to replace taskbar in Windows 7

Microsoft has on many occasions hinted of the advent of a new user interface in the next version of Windows, currently codenamed Vienna, but referred to as Windows Seven. Today, istartedsomething posted about a patent filed by Microsoft regarding a possibility for a replacement for the taskbar.

There are more images at the source, but these sketchy diagrams don't really help clarify the concept. The idea is, instead of using an icon and text on tabs to represent open programs, there'll be Live Thumbnails, or "clippings" as they are being called, that will presumably appear "outside the focus region", probably in a sidebar of sorts. From the diagrams, it appears to take up a large portion of the screen, which is counter-productive, although I'm believe that Microsoft has already thought of that and probably has some innovative solution.

This is of-course just a patent, and Microsoft probably has many more ideas for a new UI, so don't get your hopes up (or down).

UPDATE: This could be a progression of Microsoft's GroupBar concept.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Windows Seven: Facts and Speculations

Its no secret that Microsoft has already begun work on the next version of Windows, Windows 7 (formerly, Windows Vienna). Little is known about, since Microsoft is keeping mum on it, lest it should repeat the disaster that was Vista (or rather Longhorn's) development cycle. Let's take a look at what we know so far about Windows 7.

1. It will be released in late 2009 - This is perhaps the only solid fact that we know about Windows 7. Other than Windows Vista, all previous Windows versions have been released within at least 3 years of each other, so with Vista's debut in January 2007 we can safely assume Windows 7 so be in stores by late 2009 (or at the latest early 2010).

2. It will be a minor release: According to Microsoft, every other release of Windows will be a major update, therefore, since Windows Vista was a major release, Windows 7 is set to be minor update. However there is still some chance that Windows 7 will be a major release. Firstly it bears a whole new version number, secondly since Windows Vista was largely a disappointing release, Microsoft might be compelled to make the next version much more interesting.

3. There will be both 32-bit and 64-bit versions: Although the official word so far is that Windows 7 will be 64 bit, it should be noted that when Windows XP was released, Windows Longhorn was planned to be a 64-bit version only. Since most of the PCs in existence today are 32-bit, with so signs of a radical shift to 64-bit anytime soon, Windows 7 should be released in both 32-bit versions.

4. There will be a new UI component: When Microsoft first drew up plans for Windows 7 (back when it was codenamed Blackcomb), there were rumors that the current UI will be replaced with an entirely new one, with some reference to a sort of radial-dial. Where are no chances for a complete overhaul of the current interface, MIcrosoft has been working on several new UI ideas, some of which may slip into Windows 7. Indeed, this might be a way to transition us from the current UI to the new one in future WIndows releases.

5. Hypervisor: Microsoft is currently working on a new hypervisor system codenamed "Viridian" with OS integration at the lowest level, and already Windows Vista includes extensions to boost performance when running on top of the Viridian hypervisor. We can expect Windows 7 to have a higher level of interaction with Viridian.

Now, those are the only tidbits, that we know of yet, or have heard rumors about, but there are some other minor specifics that we can easily guess. We can safely assume that all current bundled applications will be updated, some more than others, below are some speculations.

1. Internet Explorer 9: This is an easy guess, IE7 is out already and IE8 is set to be released in mid-2008, so we can fully expect IE9 to ship with Windows 7. Internet Explorer 7 was a rather rushed release, as Microsoft tried to stem the growth of Mozilla Firefox, and most of its new additions (such as tabs) seem flaky at times. Therefore we can expect IE8 to be a solid release, which, rather than introducing new features, improves the current feature-set, and makes the UI much more responsive. This seems to make Internet Explorer 9 a prime candidate for new and innovative features.

2.Windows Media Player/Windows Media Center: Its a given that new versions of WMP always make it into new Windows releases, and Windows Media Center are also expected to be a regular bundled application with all new versions of Windows. We can expect WMP12 and WMC Fiji with Windows Vista Service Pack 1, and future versions to be included in Windows 7.

3. Virtual Desktops: Mac OSX already has it, and Linux had it for a long time, so it would only make sense that Microsoft will be implementing virtual desktops into Windows 7.

4. System Restore: With OSX Leopard's Time Machine making such an impression with the general public, it can be expected that Windows 7 will improve upon its own backup tool.

5. Paint.NET: So far this has been an independent project that was under the guidance of Microsoft, but Microsoft has always acknowledged that Paint.NET with one day replace the current 'Paint' application in Windows.

There is also a slight possibility that Microsoft will be integrating Windows Live services much more strongly into Windows 7, although it might raise allegations of anti-competitive business strategies. But there might be certain unique Live services that make it into Windows 7, such as Live Drive. Other Microsoft services such as MSN Soapbox might also be a significant part of applications such as Windows Media Center.

It is still too early to tell what shape Windows 7 may take, but we can hope that the recent wave of innovations we have been seeing from Microsoft will carry on into the next two years.

Alternatives to Google

It seems that with each passing day Google keeps getting bigger and bigger, and keeps gobbling up start-ups and churning out cool products. And everyday we become more and more dependant on them. Once upon a time, Google used to be just our search engine of choice, now its our email provider (GMail), feed reader (Google Reader), blog host (Blogger), entertainment provider (YouTube), and a hell lot more. And not surprisingly more and more people are trying to move away from them, or at least wondering if its possible. So let's take a look at some of the alternatives we have for Google's services.

1. Web Search: Search is Google's core business and they are best at it. Alternative search engines do exist and a handful of them work amazingly well, but the problem is each of them only suit a few people really well, and are practically a nightmare to use for others. Refer to Read/Write Web's Top 100 Alternative Search Engine list to find one that suits you.

2. Image Search: When looking for photos try Flickr or Zooomr. These two happen to have the best collection of photos on the web. Smugmug is also a great one. If you're looking for images rather than photographs, try Snap Images.

3. Blog Search: One word. Technorati.

4. Google Video: Since Google also owns Youtube the only other good alternative seems to be DailyMotion. DailyMotion is as old as YouTube, and although its not as popular as Youtube, it has a loyal following, and it always has new and interesting videos to waste your time.

5. Google News: If you always want the latest news, the best thing to do would be to add news feeds to your feed reader. If you prefer getting your news from one single site try Newsvine. Not only does Newsvine have all the latest news, its layout and design is also easy on the eyes. Newsvine's strongest feature is its columns which, although written by the users, are always surprisingly well-written, thought-provoking, and witty.

6. iGoogle: Google is a late entrant into the personalized homepage market, and as such, there are a lot of rival products that are better than iGoogle. My own personal favorite happens to be Netvibes, which is light years ahead of iGoogle in terms of ease of use, features, and aesthetics.

7. GMail: Windows Live Hotmail and Yahoo! Mail Beta, are the only viable alternatives.

8. Google Calendar: 30 Boxes, is more than just a calendar, its a personal organizer. Like Google Calendar its easy-to-use and has a simple interface, but unlike Google Calendar it has strong social aspects, and can integrate with Flickr, Webshots,, LiveJournal, MySpace, and Facebook.

9. Blogger: Wordpress is an open source blogging platform that is used by some of the largest blogs on the web, include several corporate blogs. You can use Wordpress on your own web server, or use to get a free hosted blog. Several other free wordpress hosts also exist.

10. Google Docs and Spreadsheets: Zoho Office Suite not only has a word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation applications but also database, note-taker, wiki, CRM and many other applications. All applications can be used as standalone products, or with other applications. Zoho Office suite also proves their word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation applications for use on the iPhone as iZoho.

11. Google Reader: NewsHutch. Although Denounce is a pretty awesome RSS Reader for the desktop, that makes use of WPF, read my review of it here.

12. Google AdSense: Bidvertiser and BidClix, are two alternatives to AdSense that let you become an Ad Publisher for free and start earning money. Yahoo! Publisher is also a great alternative, but is still in beta stage.

13. Google Analytics: IceRocket's Blog Tracker is perhaps the only free alternative to Analytics that is even close to being as extensive and useful. Blog Tracker is easy to use and is under active development (although their blog doesn't seem to be updated often). I, myself use both and find myself using Blog Tracker for often, only using Analytics when I need an in-depth view about my blog's stats.

All in all, although there are many alternatives present, only a handful of them are better than or as good as Google's offering. And until some of Google's rivals become more innovative, we are stuck with Google. Although its not so bad, after all what other company has a corporate motto that says "Don't be Evil".

Denounce: The Next-Gen RSS/Podcast Aggregator

Denounce is the progression of a blog reader. It focuses on discovery and exploration. Listening and reading do not require a subscription. Though still at a conceptual stage, Denounce encourages people to experience podcasts and blogs without the trappings of a standard web browser or RSS reader. A number of features are missing in this prototype (alternate subscription views, playback options, preferences, etc.), but the general experience is clear.

The interface is vastly better than the average Windows application, and probably hints at what most future applications will look like. There are no toolbars and menus, filled with useless features; instead Denounce opts for a more minimalistic approach. The application is also very responsive and has a very dynamic look and feel.

The most unique feature of Denounce is its ‘Discovery’ function which lets you browse the most popular or the highest rated Podcasts and Blogs on the internet. You can read articles and listen to podcasts without subscribing. This simple and obvious feature has been lacking in all other Feed Readers. Denounce also has a rather basic function which lets you search the internet to find blog posts and podcast episodes although at the moment the results aren’t all that accurate. However, this can be improved very easily with a simple implementation of a Technorati API, with a relevant configuration (i.e. English posts with some authority).

After you subscribe to some blogs or podcasts, go on over to the Subscription mode. You can view blogs and podcast separately, or both at once, with new posts presented as a ‘river of news’. You can’t view separate blogs and podcasts individually or categorize them in folders or by tagging, however these features will probably be added later. All unread news are marked with a yellow star, once you read the news the star disappears. You have the option to ‘Save’ news items however, doing so simply marks it with a red star nothing else. You can delete news items as well.

Denounce focuses largely on podcasts with podcast playback controls prominently placed at the top. In the ‘Discovery’ mode you can select a podcast to view additional information such as rating as well as a list of all episodes. You can play an episode with a single click or download the podcast onto your desktop first. However once you start the playback of a podcast you can’t cancel it (you can pause it but it continues buffering). Once you subscribe you get new episode displayed as a ‘river of (audio) news’.

Being simply a prototype at this point, it has a whole lot of glaring drawbacks, however its potential is undeniable and the developers seem to know what they are doing. Denounce is more than just a cool new RSS Reader, it’s a taste of the power of Window Presentation Foundation technology and a glimpse into the future of Windows applications.


Splash Screen

Subscription View

Reading a news item

Zooming Capabilities

Saving a news item

Podcast Subscription View

Manage Subscription

Discovering Podcasts

Podcast Information

Playing an episode

Discovering Blogs

Search Functions