Charles Engelke's Blog

July 31, 2008

Handy GrandCentral Hack – and a Few Complaints

Filed under: Google IO 2008 — Charles Engelke @ 5:48 pm
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[Update on August 1: Chad, the author of the Firefox extension I refer to below, commented and asked for details of the problem I had.  His comment and my answer are available for this post.  In a nutshell, I reinstalled the extension and this time it’s working for me and not causing any problems.  Great responsiveness from a software author, and a great tool for GrandCentral users  Thanks Chad!]

GrandCentral is a service that gives you a virtual phone number that can be pointed at one or more real phone numbers.  If someone phones the GrandCentral number, all the real phones get the call.  There are a lot of extra features, too, like e-mail notification of calls, web voice-mail, switching which phone number you’re using while a call is underway, and more.  But you probably can’t get it because it’s in an invitation-only beta period.

Unfortunately, GrandCentral has been “in beta” for quite a while now.  I got my account in May 2007.  I never seriously used it because I wasn’t sure it would last, and I also wasn’t sure I wanted to be quite that easily reached.  But I saw a tip on Lifehacker the other day about it and gave it a try.  It turns out that you can call anybody from your phone for free using GrandCentral.  Just put the person’s phone number in your address book and you’ll see a Call button.  Click it, and GrandCentral first calls you.  When you answer, it announces that’s it’s placing your call, and it calls the number you selected.  It works perfectly.  I don’t know whether this works for calls outside the US, but I doubt it.

This is handy for me to call the office when I’m working from home.  I prefer to use my home phone instead of my cell phone due to coverage issues.  But our office is a long-distance call, so I use the 800 number.  Which connects me to the receptionist who I have to keep bothering in order to connect to the right extension.  Now with GrandCentral I call the other employee’s direct-dial number from my home phone for free, and don’t have to take up the receptionist’s time.

This trick does require that the person be in your GrandCentral address book, which is a bit of a pain.  The Lifehacker tip was about a Firefox extension that would let you make this kind of call to any number on any web page, but the extension didn’t work for me and caused some other problems in Firefox, so I removed it.  If I could upload a file of phone numbers to the address book this wouldn’t be much of a hassle, but I can’t.  GrandCentral makes you enter each contact individually on the web.

Which brings me to my complaints.  GrandCentral now belongs to Google, and they don’t seem to be doing anything with it.  It’s not integrated with any other Google services (like my GMail contact list).  It’s got an awful flash-heavy user interface that makes every navigation step slow and difficult.  And it doesn’t have any of Google’s normal thoughtful touches (like being able to upload an address book).

I can’t see how anybody can make money with the GrandCentral service, at least as it now exists, which may be the problem.  Perhaps it’s almost an orphan product inside Google.  It wasn’t even mentioned at the Google IO meeting.  Too bad, because it can be really useful.  I guess I’ll use it while I wait to see what Google does with it.

June 2, 2008

Conference Materials are now available

Filed under: Google IO 2008,RailsConf 2008 — Charles Engelke @ 1:57 pm
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RailsConf 2008 has made most of its presentation materials available for free download.

Google IO is beginning to make videos of its sessions available.

A lot of this stuff is really great, well worth your time.

May 29, 2008

Today at Google IO

Filed under: Google IO 2008,Uncategorized — Charles Engelke @ 5:17 pm
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…is going better for me than yesterday.  Sessions are mostly running a bit short, so it’s not nearly as frantic running from room to room.  I even had time to eat a sandwich, and as a result had a nice chat with another attendee.  It turned out she grew up in Gainesville, where I lived and still work.  And she’s working on technology very relevant to what our applications need, and is going to send me some information on new functionality as soon as it’s announced.

That kind of ad hoc meeting is something I like about conferences, and Google IO’s ultra-tight schedule with no break for lunch gets in the way.  I hope they change it next year.

Keynote, Day 2

Filed under: Google IO 2008,Uncategorized — Charles Engelke @ 5:12 pm
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Today started with a talk by Marissa Mayer, Google VP of Search and User Experience.  It was again very well done, and she’s an engaging speaker.

We heard some interesting things about how Google designs their pages.  For instance, they added the copyright notice at the bottom of the page not for legal reasons, but because in early user tests people kept waiting after the page was displayed before they’d enter a query.  Why?  They were waiting for the “rest of it”; the page couldn’t be loaded, it was too sparse.  So the copyright notice was added “as punctuation” to signal folks that the page was loaded and ready.

They do a lot of A/B (or A/B/C…) testing, where different users get slightly different pages from Google, and Google gathers and analyzes data about user behavior as a result.  They often find that very tiny changes changes can have a big effect.  The amount of white space between the Google logo and the separator bar on a results page?  The small amount they use results in greater user satisfaction and more Google searches than larger gaps.  Text ads with yellow backgrounds instead of blue?  Measurably better results.

What I took away from this was that you should listen to, or observe, what your users do, not what they say.  Mayer referenced a Henry Ford quote I hadn’t heard before:

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

After Hours at Google IO

Filed under: Google IO 2008,Uncategorized — Charles Engelke @ 1:33 am
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This evening Google had a reception with lots of food and drink, and music by Flight of the Conchords.

State of Ajax

Filed under: Google IO 2008,Uncategorized — Charles Engelke @ 1:27 am
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Dion Almaer and Ben Galbraith of Ajaxian told us about Ajax tools and frameworks, and the direction they see Ajax going.  Their talk was really well done, and very interesting.  Google taped all the talks and said they will post them sometime, probably on code.google.com, so you’ll be able to see for yourselves.

Highlights I took down:

There are lots of Ajax frameworks and toolkits, which were created to do different kinds of things. But over time, the leaders all evolved to cover similar broad spectra of functionality. The four families that really matter now are Prototype, Dojo, jQuery, and GWT. (I wonder if including GWT is partly just an acknowledgment of the conference sponsor.)

Future directions are to make the browser as capable as your PC, and will eventually be strong competition for native GUI applications. Tools for that include Fluid (which I hadn’t heard of), Adobe Air, Mozilla Prism, and Google Gears.

Google IOKO

Filed under: Google IO 2008,Uncategorized — Charles Engelke @ 1:07 am
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Google’s logo for Google IO is the binary values of ASCII IO, with white circles for 1 and black circles for 0. Their slides do the same thing, but with large and small circles:

The t-shirts they’ve given us use the same coding to spell out Google IO. Except they spell Google KO instead:

Their own t-shirts say the same thing, but in black on white instead of white on black.

A mistake? Or a threat to potential competitors?

May 28, 2008

Keynote talk

Filed under: Google IO 2008,Uncategorized — Charles Engelke @ 7:59 pm
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This morning’s keynote for Google IO was the just about the best talk of that kind I’ve ever attended.  It was a broad overview of the topics from Vic Gundotra, a Google Vice President of Engineering, with several short talks on specific topics by relevant staff members.  It was full of useful information and whetted my appetite for the upcoming breakout sessions, and the speakers were all very polished and clearly rehearsed.

Some highlighted topics:

  • Google Javascript APIs.  Google has really opened its services up, and provides easy to use RESTful libraries for getting them to them in Javascript.  I’m not real interested right now in any single one of them, but the breadth of what’s available now is impressive.
  • Android.  Some very nice demos of mobile phones running Android, but I’m not clear on when this technology will actually be available for people like me to use.  I want it, but I bet today’s cellular provides, who always want to lock their users down, probably don’t want it.
  • AppEngine.  This is the technology that triggered my decision to attend the conference.  I’ve done some development in it, like it, and see great uses for it.  The big news for AppEngine is that it is now (as of today) open for anyone to sign up to use.  They also showed some approximate pricing for when it becomes a fully supported product, but committed to making it always free for low volume users.  “Low volume” will be defined in terms of storage, CPU, data transfers, and so on, but the free level will be enough to cover an average of 5 million page views per month.
  • OpenSocial.  Google’s supporting open APIs for social networking in a big way.  Personally, I’m not currently very interested in it.
  • Google Web Toolkit.  In addition to the native Javascript APIs, Google supports client-side development with GWT.  You write the applications in Java, and GWT compiles it to Javascript for deployment to the browser.  I don’t get it.  The speaker made a big deal of how Java was a much better language for this, and had grown-up development tools, but didn’t convince me.  I remember vendors pushing Cobol for developing in OS/2 and Windows for the same kinds of reasons.  Have you seen a lot of Cobol GUI programs?
  • Google Gears.  Now just called Gears.  This is a browser plug-in that lets you do all sorts of great things with Ajax, like store persistent data on the client and access client resources.  They are looking at this as a bleeding edge early preview of HTML 5, and I think it’s going to be important.

That’s not exhaustive, but it’s fairly complete.  I’m glad I came.

Google doesn’t scale

Filed under: Google IO 2008,Uncategorized — Charles Engelke @ 3:37 pm
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That is, the Google IO conference starting today in San Francisco isn’t scaling very well.  Registration was very, very slow for some reason, even though all that seemed to be happening was finding preprinted badges and giving them to attendees.  They simply couldn’t get people registered in the 90 minutes from when they opened at 8:00 until the keynote at 9:30, so they decided to let people attend sessions most of today without badges.  People need to go to the desks between sessions and get their badges by the end of the day.

Agenda scheduling doesn’t seem very practical.  Sessions go on non-stop all day with 15 minute gaps between them.  People are supposed to grab food during those breaks, but the food’s on a separate floor, and with such large crowds I don’t think you can even get to the other floor and back in that time.  The other choice would be to skip a session to eat, but the agenda is very strong.  I’m glad I ate a big breakfast.

The conference content has been great so far, with the most polished yet technical talks I’ve ever seen.  I hope that keeps up for the whole time.  Notes on sessions later as I get some breaks.  I’m not going to write during the sessions themselves.

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