Friday, October 21, 2005

Flock Review

Flock Review

The curtain of large fonts on flock.com has been finally raised. Ladies and Gentlemen! Flock has arrived. Flock comes with a handful of interesting features, but has it lived to the hype? Unfortunately no. Not at this point.

As most of you know, Flock is built on the solid Firefox codebase by none other than former key Firefox developers. This means that in terms of browsing a website, you will not see a lot of difference. Flock’s innovation is primarily in two areas: information organization, and social browsing.

We all know how much of a pain it is to bookmark and organize a large number of sites. Flock solves this problem through tags and collections. With the click of the star button you can tag a website with easy to remember keywords like “music”, “movies”, etc. This is a good thing if you don’t want to share your bookmarks in del.ico.us, although the option is available to publish your tags to del.ico.us. Collections, as the name says, is simply a collection of websites under some heading like “Web2.0 sites”. Flock makes it really easy to browse through your saved sites by showing them in the full screen. It will be cool for them to add a tag search feature, so that if I type movies in the search box, I simply get all the sites under “movies” tag.

Another cool thing is that flock keeps a list of frequently visited sites. The concept is cool but implementation is a somewhat buggy. For example, I saw Senior Friend Finder in my list and I don’t think I ever visited that site or intend to visit it in near future. My guess is that Flock is saving hidden pop-ups in this list!

Shelf is a neat little tool to store random blurbs of text copied from websites. But, where is the search button to handle this list if it grows too large? When you bring up the Shelf button, it invites you to “Drag and Drop Things” into it, but when you try to do so, the little bastard disappears. What would be better is simply showing a menu item saying “Add this to shelf” when a user selects some text in a page.

Flock touted social browsing as its USP, but I think this is where it fails. I am not sure if a browser is the right place to put a blog editer. I would much rather have it in something like Open-Office or Word. Blogger already has a plug-in for word and I think that is the way to go. I don’t think there is any need for yet another editor. Instead, I would have loved to see a dictionary or spell-check. Firefox already has the beautiful midas framework for embedded rich-text editing. And to make it worse, the new editor is buggy. For photo-blogging, a better option will be simply a Windows XP extension to add a menu item like “publish to flickr” to the right click menu in windows explorer. I am not able to buy the idea of social browser, but hope that the esteemed Flockers will release something later to convince me.

Some other notable things are integration with Yahoo, Google, Wikipedia, etc. I am curious to know why Yahoo is the default. Good news for users of public computers: you can clean all the cache – the links, pages, password, and everything that counts by clicking just one button – “Clear Private Data”. Also present is a feed aggregator and reader.

To sum it up, Flock comes with some valuable additions to Firefox, but its main claim of social browsing appears to be conceptually weak. I would use Flock simply because of the organization tools. It is also a good step by the Firefox camp to prepare for competition from IE7.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Fixing Image Resolution in Internet Explorer

Do you find images in Internet Explorer a little blurry? Not sure if this is specific to Dell laptops, but I have a Dell Inspirion 600m and some of my friends have later versions of Dell laptops and they all have this problem in IE. IE has a feature called "Use Hi Resolution" that stretches web-pages for Hi-Res screens. This feature was probably introduced to stretch websites designed for lower resolution monitors. Unfortunately, the side effect is ugly blurry images.

The way to fix this is as follows:
  1. Goto Start > Run
  2. Type "regedit" and press enter
  3. In the regedit window, use Edit > Find to look for "Internet Explorer"
  4. Under Internet Explorer look for Main
  5. Under Main look for registry entry "UseHR"
  6. Right click on it and select "Modify"
  7. Change the 1 in Value Data to 0 and exit regedit
  8. Restart IE

Thursday, October 13, 2005

A Proposal for Search Engines

The search engines have done a very good job in helping people find the most popular sites satisfying the user's keyword query. This is a great way to discover most talked-about (read linked) sites. But what about discovering news sites and service? The internet is changing every second, and I as a user and more so as a blogger would like to see what are the hottest things coming up in the web. Today, there are websites like del.ico.us that let me browse the undiscovered web, but the point I am trying to make here is that, traditional search engines can simply tap their existing database and provide a service like del.ico.us.

Here is the idea:
  1. Have a list of pages that your robot has indexed recently, or that are part of domains registered recently. Have 1 month old as the default and let people change it. Optionally include pages that have changed drastically
  2. Create a list of most popular keywords and group related keywords. The keywords will be like tags in del.ico.ous
  3. Create a page having a search-box and the top keywords in it
  4. When a user looks for a certain keyword, take the user to a page and show results obtained from 1 and in the right side of the page show all the related tags
I believe that a system like this will be invaluable in helping analysts, researchers, hobbyists, investors, and even a common man to explore the web and find new things. I even have a name for this: "Web Explorer" :-)


Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Listen to What you Like

Ever listened to some awesome music and craved to hear more of it's kind? I am sure most of us do. Well then, Pandora is just the right place for you. I went to the site and entered "The Doors" in the box and lo and behold, the box started playing a mellifluous stream of Doorish sounding songs. As if this was not enough, you can talk back to box and tell it if you don't like a song and it will play something else which will sound Doorish too but pick on some different tonal qualities of Doors songs. Pandora tells you why it selected a song for you. And if you like a song you can buy it from Amazon and other places using the link provided. After the dot.com crash, we have seen only a handful interesting apps and their knock-offs, but as a music lover I think Pandora is simply the most interesting and innovative new app. Of course, if someone comes up with a smart algorithm to do the musical analysis, Pandora will be left behind.

Pandora's asset is it's exhaustive database of songs and associated musical patterns. The patterns were identified over a period of 5 years by a team of musicians analyzing songs using 400 different tonal qualities. One can say that Amazon gives a similar service through its "People who bought this also bought.." feature, but Pandora is in a completely different level. Finding music based on chord, rythm patterns, and other tonal qualities is truely awesome.

Pandora gives 10 hrs of music for free and then charges only $36 per year for its service. I think it is a very reasonable price to pay to listen to what you like. Although I am not sure how pandora measures free 10 hrs. It started playing music for me without asking for my email. If it uses cookies, then all I need to do is clean up my cookies to get 10 more hours. If it uses IP address, then the 10 hours will be used up pretty quickly by people behind a large corporate firewall.

My 2 cents for Pandora: Please open up your music database for users to submit their take on songs. This way you can expand your database. And please partner with some satellite radio company like XM Radio so that we can take your service on the road.

And my 2 cents to the readers: Check it out, It is really Coool!

GMail Faces Stiff Competition Ahead

Google released GMail in April 2004 at a time when web based mail products from Yahoo and Microsoft were in the end-of-life phase. As a result, word about GMail quickly spread in the internet community and as of today GMail has some 5 million registered users. Most users liked GMail because of one or more of the following features:
  1. Smoother and faster AJAX based interface
  2. No banner ads and clutter free design
  3. 2G space and 10M attachments
  4. More efficient search
  5. Nice WYISWIG editor
  6. Tag/Labels are like virtual folders that let users have the same mail organized in multiple folders
  7. Better spam filtering?
All this was really cool when GMail came. But, how hard is it to duplicate these features and even surpass them? I mean there is nothing extraordinary about the feature-set. One good thing GMail did was to give a wake up call to its main competitors in the search space: Yahoo and Microsoft.

Sometime last year Yahoo acquired Oddpost. Oddpost had a really cool mail app looking for users and Yahoo Mail was a not so cool mail app with lots of users. Yahoo and Oddpost delivered their first baby in the form of Yahoo Mail Beta. Going by screenshots and the rave reviews it is receiving from tech journals and blogosphere, I am getting a feeling that Yahoo Mail has surpassed GMail. You can sign up to be an early adopter. I have signed up and waiting. Yahoo should get more people onboard quickly before the next cool thing arrives.

Today, Microsoft made official announcements about Kahuna and there has been lot of excitement around it. Here is a nice review of Kahuna. When I first saw the video of Omar Sahine and team presenting Kahuna, I was thriled. These guys are creating something that will touch the lifes of millions and yet they are so humble and down to earth. But, the screenshots in the review were a little disappointing. The presence of huge banner ads was a letdown. Also I think MS should do away with the blue and white look and create something brand new like it did in start.com. The interface looks a bit cramped compared to Yahoo's offering. Nevertheless, this is a big step from Microsoft and I believe it will stop Hotmail users from deserting their 9 year old accounts. You can sign up to be beta tester.

Of course, the market also has niche products like Flash based goowy. Goowy provides a mind blowing interface but it is based on flash, which lot of people don't trust much because it is proprietory nature.

Remember how in the late 90s almost everyone who had a website, started offering a web based mail. You might think that the technical advancements done by Gmail, Kahuna, and Yahoo Mail will put the little sites out of business. Well, say hello to Zimbra. Zimbra is a open-source e-mail platform complete with a back-end mail server and highly interactive AJAX front-end. It was one of the darlings of the recently concluded Web 2.0 conference. With Zimbra, almost anyone can create or extend his own kick-ass web mail system.

It is clear that Gmail made a terrible mistake by having a invite-only scheme for its e-mail. The primary reason they gave for this is that they wanted to prevent spammers from signing up and they didn't want uncontrolled expansion. Well, one might wonder if the best way to prevent spam is to stop people fromm signing using your product. I think GMail didn't feel comfortable to sign up a lot of people and give then 2G space each. It is a bit unethical to tout 2G space and not prevent users from signing up at the same time. Another theory is that it just Google's arrogance - "Our mail is so good that you have to beg to use it". GMail's reaction to Yahoo's release was to introduce a clumsy sign-up mechanism involving your cell-phone. I think GMail should simply admit it's mistake and allow anyone to sign-up the way it has been traditionally done by other email providers.

In summary, lot of exciting new email applications are around the corner. 2006 will bring a lot of coolness in the web and I can't be more excited about it.