Friday, December 21, 2007

Powerset' open search box in pre-alpha

Powerset, which is working on a natural language search engine, has launched a pre-alpha version for people who have been invited to test its product. The search engine processes your question, such as "What are the symptoms of rabies?" (I watched an Office rerun last night), and searches Wikipedia for appropriate answers.

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Socialstream research, user studies, and design

I just blogged about a capstone MA project at Carnegie-Mellon called Socialstream, which seems to be a prototype of the Universal Activity Streams concept that Google will launch next year. The Socialstream team has done a good job of high-level documentation on its research process, including user profiles, contextual inquiry, and iterative design. It tends to overdetermine user types, based on a quick reading, but still it's a nice example of an interface design process.


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Google' Universal Activity Streams

Google's OpenSocial will include support for "universal activity streams," which sound a lot like Facebook's Beacon feeds in that they dump your actions across all OpenSocial partners into a unified feed. Longtime readers may recognize this as an evolution of the lifestreams concept that has been floating around for a decade. And in fact it appears to have a more direct connection  with a project at Carnegie-Mellon called Socialstream.

The big difference with Beacon is that the universal activity streams are not to be commercial in nature. So theoretically it won't broadcast when you buy that Tears for Fears album.

Launch expected in February or March.
These “universal activity streams” are meant to combine all actions you take online, similar to Facebook’s Beacon, and present them as a line of text in your personal activity feed on Google or an OpenSocial partner site like MySpace or Bebo. Within Google, for instance, these feeds could appear in Gmail, iGoogle, or Google Reader. The universal activity stream is expected to launch around February or March of next year. [...]

For Google, “activity streams” were always part of the plan. In fact, developers already can create similar “activity streams” for their applications. Since launch, OpenSocial’s documentation (see here) has always included support for activity streams that report on a user’s action to whatever host the developer chooses. They are consumable through a widget based on OpenSocial’s activity stream API. But Google currently specifies that these streams are not to be commercial in nature[.]
Google Poaching Beacon Partners For “Universal Activity Stream”

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The most extraordinary thing about the Duran Duran concert

Yes, I went to see Duran Duran last week at the Austin Music Center. I am not really what you would call a fan, but my companion was, so we went to the (appallingly unfinished) AMC to catch the band. The most striking thing about the concert -- besides the fact that they didn't play Hungry Like the Wolf -- wasn't on stage, it was in the crowd. Here's what things looked like before the band took the stage:

Empty stage at Duran Duran concert
And here's how it looked once the band took the stage:
Duran Duran takes the stage
 Duran Duran - left side of crowd Duran Duran - right side of crowd
Dozens and dozens of mobile devices snapped open and started taking pictures and video. And they stayed open for nearly the entire concert. The band (and the bouncers) didn't even blink. Gone are the days of trying to stop bootlegging -- a virtual impossibility now that nearly every phone can take live video and photos. What's more, I saw some of the crowd using their devices as periscopes, angling them high above the rest of the crowd to get a ten-foot view. I'm quite sure the people with actual cameras were zooming in as well.

Here's something else. You've tried talking during a concert? Doesn't work well. My companion and I shared a phone, tapping text messages to each other and reading them off the screen rather than sending them.

So what? Just an observation that these ubiquitous mobile devices are seeping unnoticed into every activity. It's not like the people in the crowd had to think hard about using their devices in this context -- the use was obvious, and pulling the devices out was ... a reflex, the door to finding treasure in the dark.

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I plan to cut off voice communication...

Classic exchange about texting. I sometimes wonder if, like this guy, I should just get a two-way pager plus Internet appliance.

Smart Mobs » Blog Archive » New York City texting plunging towards… something

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I'm a loser

At FastCompany, Chris Dannon argues that using the social browser Flock makes you a loser. Take a look at his argument and you'll see that what he's mapping out is his own limitations, including what appears to be an appalling lack of focus.

Technology: Are You A Loser?

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Monday, December 17, 2007

This is a job for the talking snowman

On the heels of the recent YouTube debates, in which ordinary citizens (and sometimes operatives from rival campaigns) could submit questions for presidential candidates to answer during debates, Al Qaeda's own Ayman al-Zahwahiri is inviting the public to submit questions that he will then answer in an online interview.

How surreal. I wonder if Chris Dodd will submit something?

Ask Al Qaeda Anything! | Danger Room from

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Yahoo's political dashboard

Succinct and useful.

Political Dashboard - 2008 Presidential Election on Yahoo! News

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Velocity matters

This NYT article tries to think big about Google's cloud computing strategy, and generally doesn't get too far. But it has flashes like this one (my emphasis):
MR. SCHMIDT readily concedes that cloud computing won’t happen overnight. Big companies change habits slowly, as do older consumers. Clever software is needed — and under development, he says — to overcome other shortcomings like the “airplane issue,” or how users can keep working when they find themselves unable to get online.

Yet small and midsize companies, as well as universities and individuals — in other words, a majority of computer users — could shift toward Web-based cloud computing fairly quickly, Mr. Schmidt contends. Small businesses, he says, could greatly reduce their costs and technology headaches by adopting the Web offerings now available from Google and others.

It makes no sense to run your own computers if you are a small business starting up,” he says. “You’d be crazy to buy packaged software.”
Right, but more importantly, Google has focused on the collaborative aspects that have moved to the fore in small businesses. We're seeing a lot of knowledge work being carried out by sole proprietorships and contractors who come together in federations, complete a job, and dissolve again. Prime examples include graphic design and web design, and not surprisingly one of the big early successes in this realm was 37Signals' Basecamp. Google's apps, particularly its office apps, are all aimed at supporting this sort of collaboration. Microsoft, on the other hand, is busily protecting its turf on the desktop, and that hampers it from embracing cloud computing and the collaborative features that go with it -- MS does try to build in those features, but they work against the desktop-centric long-term strategy it has embraced. As broadband penetration becomes deeper and broader, the limits of that strategy will show themselves. Google will not necessarily win in the cloud computing market, but it's the pioneer.
Google Gets Ready to Rumble With Microsoft - New York Times

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