Hey Google, Let’s Fix Contacts Too

Since I tend to use my Google Apps Gmail page as mission control for scheduling, organization and communication, I was very happy to read that Google is going to (finally) make some much needed improvements to Google Tasks.  I like the way Tasks are integrated into Gmail, and I generally keep my Tasks open at the bottom of my Gmail page.

I agree with Mashable that these five improvements will vastly improve Tasks.  I was already using Tasks, having moved away from RTM and other third party options, and most of the things I miss are covered in Google’s recently announced Task task list:

1. A Tasks API and synchronization
2. Reminders and notifications
3. Recurring tasks
4. Shareable task lists
5. Visual distinction for overdue tasks

So, good job Google.

fixmeNow, what about Google Contacts?  Can we please fix them too?  Gmail is beautiful.  Google Calendar is powerful and elegant.  Google Contacts sort of sucks.  But we can fix it, and I’ll help by giving you the list- right now.  Together we can make Google Contacts awesome.

1. Make the Contacts Page Simpler and More Useful

The page looks, well ugly.  Compare it to Calendar and you’ll see what I mean.  Google can create the new design, but here are a few ideas.  We simply must have alphabetical links at the top somewhere, at least as an option.  No one wants to have to search just to get to the S’s.  Please lose the “All Contacts” list.  I don’t know what that is.  I want the people I add to my Contacts to be in here.  Not people I may have at one point emailed or chatted with.  Or yelled at to stop spamming me.

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Again, this can be an option, if Google believes there is  value to auto-adding contacts.

Let’s add a tag for “Favorites” and have that list appear in a separate column on the landing page.  There’s plenty of room.  I know there is a “Most Contacted” list, but I want more control over this, and I want the list to appear all the time.

Finally, let’s move the Contacts link from the left column up to the top, beside Mail, Calendar, Documents, etc. and have it appear on all of the app pages, just like the others.

2. Let Us Choose to Default to Home or Work

If we only get one wish, this would clearly be mine.

I can’t tell you how many of my contacts have their work information stored under “Home,” because that’s the way the entry form defaults.  See?

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This one simple improvement would save me a ton of time.

3.  Auto-convert Phone Numbers and States to Designated Format

I’ll admit I’m a little anal about this stuff, but I hate to have some phone numbers with periods and some with dashes.  And I want all of my states to be abbreviated.  Outlook has done this with phone numbers for years, so we know it can be done.

4.  Let Us Create Custom Fields

I love the fact that the default form has a blank for birthdays, but I want the ability to add other information.  For example, I might want a field for Facebook Page, Twitter Name,  etc.  I know you can add multiple “Websites” now, but I want total control over the info I add, and the way it appears.

5.  Better Google Maps Integration

When I display a contact, a Google Map should appear somewhere on the page showing me his or her address, and offering to give me directions there.  A link that would let me email the address and directions to someone would also be nice.  I know I can click "Map” under the address and get a map, but that requires me to leave the Contacts page.  I want all of this to be integrated and embedded.

And Two Wishful Bonuses

The last two might be a stretch, but it would be awesome to have the ability to email a photo of a business card to a designated email address, and have that card converted into a Contact entry.  It would need to go into a special list, perhaps “Scanned,” so we could check it for accuracy and then add it to our main Contacts list.

It would also be awesome to have a box beneath the Contact entry with customizable search results for the name of the Contact and/or his or her company.  We should be able to configure the search results as we like: web, news, blogs, social networks or any combination thereof.

Add Your Wish list

Add your wish list in the Comments and I’ll compile a list and send it to one of my Google contacts for consideration.

How to Make Chrome Even Better with Extensions

It’s no secret that I think Google Chrome is, by far, the best web browser.  Ever.   I could write a dissertation on how much I love it.  In fact, it’s so good that I believe the forthcoming Chrome OS is going to change the way we work online.

One of the beauties of Chrome is its functional minimalism.  Unlike most applications, there isn’t even a hint of bloat in Chrome.  It lies at the hard corner of sleek and powerful.  The Chrome experience immediately upon installation is fantastic, and just about anyone could have a great experience without installing any extensions- or add-ons- at all.

There are, however, a few extensions that I use and recommend to make it perfect.

Here, in no particular order, are the Chrome extensions I use, with a rating (1-5) of how essential they are to my online experience.

AdBlock.  I will go out of my way to avoid the clutter of ads.  The continuing malware problem is another reason to block as many online ads as possible.  The combination of AdBlock and AdBlock Plus (see below) results in a completely ad-free experience.  Essential Factor: 4.

Adblock Plus.  This is the recent Chrome port of the ad blocking app I have used for years.  I tried to use it alone, but found that it did not block certain message board ads, which are known to occasionally carry malware.  So I went with a combination.  Eventually, I’d like to settle on a single ad-blocking solution, but for now I’m choosing redundancy over screen bloat and possible malware.  Essential Factor: 4.

Bit.ly.  Like just about everyone else, I use Bit.ly to shorten the links I share on Twitter (Follow me) and elsewhere.  I like being able to see the actual link destination as well as stats on the links I share.  While helpful, this one is not terribly essential.  If I had to uninstall one of my extensions, it would be this one.  Essential Factor: 2.

Google Calendar Checker.  I long ago moved my calendar and my contacts  from Outlook to Google Apps.  I like the ability to see when my next appointment is, and the ability to hover over the icon for pop-up details.  Essential Factor: 3.

Google Dictionary.  This is the first extension I installed and the one I would recommend first.  A single click on any word on a web site will result in a pop-up definition or Wikipedia summary.  This is a must-have extension.  Essential Factor: 5.

Google Mail Checker.  Since I use Gmail, via Google Apps, as my email app, this must-have extension notifies me of new mail.  Essential Factor: 5.

Google News.  This extension wasn’t made by Google, but it sure looks like it was.  A simple click on the icon renders a tabbed, customized news display.  Very nice.  Essential Factor: 3.

Google Voice.  Being pretty-much all-in with Google Apps, I use Google Voice for my voice mail and to make an increasing number of phone calls right from Chrome.  This extension lets me know when I have new messages, texts, etc.  Essential Factor: 3.

iReader.  Much like ads, I hate all the clutter that most media sites append to their web pages, making them look like the TV screen in Idiocracy.

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iReader will render the articles you want, in an elegant, scrollable display, complete with powerful, but unobtrusive, sharing features at the bottom.  Essential Factor: 4.

NPR.  I like to get my audio news updates as well as some music via NPR.  This extension lets me quickly access content from the NPR site (even while browsing other sites), as well as  music from great stations like UNCW.  Essential Factor: 3.

PriceBlink.  Since I do most of my shopping online, this extension, which tells you if there is a better online deal on the item you’re looking at, is a real money-saver.  Essential Factor: 4.

RSS Subscription Extension.  This Google created extension detects RSS feeds on the page you are reading and displays an RSS icon in the Omnibox, allowing you to click on it to preview the feed content and subscribe.  Essential Factor: 2.

WOT.   Web of Trust is a safe browsing tool, which warns you about risky sites that cheat customers, deliver malware or send spam.  Essential Factor: 3.

That’s 13 extensions, which, in the interest of bloat-avoidance, is more than I would like.  My plan is to treat extensions like I do stocks: only own a certain number of them.  So if I find one I like, I have to decide if I like it enough to get rid of an existing one.  I haven’t noticed any slow-down after installing these extensions, so I’m not sure what my magic number will be.  Probably more than 10 and no higher than 15.

Another of the beauties of Chrome is the sync feature.  If you install or uninstall an extension on one computer, corresponding changes will be made on the other synced computers.  Just one more reason why you should be using Chrome as your default web browser.

I really dig Chrome.  If you give it I try, you will too.  What are you waiting for?  Go get it.

Why Chrome OS Will Change the Way You Compute

Sadly, I haven’t received my Cr48 yet, even though (are you listening Google?  Email me and make me happy) I am a devout lover of Chrome and have moved most of my computing life into the cloud.   But there is no doubt that Chrome is about to change the personal computing landscape.

Paul Thurrott explains why it is a huge threat to Microsoft in the latest installment of his excellent Google Chrome Vs. the World series.  If there were a Pulitzer for blog writing, this series should win it.   Probably the best tech read of the year, in part because a guy who likes Microsoft is trying to save Microsoft from itself.

Yes, Chrome is going to hurt Microsoft, and yes it will further extend Google’s empire.  And it will be very good for consumers.  Shoot, if I ever get a Cr48, it will immediately become my primary mobile computing device.

But I think Chrome will also help Apple, by being the final element in a lot of peoples’ decision to leave Windows forever, if not for Chrome, then for OS X with Chrome, in browser form or otherwise, installed.  Sound crazy?  Then consider this.

Just about everyone has capitulated to the iPhone.  Yes, some geeks like Android, and there is no denying that it is a good option.  But it just doesn’t have the penetration into the non-nerd set that the iPhone does.  I know one person in the real world (e.g., people I regularly see face to face) who has an Android phone.  I know one person in the real world who doesn’t have an iPhone.  It’s the same guy.  NOTE: Yes, I am excluding the sad masses who are chained to Blackberries because their companies have not realized that Blackberries are on the Palm road to obscurity.

Apple is soundly winning the handset war, at least for now.  The new battle is for the everyday computing device.  You know, what netbooks (ugh!) were supposed to be, but were not.  Make no mistake, this battle will be fought in the browser.

And as I have told anyone who will listen, Chrome is by far the best browser.  It’s not even close.

There are only four things I have to do regularly that I can’t do right now in a browser.

1. Edit photos with Photoshop.  I can’t do that (yet) in Chrome, but I can on a Mac.  Imagine if you will a MacBook, with the Chrome browser (if not somehow the OS in a Parallels-like configuration) installed.  I could do just about everything in Chrome, and drop into OS X when I need to work with Photoshop.  Nice.

2. Edit videos in a sane, easy Format.  I am on record as to my dislike of the Mac video import and editing process.  I certainly can’t (yet) edit videos the way I want to in a browser.  For people like me who do a lot of video, this is a big issue.  For most people not so much.  Plus, at some point someone will come up with a workable cloud-based video editing solution.  All of this doesn’t scream for a MacBook+Chrome device, but neither is it a strong enough chain to bind many folks to Windows.  Yes, I know that many people believe Macs are infinitely better for video.  I disagree, but all of those who feel that way are certainly not likely to choose a Windows-based computer over a Mac.

3. Manage iTunes.  I’m also on record about the train-wreck, Apple-hampering mess that is iTunes.  I hate it, but I have to use it for my iPhone and iPad.  Once again, a MacBook+Chrome device would let me drop into OS X when needed.  Certainly no reason to stay with Windows.

4. Write Blog Posts with Live Writer.  How bizarre is it that Live Writer is the biggest thing tying me to Windows?  I can’t overstate my love for Live Writer.  But like Romeo and Juliet, it is a love that won’t last.  There are too many forces aligned against a desktop based editing app and pointing to the cloud.  The standard WordPress editor is not horrible (unlike the iPad app, which is).  At some point I will have to say farewell to Live Writer.  Unless, oh please, it finds a home in the cloud.  Then I could use it in a browser.

Taking all of this into account, it seems to me that there are three paths to travel.

A. Chrome OS on a Cr48 or its successors.  I sure would like to try this, Google. . . .

B. A MacBook+Chrome device.  But for the video thing, I’d probably be there now.  At a minimum, I expect Chrome in some form to become my primary day to day computing platform.

C. The status quo, via Windows. I’m not going to sell my Windows-based computers, but I am beginning to wonder if I’ll replace them when they grow old or die.  Even now, the large majority of my computing is being done via the Chrome browser.

All paths involve Chrome in one form or another.  One path definitely benefits Apple.  Unless something unexpected happens, Windows may end up on the path less traveled.

As a less desirable metaphor.

Why Chrome is Going to Win the Browser War

Jolie O’Dell reports that Internet Explorer’s share of the internet browser market has fallen below 50% for the first time in a very long time.  Meanwhile Firefox’s share grew by half a percent during September 2010.

Three things seem pretty clear to me.  One, Internet Explorer is fighting a war it can’t win.  Two, Firefox is going to have to scramble to stay in the game.  Three, Chrome is going to beat everybody.  Maybe sooner than later.

Internet Explorer had a good ride, replacing Navigator and becoming the people’s (default) choice for a decade or so.  I moved from Navigator to Internet Explorer back in the day (after much urging from my IT friends at my old firm), and then from Internet Explorer to Firefox a few years ago (also at the suggestion of my IT friends).  Internet Explorer seemed bloated, and Firefox seemed lithe and nimble, and offered a web-full of excellent extensions that allowed me to create something akin to a custom-made browser.  But over time, Firefox started to get a little pudgy.

Then came Chrome.

I tried Chrome when it was first released and was very under-whelmed.  I ran straight back to Firefox for another year and a half.  A few months ago I tried Chrome again, and, wow, what a difference!

Chrome, at least so far, is the best combination of efficiency (e.g., non-bloat), speed, good design (both looks and usability) and customization.  It’s both minimalist and robust.  I love it.

The universe of extensions kept me tethered to Firefox for a long time- probably too long.  When I took another look at Chrome I realized that you don’t need as many extensions with Chrome.  And I realized that the ones I really need are available.  I only use 7 extensions, but they are 7 great ones:  AdBlock, Google Dictionary, Google Mail Checker, Google Voice, iReader, NPR and RSS Subscription Extension.

Chrome is, hands down, the best browser right now.  Add Chrome’s elegant (and strategically advantageous) integration with other Google products, and Google’s obvious commitment to push out upgrades and new features, and I just don’t see how the other browsers can compete.

I’ve moved my entire family to Chrome and, unlike my disastrous attempt to move my family from Word to Google Docs (which resulted in an immediate and simultaneous mutiny on the part of every other member of my family), everybody is happy.

Will Google.Me Cure Our Social Blues or Just Our Insomnia?

It’s looking more and more like I was right about Google.Me.  It’s sort of good to be right (particularly in the face of all the internet hype about how Google.Me is going to reinvent the internet and so forth), but bad that Google.Me is shaping up to be an expanded Google Buzz, mashing together a disparate bunch of applications, some of which Google is buying as we speak, into an inelegant, Gmail-captive mess.  I hold out hope that I’m wrong about this, but the likelihood that I am diminishes with every new leak and rumor.

Google.Me will apparently be built on the back of Google Buzz (as I predicted long ago), which exists as an awkward bolt-on to Gmail.

TechCrunch says:

We’ve also heard more from sources who’ve worked with Google on the product. “Google Me is not a product, it’s a social layer across all products” (not so helpful). But there’s more – “Google Me will produce an activity stream generated by all Google products. Google Buzz has been rewritten to be the host of it all. And the reason Google Buzz isn’t currently working in Google Apps is because they’ll use the latest Buzz to support the activity stream in Apps…All Google products have been refactored to be part of the activity stream, including Google Docs, etc. They’ll build their social graph around the stream.”

This is very bad and all the huffing and puffing in the blogosphere is not going to make it good.  When someone describes their world-changing product with a bunch of gibberish that sounds vaguely like a ton of other failed products, that’s reason for concern if not full-on panic.

What Google should do is build a completely new service, largely from the ground up, using its own technology and that of the many, many applications and services it has acquired over the past few months.  Gmail could be the digital hub for our online lives.  For example, the recent expansion of more services into Google Apps has already led me to try (and fail, but at least it made me try) to like my Start Page (e.g., iGoogle).  But stuffing more tossed together junk into Buzz, which was already tossed into our Gmail accounts sounds like the opposite of elegant.  Candidly, it sounds like a snoozefest of meetooism.

I really hope I’m wrong, but at this point I can’t help but believe that the general reaction to Google.Me is going to be one big yawn.

Good News for (at Least a Few) Google Apps Users

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I’ve been a Google Apps user for a long time.  Though I am generally satisfied with the email and light word processing features, I have also been highly critical of what I see as some gaping deficiencies in the experience.  In general, these deficiencies are:

1. The fact that the suite of apps looks tossed together, both in design and function.  Some of the apps, like Gmail, are beautiful.  Others, like Sites and Moderator (whatever that is), are so bad I can’t even suggest how to fix them.

2. The fact that few of the new apps and features that Google releases find their way into Google Apps.

Finally, it looks like there is hope.  Wired tells us today that Google has invited “select users” to test a version of Google Apps that includes all the features that regular Google users have:

[Google’s] now asking some Apps users — known as Trusted Testers — to help test out the infrastructure, according to an e-mail seen by Wired.com.
Good.  I hope this represents a trend that will ultimately make all these features available in Google Apps.  For everyone.

Did the Fighting Dinosaurs Just Get Gobbled Up Like an Apple?

You just have to feel bad for Google.  Poor little thing.

It’s running around, buying everything in sight, trying to cobble together something that can avoid being immediately killed by Facebook, and here comes Apple, announcing Ping, a social network built around iTunes (and its massive day-one user base).

It reminds me of those Saturday afternoon movies, where one brave but doomed dinosaur is bravely trying to fight a bigger dinosaur, only to have some bigger, larger, scarier creature stomp up out of nowhere and devour them both.

I don’t know that Ping can unseat Facebook as the sharing, dating, time wasting, etc. hub for the masses, but I know that it has a better chance of competing with Facebook than anything I have read or reasonably imagined about the forthcoming (for months) Google.Me.

For a company that makes its money via advertising, Google seems unable to properly market itself.  Everyone from Amazon to Roku saw this coming and at least tried to make a pre-emptive grab for relevance.  Meanwhile Google just keeps buying arms and legs, leaving us to wonder what manner of creature it is assembling.

I’d like to be wrong.  I’d like to see Google get it right and release something powerful, and elegant.  Not tossed together and crammed into Gmail.  I’m trying to keep my hopes up, but that rumbling sound in the distance scares me.

Poor Google.  It just can’t buy a break.

Why Are Google Apps Users Always at the Back of the Line?

appslineHere’s the way it goes when Google announces some new feature, like today’s announcement that Gmail users can make phone calls right from Gmail.  First, I read a little about it to see if it’s something I’m interested in.  Often, it is.  I get excited about it, and when I get home, I eagerly sit down at my computer to try it out.

Only to find out that the nifty new feature is not available to Google Apps users.  You know, those who use the platform Google wants us to use instead of those expensive Microsoft Office apps.  The same apps that Google would like for us to pay for.

The Gmail blog post announcing this new feature has this all-too-familiar nugget:

If you’re using Google Apps for your school or business, then you won’t see it quite yet. We’re working on making this available more broadly – so stay tuned!

I can’t imagine how pissed off I’d be if I was paying for Google Apps.  It’s sort of like if Microsoft rolled out feature after feature to its Docs users and promised to get back with paying Microsoft Office customers “soon.”  That probably won’t happen.

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But it keeps happening with Google Apps.  It’s messed up.  It’s backwards.  And it irks the dickens out of me.

Google.Me: Filters, Lists and Privacy Driven?

Gina Trapani, who is always among the best sources on the internet for reliable, well presented information, has another interesting post today about Google.Me, Google’s forthcoming Facebook competitor, clone and/or killer.  Embedded into Gina’s post is a 224 (long-winded much?) slide presentation given recently by Google’s Paul Adams.

I read the presentation for as long as I could, until exhaustion, hunger and that “will this never end” feeling I last had when I tried for the third time to slog my way through 100 Years of Solitude overcame me.  When I awoke from my slumber, I had a new vision of what Google.Me may be all about.

While I’m still very concerned that it is getting cobbled together and will be thrust upon us in an unfinished condition, Paul’s slides lead me to believe that it will be built around some combination of filters, lists and easy to understand and implement (unlike its nemesis Facebook) privacy controls.  Given how important the proper use of filters is to a decent Facebook experience, there is the potential to do some good here.

I don’t “friend” my kids or their friends on Facebook.  I also don’t generally “friend” my co-workers on Facebook.  But if I did (or ever do) I can completely understand how hard it would be to adequately compartmentalize those areas of your life within a social network.  And I’m positive that most people on Facebook don’t understand how to implement its byzantine privacy controls.  For example, I am amazed at the number of people who have managed to protect some of their information, but leave other parts (often their photos) wide open to view by anyone.  Not to mention the risk that search engines and third party apps may penetrate the privacy walls that are (sort of) in place.

buckets-300x300I also believe that there is real benefit in grouping people by relationship proximity.  While I don’t take the “all-comers” approach used by many of my fellow tech-bloggers, I have a couple hundred Facebook “friends.”  I care about all of them, but I care about some a lot more than others.  Everyone has similar groups.  The problem is focusing on and targeting one without over-including or neglecting the other.

If  Google can make an application that looks and feels like an integrated platform, and not a bunch of random parts tossed together (which is exactly what Google Apps looks like), add a way to easily create buckets of “friends,” and make it really, really easy to slice, dice  and deliver content to the various buckets, it might be onto something.

Ideally, Google.Me will serve as a hub for all or most of its users’ Google-created and third party content.  Foursquare, Skype, Yelp, Twitter (?), etc.  This would allow for deeper integration, and consolidated sharing with the relevant buckets.  Likewise, there needs to be filters on the receiving end, to spare me from Farmville and other stuff that make me want to set my hair on fire, and to keep Dwight from ever actually meeting me in person.

The way Paul’s presentation keeps returning to the groups of friends concept is strong evidence that buckets are a big part of Google’s strategy.  I just hope Google builds something new and exciting and doesn’t try (again) to force us to embrace our Google Profile.  At least not without completely reinventing Google Profiles.

If they get it right, cool.  If not, there’s always this.

Net Neutrality and the Least Unacceptable Alternative

The internets (now apparently using the plural isn’t as cute and clever as it used to be) are abuzz (pun semi-intended) with talk over Google and Verizon’s Joint Proposal for an Open Internet.

I don’t profess to be an expert in Net Neutrality, other than a pretty strong feeling that I am for it, and that it is good for the consumer.  One thing I am an expert in, however, is negotiation.  I get invited all over the country to speak on negotiation strategy.

image In negotiation strategy, there is the concept of “least acceptable alternative.”  The idea is that if you know you aren’t going to get what you really want, you have to seek something you can live with.  For example, if I want to go to a ballgame, but it’s our anniversary and my wife wants to go to the ballet, I should reevaluate my goals and try to end up at a concert.  It’s not the ballgame, but it’s a hell of a lot better than the ballet.

When things are really stacked against you, the least acceptable alternative morphs into the least unacceptable alternative.  I hate all of the alternatives, but I hate this one less than the others.

The question we should be asking about this policy and the roadmap it contemplates is not if it is exactly what we, the consumers, want.  It’s clearly not.  The question is if the proposed plan is the least unacceptable alternative, and if not for whose advantage was the true least unacceptable alternative abandoned.

Figure that out, and we’ll know how all this is shaping up.