Flat is the New Black: How Google Designs Itself

Users of Google (is that now officially everyone?) will have noticed in recent times a distinct improvement in the visual presentation of their various services. Use of white space is more sophisticated, icons eschew drop shadows and embrace unadorned flatness, and the typography is much more refined and readable. One of the people responsible for this design sea change at Google has posted at some length on the topic at Behance.

Google searches for Design

Founded by software engineers, Google's various apps and interfaces have often seemed curiously 'un-designed'. Clean and utilitarian they may have been, but also aesthetically problematic. That has changed in the last year or so under Larry Page — Google is finally designing very attractive and highly usable interfaces, eschewing Apple's skeumorphism and setting a surprisingly high standard. The Verge has an extended take on this development with plenty of examples.

Viewing Photoshop Files without Photoshop

Viewing native files from programs such as Photoshop or Illustrator can be difficult if you don't own the often very expensive packages. Google has recently added a useful functionality to Google Drive — the ability to accurately preview a number of exotic formats, including psd, ai, ttf and dxf. You won't be able to edit said files, but at least you will know what they contain. Users do not need to join Google apps (though doing so is a good idea) but can just go here to view immediately in-browser.

Smartr for Gmail

Smartr is a powerful free extension for Google Chrome. It adds a sidebar to Gmail (this is where having a big screen is useful in keeping clutter at bay). The sidebar houses an enhanced contacts manager. When installed, Smartr goes through your contacts and gives you the option of adding your Facebook and Twitter accounts. When you click into an email or start to compose a new email, Smartr calls up everything it knows about the person who sent it or the person you are about to send it to, including recent tweets and facebook updates, photographs and other information. It also gives you a history of your email contact with that person and identifies other people you often email in association with them. Smartr surfaces quite a bit of information from within and outside Gmail in a very effective fashion, and could be very handy for businesses trying to leverage their existing contact lists.

Mind Blowing Bookshelf from Google

Google seems to have more projects than employees. A crew of hard core geeks at Google Data Arts have been experimenting with new ways to display data in your browser (works for both Chrome and Firefox). This animated globe shows Google searches by language, and a fascinating picture of global language dispersion it presents. English scattered widely over the globe, German confined entirely to Germany, Spanish dominating South America and French surprisingly rare in West Africa. Another animation displays 10,000 books in an ascending column -- a novel way to visually search a large number of works. 

Solve for X

Google may be growing up, but it still maintains an element of Silicon Valley utopianism. Solve for X is Google's attempt to bring together innotive thinkers to address global problems and thus generate potential solutions. Software engineers are a solutions-oriented bunch, so this initiative may make quite a lot of sense. It is certainly in alignment with the higher aspirations of Google's founders.

New Cloud Better than the Old Cloud?

Apple has finally moved into the Cloud in a big way, erasing memories of the half-baked MobileMe implementation (so bad that even Jobs was ashamed of it). If you are a natural born Mac user and only put up with Google apps because there weren't any viable cloud alternatives, here's your chance to switch back. Learn how to move your data from Google Apps to iCloud in this useful Lifehacker article.

Gaining Control over Your Time

If your attention at work tends to wander at times (and whose doesn't?), you may be looking for ways of improving your efficency. A first step might be using something like Rescue Time. A browser based solution with a desktop client, Rescue Time monitors your computer use and supplies you with a whole dashboard of analysis. I found its admonitory eye made me much less likely to check out the latest news or blogs and focus on the task at hand. Time will tell if that effect fades away. Rescue Time also ranks you with other users of the service, so if you are competive, maintaining a high efficiency rating may be an additional motivating factor.  Rescue Time can be integrated with Google and offers a fairly full-featured free account.

360 degree world

Google Street View gives users the chance to 'stand' on any of millions of streets and pan to see the scenery. But as every viewer knows, the average street is pretty prosaic, and the image quality is not fabulous anyway. Which brings us to 360cities. This immersive site has thousands of high resolution 360 degree images from all over the world — views of mountains, canyons, urban scenes, forest glades and massive crowds. The images are seamless, sharp and occupy your full screen with thousands of details that you can absorb at leisure. The interface is easy to navigate, piggybacking on Google maps (and also appearing as a layer in Google Earth), and once you get started, stopping is a problem. Check out some of their ultra high resolution images — the London Eye panorama is a jaw dropping 80 gigapixels.

Gmail now comes with Preview pane

After years of requests from frustrated users, Gmail labs finally offers a preview pane option -- meaning, gasp, a user can now do what they have always been able to do in desktop mail clients -- read the bloody email with clicking into it. With many desktop PC users using very large screens, they have real estate to burn and a preview pane feels like an efficiency improver -- every second counts!

Deserting Facebook

If the recent successful launch of Google+ (with its simple privacy controls and intuitive interface) has you reviewing your allegiance to Facebook, then an escape route is available. A guide here leads you down the path to liberating all of your Facebook data. If only having a social profile did not mean having to leap into the arms of a major corporation... 

Google Docs, aka GDrive

In a small but significant move, Google Docs now allows users to upload folder structures as well as files. Recently they opened Docs to uploads of any kind of file. This helps Docs move a bit closer to the fabled GDrive. Still not as functional as DropBox with its efficient and seamless file synching, but an increasingly viable place to store and work with personal or business files. Google seems to be putting a lot of resources into its cloud products, so watch out for ever more fully featured iterations of Docs, Gmail and their music storage service.

Beyond Web-Safe Fonts

Bloggers and web designers have been limited to a very small suite of fonts that they can be fairly sure are installed on almost all machines. A number of solutions have recently emerged to extend this range. Google offers a number of free fonts which your site or blog can reference. This allows your readers' browsers to automatically request the font from Google's server, and presto, you can use a non 'web-safe' typeface. The range currently available is limited, but hopefully as the popularity of this service increases, more will become available. Information on the blog plugin can be found here, and the official Google fonts blog is here.
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The Colour of Money

The psychology of colour seems more popular science than real science -- a collection of guesses and just-so hypotheses. Yellow is calming, red is about power, green is the colour of success, except when they are not (meanings vary from one culture to the next). It is interesting, however to see which colours the world's largest corporations gravitate towards. Red and blue, anyone?
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Good Form from Google

googleformsAs part of their broad push for world domination, Google have invaded the land of online forms. The software maker Adobe offers a form solution -- constructed in Acrobat, emailed out, then the data gathered via an Adobe server. The Google alternative is much simpler. Users log in to Google Documents, select 'Create New Form', choose an appropriate template, then start creating the questions, multiple choices, lists, etc that make up your desired form. Forms also offers logic branching, where the form recipient can jump sections of the form -- eg. "if you have completed course A already, go to page 2". The finalised form can then be emailed directly to your target audience. They fill out the form and the resultant data is sent to a spreadsheet setup in Google Docs. All very simple and very effective. So if you need to gather information from clients, wish to use a form as a sales tool or want to poll your own staff, Google Forms is a compelling offering -- oh, and it is free.
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Image Searching in Safety

When a search engine enables users to search for images, and offers search parameters such as pixel size, aspect ratio, dominant colour and image content, they must know that many images are going to be used contrary to the laws of copyright. With the 'everything's free' ethos of web 2.0, such image use seems a victimless crime. Most users don't have the budget for expensive images from online image libraries. However, those who do suffer twinges can now choose from a new set of options relating to the kind of license attached to the image. Options range from "not filtered by license" through to "labelled for reuse (but not commercial use) to "labelled for commercial use with modification". Choosing the latter option dramatically reduces the number of hits for a given search, but at you are probably on the side of the angels (provided the web developer who set up the site in question is the legitimate owner of the image). As more people become aware of the range of image licensing options, hopefully more sites will be set up with this kind of image labelling, and the online image feast will get a little less risky. http://www.creativepro.com/article/safely-find-and-use-images-google
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New Google File Saving Functionality

Users of Google documents (or those seeking an alternative to Microsoft packages) will be interested to note the popular Google service now allows for any file type at all to be uploaded. This transforms Google docs into a de facto online hard drive.  Google Viewer will be able to open many, though not all of the common file types people might wish to upload. Users get 1Gb of space for free, then purchase additional memory at 25c per Gigabyte.  Google is working hard to encourage third party software developers to come up with services that add value to the basic Docs product.
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Me and Mobile Me

Apple's response to the Cloud, Mobile Me allows users to maintain an online address book that synchonises with the address book on their Mac, and also on their iPhone, iTouch and any other mobile device. Changes to one version are 'pushed' to the linked instances elsewhere. The same applies to the Calendar application. Enter the details of your mail server, and Mobile Me also functions as a webmail portal. Users are also encouraged to upload images into an album application, and a user-nominated portion of the 20Gb standard allocation is available as an online hard disk. As per Apple's usual modus operandi, the interface is simple, clean and allows only limited customisation. After a couple of days use, my initial reactions are as follows: I love the address book feature, which works as advertised. The calendar feature is fine, but not as good as Google Calendar. More research is needed to see if it is possible to synch Google Calendar with MobileMe. The mail service is easy to set up, but has a huge flaw, for my setup at least. Each time it pings the mail server, MobileMe downloads everything on it, even if the same emails have already been downloaded. Ping several times, and you will get several copies of the same email. Given my office Mac will download the emails later, I don't want to set the server to delete an email if downloaded by MobileMe. Surely MobileMe should be able to recognise an email it has already downloaded. My web-based mail browser certainly has no such problem. The disk space supplied by Apple is useful, but in a world of cheap and sometimes free online storage, AUD$119 is not overwhelmingly great. In summary, the service is good, but not revolutionary. It didn't wow me the way DropBox or Google Earth did, but perhaps further enhancements are on the way, and MobileMe will go on to a more fully featured future. If not, my ardent hope is that Google somehow ties all of its online services together into a single integrated service -- the cloud on steroids.
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Mi Casa es Picasa

These days it is easy to accumulate large quantities of digital images. Hard disks are much bigger, digital cameras are ubiquitous and attached images are emailed in industrial quantities. The image viewing and search tools supplied by Messrs Gates and Jobs are functional, but often slow and not particularly exciting. Others have tried to fill this gap. Apple has iPhoto, Extensis has Portfolio and Adobe sells Photoshop Lightroom. A program called iView Media Pro was gobbled up by Microsoft, but still exists. All are excellent programs, but in our experience, they are just  not as fast and intuitive with large volumes of files as Google's (free) Picasa. After installation, the user instructs the folder manager to watch specified folders on her hard disk. Picasa can also watch folders on networked drives and removable media. The initial index of all image files  on a given volume can take many hours. The resultant database built up by Picasa is often large. The interface is extremely clean. The default option is rows of image thumbnails, but alternatives include timeline and slideshow.  Searches are carried out 'live' -- search results appear as the user types. Individual images can be opened and edited in a number of simple ways.  Scrolling through results or the overall image library is usually fast, particularly compared to previously mentioned programs. Yet Picasa does have its flaws, or at least it can be pushed to breaking point. Image collections with more than ten thousand images may load quite happily in Picasa, but after a few searches, the program often slows dramatically. Picasa performs well in OS X, but even there, a very large image library can bring matters to a standstill.  Users are advised to watch only the folders they need, not the entire disc. It is also possible, if time consuming, to regenerate the database. Picasa doesn't just sit on your desktop. As befits a child of Google, Picasa offers access to Picasa Web Albums, where users can  store up to 1Gb of images on Google's servers. Bloggers can also upload images from Picasa to their own blogs. Useful how-tos for Picasa can be found here and here. Overall, Picasa is a worthy and capable image viewer and suitable for the vast majority of computer users.
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