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Dean's Digital World

By Dean Tudor

Journalism Professor Emeritus Ryerson University

Shifting Alliances in the Web Wars


Thinking of each column I write in Sources, I am often bothered by the time lag in filing and publishing and (your) subsequent reading and data shelf-life. Whatever I write about may be inconsequential in a matter of months. Or even wrong.....It has happened before, such as when the convergence issue became a business and commercial failure (but not a working model failure).

This time I'm playing it safe: the topic is Google, and whatever I say will still be current. Why? Because Google has a Web site called "Google Labs" where a bunch of new ideas are in beta (or even earlier), and they are bound to stick around (labs.google.com).

Google has been on my mind lately because of the strong IPO (no, I did not buy any stock) and because of the pressures of the marketplace as the big companies fight for market share. There is a squaring off between Google and its competitors for your eyeballs: Yahoo, AOL, and Microsoft. Principally, it is Google vs. Yahoo, but if either one can bring in AOL or Microsoft, then it could be declared a winner.

It has all come about because of three things: one, more users have broadband; two, data storage is at an all time low; and three, there are stronger Web infrastructure systems, such as the coming Web 2.0.

Lately, Microsoft and Yahoo made their respective consumer instant messaging (IM) networks partly interoperable in 2006. An AOL assets sale may mean partnerships: AOL Instant Messenger, MapQuest, Moviefone, Warner Brothers entertainment, and the like. Google, as of November 2005, still supplies AOL with search technology and shares the related advertising revenue, but this may change.

In the Web wars, Yahoo has about 350 million visitors monthly, while Google has 85 million visitors monthly. Yet Yahoo's stock is down 10% in value (since the Google IPO) while Google's stock is up 61% since its IPO. Google has publicly announced that it plans to spend up to 30 percent of its earnings on new product development. That certainly cannot hurt their operations, or their bottom line. AOL, meanwhile, has discarded its proprietary information. By making its content freely available, it has welcomed about 112 million visitors a month. Also, though, it has lost 2 million dial-up customer subscribers a year since the Time Warner merger.

In November 2005, Microsoft unveiled another push to make software that better suits the Internet. Its existing Windows and Office will have more bells and whistles (also known as features and services) that can be accessed through the Internet. Some will be free; others will be available only by subscription. Some services will be merged, such as Messenger with MSN. Some names being booted about are Windows Presentation Foundation, Windows Communications Foundations, and Windows Vista. Windows Live and Office Live are Microsoft's first major foray into Web services, largely based on AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML technologies). Alliances will be formed with other companies, all in the name of advertising dollars.

In related news, Sun Microsystems in October 2005 made a deal with Google to distribute Google's search toolbar bundled with Java on the desktop. Sun, of course, is offering its "free" version of Office, the relaunched Star, as an application for the forthcoming Web 2.0.

Web 2.0 is the major reason for these alliances and configurations (actually, money is the main reason, but Web 2.0 will generate tons of money). Web 2.0 is the next level, after the HTML text of Lynx and the HTML graphics of Mosaic/IE/Netscape. Web 2.0 will take advantage of higher bandwidth, faster processing, better graphics, and remixing (combining two or more information or applications together).

Google is taking on Yahoo and Microsoft with its version of an RSS feed: a free program called Sidebar which fetches weather, stock quotes, headlines, text feeds from your favourite Web sites, image slideshows, your Google E-mail alerts, and the like. It sits on the right side of your screen while you are online. And it works. Early reaction is that it is very comfortable and more user-friendly than RSS news aggregator programs.

Sidebar is also important because it offers a text-editor function (Scratch Pad) which allows you to type and save notes, using something simple and similar to Notepad. There is room for expansion in Sidebar, for "add-ins" as they are called, which could make the system look a lot like Microsoft's Office. One in development now is a "to do" listing, already include in Microsoft's Outlook package.

Google wants to do more of these desktop software application programs, to seamlessly mesh the PC with the Internet. And to stave off competition by monopolizing your PC's hard drive.

Google began to up the ante with its Gmail "free E-mail" program. Why bother with the measly 2 or 4 megabytes offered by Hotmail and Yahoo...It went directly to one gigabyte which allowed for storage of images and video. Then, when the others bumped up their storage capacity (for free, mind you) it moved up to 2.5 gigs. You never know when you might need a message again, so deleting is discouraged by Google, except for spam, of course.

Gmail (gmail.google.com) can also group threads easier than Hotmail or Yahoo can, and display them in a more flexible filing system through which you can impose several labels or subject tags. All the mail goes into "All Mail" and is archived, to be retrieved at any time. It's the same kind of searching as for the original Google Web search, and for the Desktop search. In fact, Google is trying to maximize its search tools geared to bloggers and mobile users.

Desktop (desktop.google.com) is useful because it is exceedingly swift, a lot faster in searching for texts, images, filenames, E-mails, and Web pages on your PC than Windows Explorer. It can also be integrated with a Web search if you are online.

Google Reader (reader.google.com) is another advancement on RSS. By accessing your Gmail Account (it's the same login ID and password) you can also get to the Google Reader. You can automatically get the latest news and updates from all your important Web sites, and search by relevance. This is a great way to get to blogs and news sites. Since you are already in Gmail, you can forward what you find to other people. Or print it out, etc. This is a nifty web-based feed reader news aggregator. It was through Google Reader that I found a marvelous TV news blog of what was happening in New Orleans during the hurricanes; material was put up every five minutes or so, based on news accounts from the region (www.wwltv.com/local/stories/wwlblog.ac3fcea.html). This was a boon to me because I didn't have broadband and thus I was unable to get those video and audio accounts which were being piped into the Web. But I could read the blog which had extremely local stories and national wire stories.

Other new items include Google Video (searching for TV programs and videos, on a par with its search for Images) at video.google.com. The technology may blend in with SimonSays Voice Technologies, which believes that has the solution to indexing videos by speech recognition. This company claims 98 per cent accuracy.

Google's attack on Microsoft continues with its extensions for Mozilla's Firefox as add-ins (toolbar.google.com/firefox/extensions/index.html), and a Google Web Accelerator (webaccelerator.google.com) to save time online by loading Web pages faster (this only works with broadband). Try also: "My Search History" (www.google.com/searchistory) for access to your Google search history, from any computer; the Google Ride Finder (labs.google.com/ridefinder) to find a taxi, limousine or shuttle using real time position of vehicles; Google Suggest (www.google.com/webhp?complete=1&hl=en): as you type your search, it will suggest keywords; and Site-Flavored Google Search Box (www.google.com/services/siteflavored.html) for a search box that customizes results based on your Web site.

Up-and-running Google software programs include search refinements, such as "Search By Location" or Google Local (local.google.com -- restricting your search to a particular geographic area), "Glossary" (www.google.com/search?q=define+clew) for definitions to words, phrases and acronyms, "Maps" (maps.google.com) to view maps, get driving directions, and search for local businesses and services, Deskbar (toolbar.google.com/deskbar/index.html) to search the Web through the Google Toolbar without opening your browser. Plus the alerts such as "Web Alerts" (www.google.com/webalerts) for finding out about new subject Web pages and "News Alerts" (www.google.com/newsalerts) for getting E-mail updates when news breaks on any subject you specify.

Of the basic services already offered, Google Answers (answers.google.com) deals with paying for a question's answers - you ask a question, set a price, and then get an answer from a Google real person researcher. "Blog Search" (www.google.ca/blogsearch?hl=en) enables you to find blogs on your favourite topics; while "Blogger" (www.blogger.com/start?hl=en) actually lets you express yourself online. Picasa (picasa.google.ca) is a program to find, edit and share your photos. Toolbar (toolbar.google.com) is a built-in search box add-in to IE. "Translate" (www.google.ca/language_tools?hl=en) lets you view web pages in other languages. "Catalogs" (catalogs.google.com) will search and browse mail-order catalogues.

"Directory" (www.google.ca/dirhp?hl=en) lets you browse the Web by topic, almost the same searching mechanism as the Yahoo drill. Froogle (froogle.google.com) is for shopping, with hits ranked by price. Google Groups (www.google.ca/grphp?hl=en) is for employing mailing lists and searching discussion groups (the former Usenet and DejaNews index). "Images" (www.google.ca/imghp?hl=en) searches for photos and maps and cartoons on the Web (essentially scouring for terms plus jpg or gif).

"Earth" is fun (earth.google.com), for it allows you to use satellite technology plus maps and a search engine to produce 3D images and graphics about any place on the planet. You must have broadband, and the package costs money. There is a free but limited version.

For academics, there is the valuable "Scholar" (scholar.google.com) which searches scholarly journals. It allows users to search collections of proprietary electronic journals plus other, similar etexts. Items are arranged in order of the number of times they have been cited. This has proved a boon for undergraduates who wish a quick-and-dirty search with a common and recognizable user-interface. This will be competition for Thomson and Elsevier. "University Search" (www.google.ca/intl/en/options/universities.html) allows you to search a specific school's Web site, which might also include offerings at the library.

Google Print is still in its formative stages: it has announced a partnership with the New York Public Library, Harvard, Stanford, Oxford, and Michigan University libraries to digitize millions of their books. For obvious reasons, they are beginning with public domain material to avoid the copyright issue. Project Gutenberg (www.gutenberg.com/catalog) already has thousands of public domain books in digital form, but these are not yet Web searchable (you must download them to your PC and use Google Desktop). But the economic benefits of scanning means that the company must use inexpensive labour to digitize whole shelves of older books. Thus, Google Print wants both the public domain materials and the out-of-print materials to be done at once, shelf-by-shelf. They figure that any in-print materials that they capture can either be negotiated separately with publishers or put to one side until later.

They suggest a partial solution would be to put up only bibliographic data and a selected portion of the text. Publishers are upset about the loss of royalties and sales for copyrighted materials, and rightly so, for scholarly publications don't sell many copies and every royalty obtained is a struggle. The Open Content Alliance have also chimed in (opposed), since they want to put up the contents of 150,000 books; they are being backed by Yahoo and Microsoft.

Microsoft also has its own book initiative, MSN Book Search. They will be scanning 100,000 books from the British Library in 2006. They claim 25 million pages in the project...Let the games begin!!

Wireless technology and applications are being embraced at wap.google.com. Also, try www.google.ca/mobile. Google Talk is moving its way into beta mode: Instant Messaging and VoIP are almost here via Google. Already there is "Froogle Mobile US" (labs.google.com/frooglewml.html) to search for products from a mobile phone using Froogle, and "Google SMS US" (sms.google.com) to get precise specialized answers to queries from a mobile device. Both of these are also available in the UK.

Google continues to deal with algorithms and artificial intelligence, while using data compression and robotics to find its material. But enough about Google. What about the future? Through the use of the many Google products and spin-offs to crawl through the Internet and bring us back "relevant" data, we have become the most-informed generation to have ever existed. This has implications for the news business.

For one thing, there is a growing distrust of all media and news sources by the 18 to 34 demographic. Credibility is being equated with trust and agreement. Objectivity (as a term) is being replaced by transparency (as a term), both in the use of these words and in actual fact. For another, younger people are turning more and more to blogs as a source of "transparency": these are likely to be more trustworthy and agreeable than the Old White Males on the evening news. And there are more bloggers than ever before. Soon, there will be more bloggers than people reading them. Again, Google Blog Search comes to the rescue to find topics in blogs.

Popularity is also being equated with credibility, especially because Google ranks its searches by a combination which involves the number of links to a Web site. The more links, the higher the position in the search engine results. The higher the position, the more likely the searcher will click on that URL to find his information. Using Google Blog Search will show which blogs are popular via search rankings. If you use Yahoo News searches, you will find a listing of news stories by popularity and E-mail requests: you would be amazed at what the mob is reading! As I said, popularity here may be equated with credibility. I certainly hope that my column is VERY popular!

To sum up, if you want predictions: AOL (and/or its assets) will be sold off, Google will partner with Sun, and Yahoo will go with Microsoft. Trust me on this.


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