Today in Cloud

The cloud is increasingly pervasive, but there are still times when those of us who have come to rely upon cloud-based applications struggle. Most aeroplanes, many trains, and almost every East Yorkshire coffee shop lack wi-fi and either forbid use of 3G transmitters altogether or suffer from unusably poor signal strength. Google Gears set out to address some of these problems, enabling supported apps (and browsers) to cache content locally so that GMail messages, Google Docs documents, and WordPress blog posts could safely be edited whilst offline. Then Google dropped Gears last year, and threw the company’s support behind HTML5‘s standards-based solution to the same problem. Now, over a year after Google announced Gears’ demise, InfoWorld reports that HTML5-powered offline capabilities should return to Google Apps by the end of this year. I, for one, cannot wait.

Simplifying Email

atsignAs web workers, we are often asked to help friends and relatives fix computer problems. For me, the majority of these problems seem to be related to email. It’s ironic, as email is now less popular than social networks.

So why is email such a hassle?

  • It’s more than 30 years old. Email has come a long way, but its underlying protocols haven’t changed much since the 1970s.
  • It’s really three different systems. Sending (SMTP) and receiving (POP or IMAP) are totally separate functions, and are often handled on different servers. That’s why I often hear comments like “I can receive, but I can’t send” from clients.
  • It’s being used for a lot of things it was never designed to do, like send images and attachments, highly formatted messages, signatures and calendar entries.
  • It’s been overrun by spam, and even well-designed spam filters aren’t perfect, and cause unwanted side effects, like messages that get misidentified as spam, or just go away.
  • Email software is too complex. These programs that were originally built for offline use; that is, they were set up so that users could read and write messages without being connected to the internet. Sending and receiving would happen in batches. That made sense when internet connections were slow, expensive and charged by the minute. Now that most people have always-on connections like cable or DSL, that process is less necessary. Desktop email client software is a pain to set up and use; as someone who helps many people with email, Outlook is the bane of my existence.
  • Many of us connect to the Internet in more than one place — at work, at home, and on cell phones. It can be very frustrating to realize that we’ve left the message we needed to reply to at the office.
  • Many of us have more than one email address. I try to keep my work and personal email separate, plus I have a series of email addresses that I use when registering on websites that might try to send spam. And I have several email addresses that were given to me, such as the ones that are automatically created when signing up for instant-messaging services like Yahoo, AIM and Windows Live/MSN.

What can be done to overcome these problems? Here are some tips that might help you and your clients and friends be more productive. Read More about Simplifying Email

Zoho Mail Goes Offline & Mobile

As Google deepened its support for offline access via IMAP this week, Zoho, its closest competitor in the web office space, was publicly unveiling its own support for offline and access, ironically using Google’s own Gears platform.

Curiously Zoho decided that to bring users’ mailboxes offline, Gears was a better technological platform for offline access than the IMAP protocol; though we’re assured IMAP is coming.

Regardless, the offline features seem pretty comprehensive despite currently being restricted to Gears for Firefox and Internet Explorer and with most online features being available offline – messages, images & attachments are optionally available and a clever connectivity detection feature automatically determines whether a network is visible, flipping between offline and online modes as appropriate, with offline messages queued for later deliver when connectivity becomes available.

A Gears configuration dialog allows users to select the number of messages to download initially, how many Sent Items should be stored for offline access.

Finally, though Zoho is pitching mobile access alongside offline support, in reality Zoho Mail is currently only optimised for the iPhone.

Though the offline support appears to work well enough – as do other Gears-enabled services such as Google Reader – mainstream offline access seems a little too fragmented for comfort.

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Gears for Safari Now Available

Gears, Google’s “browser improver” (for lack of a better term), has come out of beta and is now officially available for Safari.

Gears is a browser plugin that extends its functionality by allowing it do things like store data locally in a searchable database as well as run JavaScript in the background to improve performance. A common example of its use is to allow web applications to be accessed offline.

Gears requires an applications developer to implement the functionality in to their site, so there aren’t a huge number of sites that make use of Gears.

A few that currently do:

If you’re a developer, you can checkout the Gears API and get started on implementing it in to your site.

Google Gears (Beta) [Finally] Comes To Safari

Spotlight importers aren’t the only symbols of Mac-generosity coming from the fine folks over at Google. The Google Gears project has released a beta of their browser code which enables developers to make web apps that behave more like local desktop apps and allow some – or complete – functionality even when you are not connected to the Internet (Google Reader being a very good example). When you come across a “Gears-enabled” application, your browser will prompt you to see if you trust this particular application enough to let it have access to your local filesystem:

It appears to store data in ~/Library/Application Support/Google/Google Gears for Safari, so this would be a good folder to check from time-to-time (remember lsof is your friend) and the database files that are stored use SQLite, so you can peruse them from the command-line or via various GUI’s (one mentioned just recently).

Being a beta release, there are issues and you can add your own newfound bugs to the list as you come across them.

You’ll need Safari 3.1.1 at a minimum (and OS X 10.4.11/10.5.3). I’ve confirmed that it works with Safari 3.1.2. No word on Safari for Windows compatibility (let us know!) and don’t count on Mobile Safari support anytime soon.

If you give the beta a go, let us know your experiences and if you are a developer with a Gears-enabled application, drop the URL in the comments for all the TAB-world to see!

TV Tops, But PC Video Watching Grows

While oldteevee remains the top video-watching dog for most people, the PC is gaining ground, according to a recent study by Ipsos MediaCT. Ipsos found that, among U.S. video downloaders and streamers, the amount of video consumed on a TV set dropped to 70 percent in February 2008 from 75 percent in February 2007.

While oldteevee was dropping, video watching on PCs grew to 19 percent in 2008, up from from 11 percent in 2007. According to Ipsos, of the 52 percent of Americans 12 and older who have ever streamed or downloaded video content, roughly one out of every five hours of video content is watched on the PC.

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Google Gears Finally Coming to Google Docs

gears According to a post on the Google Docs Blog, Google Gears, a Firefox extension that enables users to create and edit files without an Internet connection, will bless Google Docs with offline access in the coming weeks. The rollout will begin today with a small number of users.

At first launch, word processing documents can be read and edited in offline mode, while spreadsheets will only be able to be read (but not edited). Support for Google Presentations is in the pipeline and will not be initially available. Naturally, collaboration on documents that have been created offline will not be available until the new document has been synced when the user comes back online. On a related note, it is currently unclear how smooth reconciliation of offline documents will be.

Google Documents has been in dire need of offline access in order to realistically compete other office suites including Microsoft Office and Zoho. Users of office productivity suites don’t always has connectivity to the Internet.

Currently, the only Google product to use Google Gears is Google Reader allowing for offline access to RSS news items. Google is not first in offering offline access of productivity apps through Google Gears, having been beaten to market by Zoho and Remember The Milk.

Google Gears for Google Docs will require Internet Explorer 6 and above or FireFox 1.6 and above (not including Firefox Beta 3) on Windows, Mac, and Linux. There is currently no support for other browsers including Safari, Flock, Opera, or the various mobile browsers.

SlingPlayer Mobile for Symbian UIQ on the horizon

Se_p1_fullscreenSlingMedia continues its mobile handset strategy like it’s playing a giant game of “RISK: the handheld edition”. Having already conquered the continents of Windows Mobile and Symbian S60, the generals are place-shifting their attention to the land of UIQ. The following countries are next in the line of support: Sony Ericsson’s P1i, P990i, W960i, W950i and M600i plus the Motorola MOTORIZR Z8. Look for the UIQ client this summer, along with an updated player for the Nokia N95.

Mobile Apps Get a Shot In The Arm with Google Gears for Mobile

gearsThose of us who rely on hosted (the current buzz word is “in the cloud“) data and software solutions, connectivity is a must.  When we’re a way from a wi-fi hotspot or otherwise unable to get online, these hosted services have little to no value.

Now take this line of thinking one step further to the mobile platform.  The mobile computing revolution is just starting to take off and for it to be valuable, mobile access to data is a must-have.  This is why it’s welcome news for web workers that Google Gears is now available for some mobile handsets.

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Adobe AIR & Its Hybrid App Dreams

For what seems to be an eternity, we have been promised seamless connectivity, high-speed connections that appear auto-magically out of thin air, giving us access to the wonders of the web — and of course, our data, including the unending stream of emails. Today, we have 3G networks, Wi-Fi in coffee shops and our homes, connections in office, trains and in some cases, even in planes. You would think that we are almost always connected.

And yet we have a growing number of companies — many of them with vested interest in the desktop PC paradigm — that are convinced we need to have a hybrid strategy when it comes to applications.

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