Feb 09

Google brings us closer to the multiple device sync OTA dream

Google Mail, Calendar, Contacts, and Tasks have opened up a new world for me recently. In fact, as of yesterday, which is when they released calendar and contacts sync to iPhone using the Exchange support built in to iPhone.

Some preamble: I have used Outlook since I was 18 years old for email, calendar, and address book. I’m now 28, so you can imagine I’ve accrued a lot of email, contact entries, and calendar items in that time.

For example, when I broke up with girlfriends, went on holiday, attended client meetings: I journaled it all on Outlook, or on whatever mobile device I was using at the time  (eg. Palm Pilot, IPAQ, smartphone, iPhone), which synchronised back to Outlook using a cable.

I can look up when I did things, how I felt about them, I logged jobs for people, made notes about solutions to problems, creative ideas, you name it. In my contacts, I have little pointers to remind me how to drive to people’s houses, or little memories about a person, stored in text or images in the notes section.

Because I’m a good boy, I have been backing my life up as I’ve gone along, and now, three computers later, I still have them all.

Google just made my life really rich: now, all these things are stored as Google Mail and Calendar items. I have unlimited and immediate synchronisation of my whole life between desktop PC at home, my laptop when I’m at work, and iPhone when I’m out for the evening.

I never need to hook a cable up between any of them. I don’t need to wait for various devices to synchronise before I leave the house.

I don’t need to worry that I read an email on my desktop and it won’t be downloaded to my iPhone now.

(My Gmail password had better be secure. I had better have pin entry to my iPhone, with deletion of all data if it gets compromised. Check, I do!)

Here’s how.

Mail: this evening I moved the entire contents of my desktop PC outlook inbox, sent items, and custom personal folders to my Gmail account through IMAP, and they are now available in entirety on my laptop, desktop PC, and iPhone using IMAP folders.

That was about 1GB of email.

That’s every mail – with every attachment – I have ever sent or received since 2003, available on any device I own, or from the web. It’s secure (SSL used on outgoing and incoming in Oultook, and on Gmail web interface. And it seems highly responsive, due to the way iPhone and Outlook clients handle IMAP. (Only headers are downloaded until you try to view the email.)

Outlook flagged emails translate to Gmail starred emails: cute.

I then set up filters from the Gmail web interface, so that mail from certain people (eg. notifications from Flickr, Facebook, Twitter) is delivered to certain folders within gmail. Technically these folders are called ‘labels’ in Gmail, but they translate to IMAP folders in Outlook and iPhone.

Labels are a better concept, when you get used to them.

So, no need for Outlook rules. Gmail filters work on the Gmail servers, so my mail is categorised regardless of whether Outlook is running somewhere… even if I’m viewing it on iPhone. Whatsmore, the gmail filters are much more intelligent, easier to set up, and work better than outlook rules.

Then I installed Google Sync on my desktop PC to sync my entire Outlook calendar to Google Calendar, so it’s available from the web. As Google Sync supports two-way sync, I did this on the laptop as well. Cool, my entire calendar stretching back to when I interviewed housemates at university (including notes on what I thought of them all!) is now available and searchable from within Google Calendar, and my laptop and desktop PC.

The only thing I’ve found isn’t supported is rich text in the notes field… meh, who cares. The two way sync doesn’t remove rich text from existing calendar notes, so my numbered lists, work logs from previous jobs, and colourful angsty prose on ex girlfriends is maintained. It’s only lost if I then update it on another device.

To complete the glory of the calendar solution – and this bit is very cool – I have set up the iPhone with a new Microsoft Exchange calendar with full exchange features (meeting requests, split recurring appointments etc) to connect to Gmail calendar – did you know this was possible? Check it out: http://www.google.com/support/mobile/bin/answer.py?answer=138740&topic=14252

What does this mean? It means that I can update a client appointment on my laptop with some plans or thoughts, and read and edit them on the bus after I’ve left, without having to physically connect and sync the two devices each time I do an edit. No subscription cost, no Exchange Server to maintain, no nothing. All the goodness of an enterprise collaboration server, for free, with push updates on the move.

All because of Google. They really are very, very nice.

Google Tasks are of course available on iPhone as of quite recently, however at the time of writing there is no official sync utility for Outlook. I don’t so much mind because I can use Google Tasks from my iGoogle page. In fact, I’m even considering for the first time ever stopping using Outlook for my mail, tasks, and calendar and just using the Google web interface as it’s so, SO good. Sack it, why don’t I ditch Office and use Google Docs too?

Realistically, what do I need Outlook for? Offline viewing of emails? Google Labs has a Gmail application to make all your webmail available in your browser when offline. Seriously.

I’m not quite ready to take that step, but I’m open in the future now.

The same goes for Outlook contacts: there is no official sync uitility for Outlook just yet. Joyously, the Google “Exchange protocol support”, or whatever we want to call it, does support contacts, and therefore we have push updates to contacts AND calendar on the iPhone. I may stick with traditional iTunes sync for contacts for now though, until there’s an Outlook to Google sync utility. The reason is that  I do quite like Outlook contacts, with the detailed support for myriad of business fields, birthdays, spouses, and of course – contact photos (that show up when your friend calls on your iPhone).


So now, I have ridiculous storage on Google central servers, push email and calendar on my iPhone, support for meeting requests and collaboration on the iPhone, almost-full Outlook synchronisation on multiple devices across the web, all communications are SSL (even iPhone email and calendar), and the joy of using Google’s stupidly powerful search for all of my mail, tasks, calendar, contact items. Which, when you have as much stuff as I do in your diary and email history, starts to mean a lot.

Interesting links

Tech Crunch IT discuss an application for Windows Mobile users that brings them into the fold in this respect, too: http://www.techcrunchit.com/2009/01/27/sync-your-gmail-contacts-calendar-with-iphone-windows-mobile/. I am not sure what the iPhone app mentioned in this article can do that isn’t supported natively as described in my post above.


Sep 08

Google Chrome web browser review – first impressions


A browser schizophrenic like me changes browsers all the time.  Of course, we use different tools for different jobs, and especially those developing sites use a number of browsers at the same time.

That said, I go through phases, as with most things in life.  My long-loved Opera phase between about 2004-2006, was eventually spurned for IE which I used avidly for a couple of years, but very recently (Summer 08) I had come back to Opera.

The move back to Opera was a painful one for me, but I forced myself, because I knew it was right, morally, ethically, and socially.  I was becoming a social outcast, my friends weren’t hanging out with me any more.  Even my own family were beginning to reject me and consider me an outcast.  I couldn’t let go, but in the end I had re-taught myself that Opera was indeed far superior.  Of course, I’m always switching between browsers regardless, but we’re talking about the holy grail of browser preference here:

[HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT\http\shell\open\command] (OMGOMGMGMOG)

(Yes, that’s the ‘default browser’ setting for the uninitiated.)

Not to mention: [HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Internet Explorer\Main] “Check_Associations”=”No” and “IgnoreDefCheck”=”Yes”

New fave browser: Google Chrome.

I’ve even changed my default browser registry settings.  Bold, very bold.

I continue to use the ‘top three’ (IE7, Opera, and Firefox – for me they are in that order) regularly, but after downloading Google Chrome, I have found that the switch between my top-two IE7 & Opera, to Chrome will be so easy that I have already replaced Opera with Chrome as my favoured browser.

Enough about my OCD though, let’s take a look at the thing.

First impression #1: It’s fast, so very fast.

“what the hell, my internet connection is actually pretty fast”.

That’s because pages are THERE before you’ve even clicked them.

Opera once dubbed itself as the ‘fastest browser’, but you haven’t seen a fast browser until you’ve seen Google Chrome.

  1. Page rendering is noticeably much faster than IE7, Opera, and Firefox.  There’s the wow-factor!
  2. Screen redraw is lightning fast, and makes for a genuinely different and more enjoyable browsing experience.
  3. The wonderful DNS pre-fetch feature is an absolute boon.
  4. Window launch time is disgustingly fast, and it appears to outrun even Opera by quite a way.  Let’s not even talk about IE7’s window launch time.  (See below.)
We are obviously talking intelligent precaching and rendering.

First impression #2: Clean interface.

Google Chrome confirms my suspicion that we are entering a user interface simplicity renaissance, where we spurn silly programs with a million granularly-settable options and configurable toolbars that allows the program to morph into anything we want and behave in any manner, for something that someone has thought about lots in the first place, and calls its users just to accept and get on with their lives.  (It’s better that way, it really is.  It’s analagous to having a benign dictator who knows what’s best – it means you don’t have to think too much.  Perish the thought in real life, of course.)

  1. No, the lack of a million interface or network settings options doesn’t bug me.  There once was a day I wanted my application to be infinitely configurable.  For example, Chrome has no option to be able to leave the application open when closing last tab, or indeed to confirm closing the application (one of the more annoying default settings in IE7).  This would have wound me up in the past, but I’m thinking, “who cares really?”
  2. No wasted screen space.  A brilliant user interface principle.
  3. A little bit of screen animation.  Nothing schmancy, nothing Powerpointingly embarrassingly fade-zoom-kappowy, just a few little sexy minimalistic touches.  When you drag a tab out of the tab bar, stuff goes a bit transparent.  When you drag that out casted window back into the fold (i.e. drag the window back into the previous window’s tab bar), stuff slides around a bit.  The thoughtful, subtle Apple iPhone style touches like that bring Chrome a gentle aesthetic appeal.  Not too much though, we’d never like to be accused of form over function.

First impression #3: built-in task manager and multiple processes!

No, this point is not just for geeks.

It is just brilliant.  The process-per-tab approach, which is one supposedly to be adopted by Microsoft in their upcoming release of Internet Explorer 8, is necessary nowadays.  When your browser crashes, that’s annoying.  When your browser crashed because your ADD kicked-in whilst typing an essay of a message to a friend, and you went off looking at some crap on Ebay which caused the crash: that’s when it gets annoying, because it was as a direct result of your inability to focus on something that caused you a huge waste of time and writing.  And when you can’t blame your computer for you losing stuff, that’s when it hurts the most.  Anyway, hurrah, because that’s a thing of the past!

First impression #4: Intuitive

Builds on navigational success of IE7, Opera, and Firefox.  Most of the standard keyboard shortcuts you expect to work will do so.  Eg. CTRL-T to open new tab, CTRL-Tab or CTRL-Shift-Tab to switch between tabs,  CTRL-N to open a new window, ALT-D to focus the address bar (CTRL-E does this too, as the address bar is multifunctional and also acts as search bar).  CTRL-F or F3 act as search, ALT-Enter when focus is in the address bar opens the address in another window leaving the current one intact: it’s all there.

First impression #5: Ability to re-size any text entry box

It’s a simple thing, but I haven’t seen it implemented as a native function in any other browser.  Google Chrome allows any text input box on a website to be re-sized by dragging the handle in the bottom-right corner, should you want to.

First impression #6: Text entry is saved

Google Chrome ‘remembers’ what you typed in your text entry box.  If you navigate away from the page accidentally, and you’ve spent the last 2 hours composing a facebook message or writing a document online, hitting the back button will bring a gasp of relief to you.  Sure, Opera has done that for a while too – but it’s a sensible feature in today’s day-and-age, when more and more people are shifting their application usage to online apps, using Google Docs as their wordprocessor or spreadsheet app, or sending messages on a social networking site rather than by email.

What else is cool?

Incognito mode.  Porn mode.  Incognito mode.  Porn mode.

CTRL-SHIFT-N = porn mode.  End of.  I’m sorry, it brings up a new window with an icon of a man with a trenchcoat and hat.  That’s porn mode.  That man is inappropriate and shouldn’t be trusted with children.  Porn mode.

Incognito is different: a bit anonymous, just like everyone else, fitting into the crowd quite easily, perhaps with an elusive identity, that would be a guy wearing a pair of Clarke’s shoes and an M&S suit. Incognito man would be boring.

Trenchcoat and hat man is not boring, he’s on list 99 and it’s porn mode.

From Google help: “For times when you want to browse in stealth mode, for example, to plan surprises like gifts or birthdays”… BLESS THEM, they actually mean “for times you want to browse porn, which is what the internet gets used for most”.  They and their analytics should know.  Pah.

Seriously though, porn mode is awesome.  We should all use it, all the time, on all websites.  Because if we don’t then some random who bought your hard disk from Ebay could find out you were frequenting strange internet forums about self harm for the last 20 years, or alternatively keeping Royal Bank of Scotland customer details on it.  (The two examples cited are completely random, except for the second one.)

It’s just a shame there isn’t a global setting for ‘incognito’ mode, which I would turn on in an instant.

What’s not so cool

Application shortcuts.  These are sad and wrong.  Why would I want Google Chrome to add shortcuts to places I use for actual application shortcuts (eg. Start Menu, Desktop, QuickLaunch, the latter two of which I must say at this point I would NEVER use for this anyway)?

A Google Chrome application shortcut is not an application shortcut, it’s a shortcut to a web page that when clicked, opens the web page in Google Chrome except without the joy of you being able to change the address or browse away from that page.

Firstly that’s self-referencial therefore a pointless function.

Secondly it’s really annoying if you do it, which you won’t after the first time of doing it purely to see what it does.

No thanks, I’ll just use browser favourites.


What’s with the focus issue?  If you delete all the text in a text input box, the input box can sometimes lose focus.  So when you press backspace again (eg. when there’s nothing left to delete, everyone does this, it’s like pressing Clear on your calculator 10 times even though you know it’s waiting for the next calculation), it navigates back a page!  Thank goodness for saved text-entry!

CTRL-Arrow keyboard navigation in text input boxes is unintuitive and sometimes inconsistent.

I want my CTRL-Arrow keyboard navigation to honour punctuation marks and spaces (i.e. not to bypass them like they don’t exist).  Whilst this sounds a little picky, the following traits may be observed that are a departure from what we are used-to:

Example #1: your cursor is at the end of a paragraph, and you would expect CTRL-RightArrow to move cursor to just before first word of next paragraph, but instead it moves it to the end of first word in next paragraph.  This is not as much an inconsistency as an unintuitive feature.  That said, this one depends on what you are used-to.

Example #2: CTRL-LeftArrow moves to the beginning of each previous word, and CTRL-RightArrow moves to the end of each next word.  That’s fine, and consistent, if a little different to what we are used-to.  However if you have a full stop (period) at the end of your sentence, and you CTRL-RightArrow through the sentence, the text, you really want that cursor to be landed just before the first word in the next sentence.  The same applies for any punctuation mark (parenthesis, comma, etc), and this departure from the norm is not a welcome one.  Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer the notepad way of navigating text.

Example #3: You have inserted a space after the last word in a string of text you are writing.  You then navigate back to change your text, then you want to continue the sentence by navigating forward using CTRL-Arrow.  However, that space you left is easily forgotton, as when you CTRL-RightArrow to after the last word in the string, the cursor is place directly at the end of that word, rather than after that space you added. This potentially leaves you with spaces in your text entry that you are unaware of.  Ok, we are editing for web here, and it doesn’t matter – but it’s an issue of principle, and I don’t like it.  Some WYSIWYG editors may choose to honour double-spaces or even triple spaces using an &nbsp.  Since you don’t have the option to turn on paragraph markings like you do in a Word Processor, this frustrates me.

Bookmarking: to add a bookmark, you click the star.  Sure, obvious.  A box has then popped-up asking where you would like to put the bookmark.  But wait, it hasn’t actually added the bookmark at this point, or has it?  In order to close that little box and add the bookmark just there, you have to press the close button.  That button should really say “go ahead, add the bookmark” (or “Add” for short).  After all, if you are going to have to click something to get rid of that box, it may as well be a “complete this transaction” button rather than a “thanks, now get rid of this box” one.  Also, as that little star button lights up when the page you are visiting is already in your bookmarks, one would suspect it was a visual toggle, and therefore when you pressed the star OFF a website, it would toggle it out of your bookmarks – this is not so.

Some bugs

This is where my post gets a little less relevant, after all I expect there are hundreds of bugs, in fact given it’s one of those funky Web v 2.00 style things where we say something is constantly in Beta (yawn), I suppose we can’t call them bugs at all.  Whatever, here are the ones that bugged me:

  1. Triple-clicking a line in a text-box highlights the whole line (this is odd) then if you action that in a WYSIWYG editor, it neglects to eg. bold the first character of that line.  Noticed this in WordPress and some other websites.
  2. I’ve noticed a number of page rendering bugs where lines should be there, and they go away if you minimise then maximise the page, for example.  Expect to see a few of these.
  3. Also seen a number of text selection bugs.  For example, you are in a text input box and you SHIFT-DownArrow, to select multiple lines of text.  The cursor randomly stops at a line with no special text features on it.  You try again, it stops at the same line.


Launch time.

With my housemate Tom sitting next to me tonight, I launched IE7.  We counted: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 (WHAT?!), 9, 10, 11, and now my default start page has loaded, Google.co.uk.  We both laughed.

Launch Google Chrome, we didn’t even get to 1.  This made us laugh more.  (That’s because we are geeks.)  Of course, this is likely to be an operating system memory management issue, but I have NO browser plugins installed other than the standard you’d expect such as Flash, etc (which are bundled with Chrome anyway) no silly toolbars, and I regularly keep my browser’s history and cache clear.  IE7 launche usually a little quicker than this, but it doesn’t make it any less relevant as a comparison.


So, after an hour of using it, it’s my new default browser.  That’s impressive.