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Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Why Apple is about to build, buy, or partner on a web search engine

Why Apple is about to build, buy, or partner on a web search engine
Takeaway: Apple’s Siri could change the game in search and put a lot of pressure on Google, but first Apple needs to deal with web search integration.
Apple’s iPhone 4S was a disappointment to all of those who were expecting a redesigned iPhone 5, but in the grand scheme of the things the launch of the iPhone 4S may turn out to be Apple’sChamber of Secrets.
Forgive the Harry Potter reference, but Chamber of Secrets is the second book in the seven-book Harry Potter series, and while it’s generally the least favorite of the books among Potter fans, by the time you get to the final book you realize that Chamber contained critical plot information that foretold important future events.
The fact that the iPhone 4S was an incremental hardware upgrade and lacked a new design has largely overshadowed its one revolutionary feature that could shape Apple’s future: Sirivoice commands and voice-activated search.
Apple has limited Siri to the iPhone 4S to start, but that probably has less to do with Siri needing extra computing power on the phone and more to do with Siri still being in beta. Since Siri requires a cloud connection, limiting Siri’s spread at first gives Apple the opportunity to stress-test its data centers and scale up for the future.
Even with its beta quirkiness, Siri is impressive. While Google Android and Windows Phone 7 both had a jump on the iPhone in terms of voice control, Apple has zoomed past both of them with thepurchase of Siri and its integration into the iPhone. The big deal for Siri is that it understands natural language and it is standardized across a lot of different applications on the iPhone. The user doesn’t even have to be aware of which apps to use. You can simply give Siri a natural language command and she automatically interacts with the right app to execute it. That’s a nice step forward for voice user interface (VUI).
The Siri experience hearkens back to the launch of the original Macintosh in 1984 when Steve Jobs climaxed his unveiling by saying, “I’d like to let Macintosh speak for itself” and it did (using Macintalk software), which blew the minds of techies at the time. Of course, in a larger sense, the whole thing also points back to the computer in Star Trek and its VUI. In other words, Apple has been entranced by the idea of integrating speech into everyday computing for a long time — almost from the beginning of the company.
However, as fun as it is to bark orders at your phone and have it obey your commands in real time, the revolutionary piece of Siri is what it does in Internet search. It’s early and Siri is still imperfect, but there are moments when Siri drastically streamlines the search process and gives us a peek at the future.
For example, I recently asked Siri for “the closest Mediterranean restaurant” (right) and got a list showing 11 restaurants, their user ratings, and their distance from my current location. Clicking any of the selections in the list immediately took me to a map.
Another time, I asked Siri, “How many calories are in a kiwi?” She came back with 46 calories along with a full chart of all the nutritional information for a kiwi.
Last week when I was doing research for my article iPhone and Surface: The moment Apple and Microsoft diverged, I got frustrated trying to find historical data on the market cap and revenue of Microsoft and Apple going back to 2007. In desperation (and half-jokingly) I asked Siri a question about Microsoft revenue in 2007 and surprisingly got an answer, based on data from Wolfram Alpha (which was also the source of the kiwi data). That eventually led me to Wolfram Alpha on the web (from my computer) to do a full lookup of the data, but the fact that Siri led me there was a big “ah ha” moment.
Siri can also help you find nearby physicians, lookup movie times, and pull up weather data when you ask questions like, “is it going to rain tomorrow?” Siri still has a hard time understanding normal speech at times and it’s limited by its access to freely available data sources like Google, Wolfram Alpha, and Yelp. But, Apple has shown us what’s possible with a much more approachable VUI than anything we’ve seen so far in the consumer market. Siri is almost like an IBM Watson for the masses.
One of the important things to notice about Siri is how it disintermediates search results pages in general and Google specifically. Instead of giving you a page of possibilities to choose from, Siri tries to give you a single authoritative answer to your question. Since Google makes all of its money by allowing advertisers to place their ads next to the items listed on the search results pages, it’s easy to see why Google Chairman Eric Schmidt is talking about Siri as a competitive threat.

The next step

Now that Apple has opened the door to a natural language VUI and demonstrated new possibilities, the game really begins. Google and Microsoft will undoubtedly take cues from Siri and bring similar functionality to Android and Windows Phone, since both companies already have a lot of engineers working on voice technology. That means Apple is going to have to rapidly improve and innovate Siri if it wants to be a leader in VUI. Siri has two areas that need the most work: 1.) it needs to keep improving voice recognition, and 2.) it needs more data sources to feed Siri and integrate into its equation.
Currently, if Siri doesn’t have an answer to something, the fallback is to throw the question to a standard mobile web search. That’s not going to suffice for long – especially when you consider the level of integration that Google and Microsoft will be able to do since they both own search engines. Siri needs a web search that is tightly integrated into the service in the same way that Wolfram Alpha and Yelp are today.
That leaves Apple with three options: build, buy, or partner.


Siri itself is already a bit of a search engine, and with all of the searches that are now happening through Siri and running through Apple’s servers, the company is amassing a treasure trove of data about the ways people are using voice search. Plus, all of the Siri data is tied to specific users and that will give Apple an excellent opportunity to do personalized search in the future.
Last year at the D8 conference when Steve Jobs was asked about Apple buying Siri and going into the search business he said, “They’re not a search company. They’re an AI company. We have no plans to go into the search business. We don’t care about it — other people do it well.”
While Jobs has famously denied lots of things that Apple eventually went on to do, it’s hard to see Apple building its own web search engine from scratch based around the core team it acquired from Siri. That would take years and lot of resources. Just look at how much money Microsoft has had to throw at building Bing, with only moderate success and no hope of turning a profit any time soon.


The faster on-ramp for Apple would be to buy one of the smaller players in web search, integrate it with the Siri team, and put most of its resources into customizing a VUI that feeds Siri. There are a few decent candidates that Apple could gobble up: Blekko, DuckDuckGo, Yippy, Dogpile, and even good old AskJeeves.
Apple has $80 billion in cash reserves so it has plenty of resources to buy any of these search engines. The best options would likely be DuckDuckGo and Blekko. Both of them already do some things better than Google, but don’t get much attention because they’re so small.


If Apple were to partner with another company in search it would have to be Google, Microsoft Bing, or Yahoo (which has mostly abandoned its own search for Bing). Google is an obvious “no” since it’s Apple’s archrival in mobile. Bing might look like it makes sense in the short term, since Microsoft has fashioned Bing as a “decision engine” rather than a search engine and that fits pretty well with what Siri is trying to accomplish.
But, Microsoft is destined to want to do something similar to Siri in Windows Phone and that will be enough to scare Apple away from a doing a deal with Microsoft.

Sanity check

With Siri, Apple has lowered the friction on search and turned it into a mellifluous experience. But, to take it to the next level, Apple is going to need much tighter integration with web search. Building a search engine would take too much time and there aren’t many good options for Apple to partner with in search, so the most likely scenario is that Apple will buy a smaller player and integrate it into Siri.
Siri clearly has tremendous future potential for Apple across its entire product line. By the end of 2013, I expect that we’ll see Siri on most iOS devices and Macintosh machines. Nick Bilton evenbelieves Siri is the revolutionary interface that Steve Jobs wanted to bring to television sets.
The bigger and more entertaining question is if Apple does jump into search with both feet, will the company freely release Siri on the Web and challenge Google directly? I doubt it, given Apple’s affinity for hardware/software integration, but it’s fun to consider, especially as we look at Apple’s new VUI as arguably the most important new development in search in the past decade.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

CSS3 technology in action: Design examples

CSS3 technology in action: Design examples
Takeaway: Highlights of some beautiful examples of CSS3 design projects by some individuals who are at the forefront in tinkering with the new code possibilities.

While CSS3 and HTML5 technologies are still fresh for most organizations, there are many trend-setting web developers who are taking the new tools by storm. This post will highlight several examples which utilize the full potential of CSS3 in delivering excellence in design, look, and feel. The first group includes several projects and experiments by individuals tinkering with CSS3.

10 beautiful examples of CSS3 design

CSS3 Analog Clock by Paul Hayes is his quick project and experiment that works in Safari and Google Chrome. Essentially the working analog clock is a series of four images, and using CSS3 to overlay, transform, and transition the hands’ movement, the time is obtained from a short JavaScript.

Figure A

Snow Flakes by Natalie Downe utilizes examples of CSS3 animation, text-shadow, transform, and keyframes to create a page of gently falling snow flakes. The snow flakes are called by a short script which controls the number of flakes, how fast they fall, and the duration of the snow fall. The animation is best viewed in Google Chrome.

Figure B

Matrix Effect by Girlie Mac embeds a Katakana font with CSS3 keyframes, transform, and animations using webkit prefixes to create this demonstration, again, best viewed in Google Chrome.

Figure C

Pure CSS Speech Bubbles by Nicolas Gallagher demonstrates the use of CSS3 backgrounds, linear gradients, border radius, and transform translate to create stunning speech bubbles in a selection of variants.

Figure D

Embossed Text Effect by Analog, a company of friends who make websites, uses a subtle 1px CSS3 text-shadow effect for their h2, h3, p, and li text, creating an embossed text effect.

Figure E

Polaroid’s with CSS3 by Zurb is a gallery display using CSS3 transform and rotate to turn images into a set of randomly selected Polaroid pictures.

Figure F

CSS3 Transitions Gallery by AlexandtheWeb demonstrates CSS3 transitions, transform, rotate, border radius, and masking to create this stunning example.

Figure G

CSS3 3D Butterfly by eletriq demonstrates the use of CSS3 perspective, transform-origin, and transform-style to create a 3D butterfly object in flight. Display is available in Safari only.

Figure H

3D geometry with 3D CSS3 transforms by Joe Lambert uses rotateX(deg), rotateY(deg) axis, transitions, and transformVector to create this 3D cube with rotation controls (displayed in Safari).

Figure I

CSS3 Time Machine by Joe Critchley utilizes CSS3 perspective, transform, and translate to create this image slide show similar to Apple’s Time Machine interface (displayed in Safari).

Figure J

Monday, 26 December 2011

Five free replacements for Windows Explorer

Five free replacements for Windows Explorer

Takeaway: If you’ve ever wished for more or better file management features than Windows Explorer offers, these free alternatives might be the answer.

I must say I’m not a fan of Windows Explorer as a file manager. When using it for simple file management, and it starts up the old Not Responding behavior, it can be a nightmare of frustration. This is a pain because Explorer is so interconnected with so many other tools. That’s why I often rely upon one of the free replacements for the default Windows file manager. There are quite a few. Here are my top five. Give these a try and more than likely you will come out with one you like.

1: CubicExplorer

CubicExplorer is a fine example of how to make a full-featured, yet lightweight file manager for Windows. This particular file manager offers some great features: tabbed exploring, bookmark files and folders, search filters, a built-in text editor, file preview, transparency levels for different programs, themes, shortcut key support, breadcrumb navigation, session saving, and much more. CubicExplorer is broken up into three panels: Main navigation window, Navigation tree, and Filter/Preview/Dropstack panel. The Dropstack panel allows you to drag and drop files/folders into groups for temporary quick access.

Figure A

2: Explorer++

What I like about the Explorer++ file manager is that it’s not required to install, so you can run it from a flash drive. No more having to put up with wonky Explorer on your machine or any other machine. Pop this tool on a flash drive and carry it around with you — you’ll have a file manager that will work when Explorer is flaking out. Explorer++ features:
    • Complete portability
    • Tabbed browsing
    • Real-time previews as files are selected
    • Easy-to-remember keyboard shortcuts
    • Customizable user interface
    • Full drag-and-drop support
    • Advanced file operations

      Figure B

      3: Xplorer2

      Xplorer2 comes in two flavors: free and not free. The free version (called the Lite version) doesn’t have all the features of the paid version (you’ll be missing Advanced Searching and Customer Support) but is still a solid file manager. You can browse the entire shell namespace, preview docs/pics/music/video, view side by side, filter using wildcards, synchronize folders, and obtain more information per file/folder than you get with the default file manager.

      Figure C

      4: NexusFile

      NexusFile brings a bit of style to Windows. Not only is it skinnable, it also offers some great built-in features: tabbed browsing, built-in FTP, built-in archive, advanced rename, Split/Join File, and much more. NexusFile might well be one of the most powerful Windows file managers you will come across. Its only downfall is that the interface could take some time for new users to grow accustomed to. But for anyone who has used a typical FTP client (or an older file manager), the learning curve will be nonexistent.

      Figure D

      5: Q-Dir

      As the site says Warning: Once Q-Dir, always Q-Dir!!! Whether that applies to you will depend upon what you want from a file manager. If you want a crazy amount of interface control, Q-Dirmight be the perfect fit for you. Q-Dir offers a large number of preconfigured viewing options to satisfy just about any need. You want four panes? You got it! That is, after all, what the Q stands for: quad. You can install this file manager on your hard disk or as a portable solution. It offers preview filters, drag and drop, clipboard, exporting to XLS/CVS/TST/HTML, screen magnifier, color filter, highlight filter, and much more.

      Figure E


      If there is a feature you’ve always wanted in a file manager for Windows, it probably exists in a different tool. The five free alternatives we’ve looked at here represent a nice cross section of the possibilities.

      Sunday, 25 December 2011

      Five feature-rich Web browsers for the Android platform

      Five feature-rich Web browsers for the Android platform
      Takeaway: Want more than basic browsing on your Android device? Here are five alternatives with enough features to satisfy nearly everyone.

      The Android platform offers its own built-in browser, but it doesn’t include the selection of features available with other browsers — features a lot of users want. There are plenty of browsers out there with features to spare. But which should you choose? Just because a browser has tons of features doesn’t make it the best of the best. It takes a combination of features, performance, and reliability.
      Here is my short list of best-in- breed Web browsers for the Android platform. As you’ll see, the default browser has been excluded from consideration.

      1: Firefox

      It took long enough, but the mobile version of everyone’s favorite open source browser finally arrived — and boy is it packed with the goods. Firefox (Figure A) features browser sync, add-ons, tabs, personas, built-in sharing, location-aware browsing, one-touch bookmarks, Awesome Screen (learns your typing habits), multi-search engine integration, full-screen view, and much more. Although Firefox doesn’t load quite as quickly as Chrome, it does render pages fast and renders them to perfection.

      Figure A

      2: Dolphin

      Dolphin (Figure B) was kind of the Firefox for mobile before Firefox arrived. Dolphin was one of the first mobile browsers to begin offering feature sets unheard of by other browsers. It still offers some great features, while retaining great performance. The features include add-ons, gestures, webzine, multi-touch pinch zoom, tabbed browsing, sidebar, speed dial, smart address bar, bookmark folder, user agent, themes, and multi-language support. But what’s best about Dolphin is that even with all of the features, it still performs as well as any mobile browser available.

      Figure B

      3: Skyfire

      Skyfire (Figure C) is one of the more interesting browsers, offering features such as flash video, user agent switching, Facebook QuickView, Fireplace Feed Reader, Popular Pages, Related Ideas, Skyfire OneTouch Search, Facebook Like button, Twitter integration, Sports, News & Finance buttons, Google Reader, and customizable Skybar (scrollbar). Many will look at Skyfire as a mobile browser for the social network inclined.

      Figure C

      4: Opera

      Opera (Figure D) is still around, and it still provides a unique browsing experience. It has always been one of the fastest-rendering browsers as well as offering one of the most feature-rich Web experiences. The mobile version does not come up short on either front. Opera offers features such as a more mobile-friendly interface, pinch-to-zoom and smooth panning, synchronize bookmarks, speed dial, and built-in Twitter and Facebook support. One especially unusual feature is that games and free apps can be downloaded from the Opera Mobile Store (found in Opera Mobile’s Speed Dial). You will notice two versions of Opera: Opera Mobile and Opera Mini. For tablets and more powerful devices, go with Opera Mobile. For smaller and less powerful phones, go with Opera Mini.

      Figure D

      5: Miren

      Miren (Figure E) is one of the lesser known browsers, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying. It does a great job of blending desktop features on mobile devices. It’s fast, it offers a solid list of features, and it has an outstanding, clean interface. The feature list includes tabbed browser with smart full-screen mode, top site navigation, smart suggestions, fast rendering speed, Flash support, multi-touch pinch zoom, bookmark management, and bookmark import/export. One of its nicest features is the ability to quickly jump back and forth between full screen and windowed mode.

      Figure E

      Plenty of choices

      Five browsers for one platform — and that’s just scratching the surface. If you want a leaner browsing experience, you can get that as well. But if you’re looking for a diverse feature list and solid performance, try one of the above browsers. Actually you should try them all, because each has something unique to offer that might be the best match for your needs and personality.
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