All posts tagged ‘hands on’

File Under: Social, Web Apps

Hands On With Google Buzz – It’s a Stream in Your Inbox

Tuesday saw the debut of Google Buzz, a new service for sharing status updates, links and media with your friends. It’s currently being rolled out to the public slowly — you can sign up at buzz.google.com — but we’ve had access to Buzz since shortly after it launched, and I’ve had a chance to play around with it.

Buzz integrates directly with your Gmail inbox, so updates and comments appear along side your e-mails. It bears a strong resemblance to other sharing platforms like FriendFeed or Twitter and Facebook’s News Feed — imagine all of those magically inserted into your Gmail inbox and you get the picture.

It has all the makings of a powerful, real-time social platform that’s ready to compete with, or compliment, those established players.

But for now, Buzz is a bit of a mystery. Only a handful of people are actually using it, so the sharing features don’t really feel that social. It’s as if you’re broadcasting into an empty void. In that regard, my first day with Buzz reminds me of my first few days with Google Wave, or my first few days with FriendFeed. That feeling of being in a big empty room will change once Buzz opens up and more of my friends join, just as it did for those other services.

There’s another more serious limitation: What happens in Buzz stays in Buzz. You can’t use it to post to your favorite social networks. You can add feeds from Twitter, Flickr, Google Reader and any other social site (except for Facebook, notably), and all that stuff gets aggregated into a single feed on Buzz where your friends can leave comments. But when you post a status update or share any sort of link or media on Buzz, you don’t have the option to CC Twitter or FriendFeed.

Google noted during Tuesday’s launch event that it does plan on adding the ability to post out to Twitter and other services soon. And, since all public posts in Buzz are available as an XML feed, you could hack together a way to post to Twitter if you know what you’re doing. But for now, for most every user, Google Buzz remains a one-way street.

Once those two things change — the volume problem and the cross-posting problem — Buzz will be a serious player on the social web. Right now, it’s worth playing with and getting used to, because once it gains momentum, it’s going to become part of our daily lives. It’s that easy to use, and that powerful.

Here’s how it works

Once you’re given access, you’ll see Buzz appear in your Gmail sidebar just below your Inbox. Click it and you’ll see something familiar: a white box inviting you to post a status update.

When you first arrive in Buzz, it’s automatically set up to follow the few dozen people in your Google Contacts list that you correspond with the most. It’s a rather genius bit of engineering — Buzz taps into your Gmail network so you don’t need to go through that process of importing contacts or “finding friends,” one of the most painful experiences on the social web.

Each post to Buzz can be public (for the whole web to see) or private (you select which friends see it). The default is public, but you can also address posts directly to a friend using a variation on Twitter’s @ reply syntax, like this: @joe@gmail.com.

Send one of those updates and it shows up in your stream and in his stream, and anyone following either one of you will see it. But the note will also show up in his Gmail inbox, so you can make sure he sees it.

You can type text of course, but if you put in a link, Buzz will go gather photos or videos that live behind that link and give you the option of adding them to your update. Photos show up in a nice little gallery of thumbnails. Videos get embedded and can be played inline.

Above that white box, you can see the number of services Buzz is aggregating for you. Click on that number and you can add or subtract services to control what shows up in your feed.

Also above that white box is the number of people you’re following. Click on that number and you can add or subtract followers. This will control whose updates show up in your feed.

All of your activities, comments and all those of your friends will show up here. Everything appears in real-time and the updates are very fast. If you or one of your friends posts something boring that doesn’t have any comments or media associated with it, Buzz will eventually collapse it. So long, clutter.

People can like, comment and e-mail anything that shows up in their feed, whether it was posted by you or them or whoever.

If you want to see your public feed of everything you’re sharing, check out your Google Profile (you know you have one, right?).

There’s a new Buzz tab that displays all your public posts. Google Profiles and Buzz are intricately tied together.

Posts can be geotagged, and the location-aware features really comes to life when you post from a mobile with GPS inside. There’s a mobile webapp optimized for Android and iPhone browsers — surf to m.google.com/app/buzz

Buzz will figure out where you are using the mobile browser’s geolocation abilities through HTML5. The interface for picking your location is elegant.

Buzz will then show you recent posts around your current location. It can also plot nearby Buzz posts on a layer in Google Maps.

Clearly, Buzz mimics the functionality of Facebook’s News Feed — minus all the Farmville, Mafia Wars and Superpoke notifications. It draws upon a common vernacular for sharing and commenting that Facebook helped establish.

So, is it a replacement for Facebook, or a compliment to Facebook? In a way, Google’s rapidly-expanding social stack — Buzz, Gmail, Contacts, Chat, Profiles, Picasa and YouTube — could be seen as a clone of Facebook that operates on the open web. If anything, it’s a version of Facebook for people who never got into Facebook, or chose not to participate because of its closed nature.

No matter how it ends up impacting Facebook, Buzz will go down in history as a transformative step in Google’s timeline. It brings a whole new utility to what is already our most critical social tool — the e-mail inbox.

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File Under: Browsers

Firefox Has Been Hitting the Gym — Version 3.6 Is Faster, More Capable

Mozilla has unleashed Firefox 3.6, the next version of the popular open source web browser.

The new and improved Firefox 3.6 is now available as a free download for Windows, Mac and Linux.

There isn’t much new to look at on the surface, but we’d strongly recommend you upgrade to Firefox 3.6, based on the work that’s been done to improve the browser’s speed and support for the latest web technologies.

Thursday’s release brings significant performance boosts and a number of new features like support for custom skins, full-screen support for native web video and much-improved font support for developers looking to use new fonts on their sites.

It arrives only six months after the previous version, Firefox 3.5. The shorter-than-usual wait between versions means that Firefox 3.6 doesn’t have quite as many new standout features as 3.5 brought to the browser when it debuted. But we don’t want to give the impression that Firefox 3.6 is only an incremental performance upgrade from the previous version.

A Nimbler Fox

The fact is that there’s quite a bit of new technology under the hood. Users who spend the bulk of their day in JavaScript-heavy web apps — which these days is most of us — will notice faster page loads thanks to improvements to the browser’s rendering engine. Much of the added speed is due to enhancements to TraceMonkey, Mozilla’s JavaScript-rendering engine.

Not only does the tweaked TraceMonkey speed up webpage rendering, it’s now available to speed up Firefox UI elements written in JavaScript. That change means the Firefox interface is snappier, and — when combined with the new version of Gecko, Firefox’s core rendering engine — there’s a noticeable improvement in Firefox 3.6′s overall performance.

In our testing of pre-release versions (the last of which were nearly identical to the final code), JavaScript-heavy sites like FriendFeed, Facebook and Gmail loaded faster, and the browser’s initial startup time was much better than with Firefox 3.5 — especially if you’re reopening a large number of tabs.

Also new under the hood is the new about:support page which offers a simple place to look up all the pertinent information about the current Firefox installation, including a list of installed extensions, any user-modified preference settings, links to installed plug-ins, and other configuration details.

Fullscreen HTML5 Video

Firefox 3.6 now supports fullscreen video playback through native HTML5 video embeds. Just right-click a video embedded using the HTML5 video tag and you’ll see a new menu item for full-screen playback.

Currently video on the web is generally embedded using proprietary technologies like Adobe’s Flash Player or Microsoft’s Silverlight plugin.

Native HTML5 video will give users a way to watch movies online without the need of third-party plug-ins.

Firefox previously supported HTML5 native video but lacked the ability to play those videos in full-screen mode, an oversight that Firefox 3.6 corrects, putting open source video on largely equal footing with proprietary technologies like Flash or Silverlight.

Curiously, Firefox 3.6′s release comes only a day after YouTube announced it would begin supporting playback of embedded videos with HTML5, albeit using the h.264 codec which Firefox does not support, as it’s proprietary. Mozilla prefers the open source Ogg Theora video format instead.

More Web-Standards Support

Web developers and open-web proponents alike will be happy to hear that quite a few new features in CSS 3 have made their way into Firefox 3.6. Firefox now supports the background-size property as well as some cool tricks for handling background images with CSS. Designers can specify the size of background images on web pages, stretching them by dictating what percentage of the browser window’s width they take up.

There are also some new methods for applying gradients to page backgrounds, enabling designers to create more interesting, colorful backgrounds without using images at all, just by defining a few colors in their HTML.

Firefox 3.6 also supports the Web Open Font Format (WOFF), which allows developers to use server-side fonts to build better typography into their designs.

Personas

Firefox 3.6 brings built-in support for lightweight themes, which Mozilla calls Personas. Personas have been around for a while (you can even sync them across multiple browsers if you’re running Weave, Mozilla’s syncing tool), but installing Personas previously required a separate extension to manage them.

Now Personas can be installed right out of the box, allowing you to tweak and theme Firefox as you’d like. Although Personas don’t offer quite the options of full-fledged themes, they’re much easier to create and install. If you’d like to try out some custom themes, head over to the Personas site.

Improved Tab-Switching Previews

Also new on the tab front are the long-awaited preview thumbnails in Firefox’s built-in tab switcher, which have finally arrived, sort of. The tab previews have been in the works for quite some time, and — sadly — enabling the previews will still require a trip to about:config (set browser.ctrlTab.previews to true).

Unfortunately for Windows 7 users, much of the Windows 7 integration — like Aero tab previews and jump lists — did not make the final release. Not officially, anyway.

According to Mozilla Director of Firefox Mike Beltzner, support for Windows 7′s Aero Peek tab previews — the page and tab previews available in the Windows 7 task bar — can be enabled in the about:config page. But the feature wasn’t quite ready to be switched on by default.

If you’d like to turn it on now, just be aware that sometimes the previews don’t render properly. Look for this one to be officially turned on by an incremental update in the near future.

Security Enhancements

Firefox 3.6 includes the ability to check for out -of-date plug-ins and will point you to the offending plug-in’s website to download the latest version.

The primary target here is the Flash plug-in, which previously had no update mechanism in Firefox and could leave Firefox users vulnerable to attack even if the browser itself was up-to-date.

Mozilla has also changed the way third-party add-ons integrate with Firefox. The Firefox components directory is now off-limits to third-party tools like Firefox add-ons. The move is mainly designed to make Firefox more stable by preventing add-ons from accessing lower-level tools that could cause crashes.

According to Mozilla, there are no features to be gained from accessing the components directory, so your favorite add-ons should not be adversely affected by the change.

Why the Long Wait?

Although the turnaround time for Firefox 3.6 was faster than its predecessor, Mozilla was still plagued by delays, and it released an unprecedented five beta versions to testers before Thursday’s final release.

However, while there were more betas than previous releases, according to Mike Beltzner, Mozilla’s Director of Firefox, the overall development time was actually shorter.

“We did something very different with betas this time around, and this has been one of the shortest beta periods in terms of calendar time that a Firefox release has ever had,” Beltzner tells Webmonkey.

“Once people have agreed to test a beta, it’s our responsibility to give them updates as quickly as possible. Instead of spending three to four weeks making changes and releasing a beta, for Firefox 3.6 we decided to create a beta version that would be updated every one or two weeks with the latest changes.”

He says that cranking out more betas at a faster pace made development smoother and allowed for more feedback from Mozilla’s community of over 600,000 beta testers.

Conclusion

Firefox 3.6 is not the radical overhaul that Firefox 3.5 offered, but the latest version is a worthy upgrade nonetheless. The welcome speed improvements combined with the UI changes and expanded HTML5 support make Firefox 3.6 a must-have upgrade.

We’re already looking forward to the next version of Firefox, tentatively listed as Firefox 3.7, which, with any luck will bring isolated tabs for application crashes (a la Google Chrome), integration of the Ubiquity add-on into the Awesome bar and of course, even more enhancements for HTML 5.

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