Monday, 28 July 2008

Gaelic knowledge and a mini Opera

As anyone who reads this (he says optimistically) will have noticed, I wasn't here to link to the usual selection of procrastination fodder last Friday. Rather than just bring it forward to Monday, though, I thought it might be time, instead, for things of a more practical lifehacking-ish bent to make an occasional return to the blog. I suppose it had to happen eventually...

Well, here goes:

An essential mobile phone download

Opera Mini 4.1

Essential at least for those who have a mobile with internet access but a useless default browser (anyone - like me - with a Sony Ericsson K850i, for instance).

You see, this marvellous little browser actually bothers to take full account of all the little things that make the internet on a mobile phone not nearly as good an idea as it sounds, finding ways not only to overcome them but also to take advantage of being run on a mobile phone, making this, for many phone owners, as close as you'll get to a smooth and enjoyable mobile internet experience without just giving up and buying something else.

Obviously, the small screen will always be to some extent a hindrance for anyone browsing the net on a phone, but Opera Mini has a good go at minimising the problem. Literally so, in that Opera's servers compress and pre-process pages before sending them to you, so that a) you use less of your data allowance, b) browsing is much faster, and c) they're in a format that's easier to read on your mobile, even when they're from a site that doesn't automatically support mobile browsers. And if you want to navigate the full-size page you'd get on your PC instead, you can do - almost as easily as if you had a mouse. Simply select and zoom into page sections containing what you want and the browser will snap the window to the text or photo selected, letting you read it without having to keep scrolling side-to-side as well as up and down.

For that matter, if it's a page you'd find easier to view in landscape, simply press * twice. Full-screen is an equally quick button press away, too.

In fact, there are a whole load of keypad shortcuts to give you all the features of a regular browser, even the ability to download webpages. But the best is Speed Dial: nine of your favourite bookmarks available simply by pressing * followed by the corresponding number. Or you can access the rest of your bookmarks by pressing #2.

A fews other things of note:

- If you're using Opera as your PC or Mac browser you can sync those bookmarks with your Opera Mini bookmarks.

- When you click 'Back' it doesn't reload the page, as even some PC/Mac browsers do, it simply goes straight back to it, instantly - both gratifyingly quick and an efficient usage of your data allowance.

- Search fields on any website can be made into shortcuts. In other words, rather than waste data allowance loading the homepages of sites like Amazon or eBay, you can just type something in the browser's search box, select which site to search, and skip straight to the results.

- If your phone allows, you can upload and download files from within Opera, rather than having to use your phone's native browser.

The latest competitor to Google

Cuil, "the world's biggest search engine", launched earlier today.

First things first, the name's awful.

No-one's going to know how to pronounce it - 'coil'? 'quill'? 'kwee'? - which surely won't be too helpful on the memorability or word-of-mouth fronts, or in its becoming a ubiquitously used verb, like a certain other search engine I could mention - Google is at least satisfying to say, too, sort of pleasingly chunky and slightly comical. And even now that I know (thanks to Google) that the correct pronunciation is 'cool', and that it's Gaelic for 'knowledge', I'm still not convinced that anyone's going to want to say that they 'cuiled' a particular subject, or that people are really going to take all that kindly to the implicit and presumptuous attempt at associating the site, homonymically at least, with the word cool itself.

Still, I am mentioning the site for a reason: if Cuil really is the world's biggest search engine, as its creators claim, then, perhaps, even the name they've chosen to tether it to might not hold it back?

Well, as you'd expect, Google dispute the "world's biggest" claim (Google purposely ignores a lot of duplicate content, they say) and further cite greater relevance and quality to their results. Based on a few random searches, well, I'd have to say they might be right about the relevance and quality. However, it's still very early days. And I guess what will utlimately determine the success - or otherwise - of Cuil will be the things it does differently to Google, and whether people find them compelling enough to keep returning. The major differences?

Firstly, Cuil have noted people's conerns about what Google (and - especially following the YouTube/Viacom case - any other site) does with your search history and have promised that it will remain private.

Next, you'll find the results presented in three columns (or two, if you so choose) with - not always especially relevant - pictures. Whether this is a good thing I'm not sure: it might help people see beyond what's been SEO-ed to the top of the search rankings; but on the other hand, it will take more than a glance to spot which is the most relevant result.

The most interesting difference, for me, though, is the widget (sometimes) to be found in the third column offering searches in different related categories. With good quality results, I could see this being potentially quite useful, throwing up associations that you might not have previously known about or expected: other bands that you might like, for instance; obscure films a favourite actor has been in; or online magazine pieces by a favourite author. The search box too seems to take account of your last search: the next time you enter anything it offers related auto-complete suggestions. There's perhaps, therefore, more scope with Cuil for random discovery.

A final point: the people behind Cuil have worked for Google (and other search engines); one has also previously produced a search product bought by Google to incorporate into and improve its own search engine. So while Cuil might not be quite the finished product yet, if you're not happy with Google's search results, it might well be worth keeping an eye on.

One problem (for Cuil, at least): with Gmail, GoogleAds, Blogger, etc. all tied in with its search engine, is it even the search results quality that keeps people coming back to Google?


Sean McManus said...

Cuil has been getting a lot of press coverage but as far as I can see, it simply doesn't work. I wish journalists would actually do a bit of research once in a while instead of just believing what the PR machine says.

The screen layout is nice, but the thumbnails bear no relation to the URL and summary they're next to, so they're a hindrance from a usability point of view - you click on a book cover, and it takes you to something completely unrelated, for example. In some cases, you get the biog of one person and a picture of a completely different person from a different site. Sometimes, you get a description of one album, next to a photo of a different album by a different artist in a different genre.

Also, it returns a lot of foreign language results where Google is able to find matching English language results for the first screenful. That makes it a lot less useful.

Tim Warren said...

Completely agree with you, Sean. My first couple of searches weren't too bad - the main Nick Cave sites, for instance came up; accompanied by a few useless ones - but I've tried Cuil a few more times since writing and it's been awful: lots of spammy sites on the first page of results, or a band's homepage (which would normally head Google's results) not even being on the second page. Cuil might index more pages than Google, but it really doesn't seem to know what to do with them yet...

Still, I do quite like that related searches widget. Seems sort of promising - well, assuming they get the results sorted out, of course. And that the site hasn't been forgotten about or completely written off by most people by that point.