Thursday, November 20, 2008

Your own private Google

Earlier this evening, Google unleashed SearchWiki, a feature allowing you to edit and annotate Google search results. The kicker? They’ve added the feature to their flagship product: Google. It’s not in beta. It’s not a lab feature. It’s not part of Google Notebook, and it doesn’t require a Firefox plug-in. As long as you’re signed in under your Google ID, you’ll see it whenever you search for something on Google. This video does a great job explaining the feature, so I won’t bother repeating it.

This is pretty fascinating, and I’ve got a couple of thoughts. First, if you’re the type of person who thinks bookmarking is useless because Google gets you there faster and easier than any other option, well, this announcement bolsters your argument. For example, type in “sports.” ESPN comes up first, but you don’t like that. You’d rather see Fox come up first. Press the arrow to promote Fox to the top. Done.

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But what if you want to see Football Outsiders and King Kaufman’s Salon column on this list? Just add them using the “add search result” feature at the bottom of the page. You might rarely use Google for simple, generic keyword searches like “recipes” or “weather”, but with SearchWiki, those same keywords can now be used to map your most visited sites.

imageThe other obvious use is for searches you might regularly perform, but which are frequently updated with new results. A vanity search is a great example.

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Come on. It would have been boring if I used my own name.

I’ll be interested to see how often I use SearchWiki. I certainly use Google a lot, but I don’t frequently run the same searches or run into the same results. I’m skeptical as to whether Google’s latest innovation will prove all that useful. On the other hand, it’s difficult to predict how useful a new feature will be. I’ve never used anything like it. In a few weeks, SearchWiki might be solving problems I didn’t know I had.

Finally, I should say that I’m impressed with how polished the new feature is at launch. Google has managed to add some extraordinary new features without changing the basic layout or aesthetics of their flagship product. And the icons make the functions refreshingly clear.

Nice job, Google. 

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Endnote’s suit against Zotero headed to a courtroom

ArsTechnica provides an overview of the legal conflict between EndNote (the leading all-in-one academic research software) and its open-source competitor Zotero. I use Zotero for work, and I recently offered an enthusiastic endorsement of the Firefox add-on, which is still in beta. I’d be misleading you if I offered any insight on the nature of Endnote’s reverse engineering claims against Zotero. I’m not an intellectual property expert (or an expert on much at all :). But I do think the lawsuit opens an intriguing new front in the war between commercial and open source software (via Ars):

Zotero is an open source project led by a pair of academics, Dan Cohen and Sean Takats, at George Mason University's Center for History and New Media. Zotero is a plugin for the Firefox browser, and therefore cross-platform, and also has the advantage of being free. It also includes functionality similar to the Mac OS X application Papers, in that it manages PDF libraries, as well as offering users a way to insert references into a document.

The lawsuit, brought by Thomson Reuters against George Mason University and the Comptroller of Virginia, alleges that GMU is in contravention of their EndNote license with their newest version of Zotero, thanks to Zotero having allegedly reverse-engineered the file format that EndNote uses for citation styles in order to offer a similar functionality in Zotero. Thomson Reuters claims that GMU is causing "irreparable harm" to its brand, and is seeking to prevent GMU from distributing the offending application, as well as significant financial damages.

GMU denies this claim, insisting that, although Zotero can read EndNote's .ens files, the application does not convert that data to Zotero's .csl format. GMU has decided not to renew its site license for EndNote, and has re-released the controversial Zotero 1.5 Sync Preview.

Outside of Endnote’s claims against Zotero, I don’t think the extension is all that controversial. As I said in my earlier review, I think the software is an outstanding notemarking tool, even if you don’t ever use the whiz-bang academic features or import your research from Endnote. Indeed, it’s Zotero’s very powerful feature set and very free price that will continue to disrupt the market for expensive commercial options like Endnote.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Delicious Bookmarks add-on closer to syncing with Firefox?

A new beta version of the Delicious Bookmarks Firefox add-on uses SQLite to store your bookmarks locally instead of RDF. In a post on the Delicious Bookmarks group, product manager Jared Elson said the switch would result in some serious improvements:

1. Extension should be much more stable and usable for users with
large accounts
2. After the initial conversion of your existing RDF file to SQLite
syncing will be faster and more reliable
3. Corruption experienced in previous versions of the extension with
RDF should be a thing of the past

But I wonder whether the SQLite conversion might also help the Delicious team make good on its promise to enable some form of syncing with Firefox’s native bookmarking and history system, Places. You see, Firefox 3 also switched to SQLite as its internal bookmark database.

I’ll be honest, I’m not sure what advantages a SQLite database has over an RDF, nor am I sure whether Delicious and Firefox using the same storage framework will actually aid their synchronization efforts. So the question in the post title is genuine. Could this alignment in storage methods mean Delicious-Firefox syncing is closer to becoming a reality?

I hope so.

For now, I’ve been using the beta version on two machines for more than a week, and I’ve noticed the performance improvements are real. The bugs seem to be gone, and the add-on is finally handling my favicons properly. You can download the beta if you click here.