If Google came up with an RSS Reader

What would it be like if Google came up with an RSS Reader?

* It would first buy the domain “greader” or something similar.
* It would have an index of more than 8 million different feeds.
* It would offer 1 GB space for storing posts.
* It would have an excellent search feature for searching posts.
* The interface would be simple, but at the same time powerful.
* We would be able to mail any post just at the click of a button.
* It would allow us to filter posts and also label them for future reference.
* It would also allow us to make blog entries (of course the service would be integrated with Blogger.)
* It would integrate greader with other offerings like mail, groups etc.

And finally one thing…

Guess what?

Ya, you guessed it right.

It would be Beta forever. 🙂

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The need for Integrated Work Environments

This is in connection with my previous blog entry. The reason why I use Yahoo tools is that all tools are available in one place. I can access my mail, address book, RSS feeds, notes, bookmarks, photos etc.

But when I saw Newsgator, it made me think again. Is it a good solution? True, many of these features are not used in a professional environment (you would probably be using some groupware like LotusNotes), but the point worth noting is that a single provider approach is usually not feasible.

But then it would mean, using multiple providers, each with a different user id, a different password. No wonder I have made a note, which reminds me which id's I have created online!

Now, how about a solution where you are able to make all these User_id and password entries in one place and then let the software take over? You get all the data in one place, although the data is coming from different providers. You are able to customize the front-end to suit your tastes.

Well, that is what an Integrated Work Environment is all about (according to me). You tell it what you want, where to get it from and how you want it to be displayed and it does it for you. Got the idea?

Does such a solution exist? I don't think so. Let me know if there is one.

For those of you who have started RSSing

I have been using RSS for the last 4 months or so, and I have faced some problems with the way I use it (I use My Yahoo and now My MSN as well. Don't ask me, “Why 2?”. Techies always like having more than one for some unidentified reason. For this reason, they usually have a dozen email ids. 🙂 Anyway, let's continue…)

* My Yahoo just displays a summary of the RSS feed at the maximum. So if I need to read the entire feed then I have no choice but to actually go that site and find out. I think mentioned this sometime back.
* I cannot distinguish between RSS feeds that I have already read and the ones that I haven't.
* I cannot save a feed for future use.
* I cannot email a particular entry to someone else. (I can only tell them the feed link.)
* The entries are refreshed everyday (I have customized My Yahoo to display atmost 5 entries and a short summary for each). So what if I need to see the last 2 days' entries?

Well, apparently the problem is not with RSS but with the way I have been using it. My Yahoo and My MSN provide RSS support, but apparently they are more concerned with integration of various services that they provide (mail, address book, etc). Atleast, this is true with My Yahoo.

I found a better solution yesterday. I was on the lookout for a reader specializing in RSS, that is able to satisfy my requirements.

And I entered “online rss reader” and I got a million (I don't know exactly how many) sites. Newsgator won the race. A quick registration and I was done. It has the following features:

* Easy and quick registration (not like MSN 🙂 )
* Quick feed adds.
* Import feeds (using some new format OPML. Haven't heard of it before.)
* Store feeds in separate directories.
* Distinguish read and unread entries.
* Pretty neat interface.
* Store entries, mail them to friends etc…

To summarize, it looks somewhat like a mailbox with all unread mails (I mean feed entries :P) in bold and all feeds displayed in a separate column to the left. And ya, you don't have spam here!

One interesting feature I saw was that it was able to display some images as well! I am not quite sure how this is supported in RSS. Gotta find out. Anyone out there who knows?

Effects of computer aided decision making

A quick thought: Tell me what is

19 X 18

Are you able to calculate this without using paper? Probably you can, but I cannot. I remember having mugged up the tables when I was in my high-school. But soon we got to use Clarke tables. And then came the age of digital electronics with calculators hampering our math abilities. And soon came a time when we forgot what 6 X 2 is!

If calculators (with their limited use) can have such an impact on our lives, then can you imagine the influence AI and other related tools can have on us?

I remember having once read that Microsoft Word's auto-spelling correction utility has been hampering the spelling abilities of many, because Word is able to make automatic corrections to common spelling errors.

(Well, this thought came to my mind when I was reading Computer Ethics and I was convinced that computers can indeed raise many ethical issues!)

A blog entry 50 years from now

Once upon a time during the beginning of this century man came up with a concept called blogs to convey his ideas and experiences. This concept survived for about 10 years. Now it is no more.
(This blog entry would never make it, for, in my opinion, 50 years from now, there would be nothing called blogs :))

I don't mean to say it would stop, but it would surely be replaced by something much better or there would never be a need for it and so would actually stop.

A query language for searching websites

It does seem stale that you just write a set of words to query for a particular piece of information. For example, consider a query such as:

“Were there any video releases in the last one week that had XYZ(say an actor) as the lead role?”

Suppose we want to query this on normal search engines (what are abnormal search engines?!), we would probably write (disregarding useless advanced search options):

Search: “video release” XYZ -some-date-

Can we make it more specific? Probably we can, but the point is that there is no relationship between “video release” and XYZ whatsoever.

What could be a better query? How about using SQL-like queries to make our searches more specific?

It is possible and that is what semantic web, ontologies and a whole bag of technologies deal with. I am surely not going into the depths with these terminologies in this blog entry, but would like to hint on what modern searches could be like.

While modern English language interpretation would probably take a while to develop (we as SE's know the problem inherent in natural languages right?), it would surely be possible to develop a search engine which would be able to perform SQL-like queries.

For ex, it might be possible to put forth a query such as:

ALL(dom(video)) WHERE (video.leadrole=XYZ AND video.releasedate< -some-date- AND video.releaselocation=INDIA AND !video.actor=ABC) While whatever I have written above is directly off my mind (without any analysis whatsoever), it makes perfect sense right? It would mean: "Get me all the video releases which have XYZ as lead role and the release date is less than -some-date- and the release location is INDIA and it does not have ABC as an actor in it." The result? It might vary. While search engines might show a list of relevant sites as they do now, they could also take us directly to some particular relevant site as in "I am feeling lucky" of Google. (Then there would be more lucky people around 🙂 ) How's that? Amuzed? I surely am. And what's this going to use in the backend? XML of course. In fact there is an ontology language by name OWL, which is based on RDF, which is based on XML! And finally an update on the new search/RSS tools: A ticker from Yahoo – This ticker is able to present all the news feeds in box in your taskbar. So there is no need to view the RSS feeds in browsers. It is also able to show you the feeds present in your My-Yahoo page. Just let it tick…

I also hit upon another search engine called Mooter, which arranges the search results in clusters. Worth giving a try.

Eurekster – a group search engine, which learns from previously made queries.

And a last one in the list is, MyGoogleSearch, which is able to “guess” and extract keywords from a “similar” web-site. Not quite accurate, but worth giving a try.

Virtual reality – the next generation User-Interface

(This was something that myself, and wished would be developed soon. I had written this article long back and felt like publishing it as it is no use keeping it a secret!)

Here goes:

What is the first thing that comes to your mind, when you see the user interface that the current Operating Systems provide? Well, we feel it is stale. And that made us wonder what the next generation user-interface would be.

Why, a new type of user-interface?
People usually try to understand things by trying to relate it to things that they already know. The primary motivation behind our work is the inference that whatever current systems provide is not what the user exactly tries to relate to. The current systems provide a user-interface made of icons, buttons, textboxes and what not. But is it possible for us to relate this to the real world? The desktop of the Windows OS does not at all look like one (I mean a real desk's top). How can you compare it to the top of the desk in the real world? What is the equivalent of icons? Where is the “My Computer” icon on my desk-top? My desk-top contains books and a computer. It doesn't have any icons. Where is the drawer? I don't click on a start button, click on an icon and then start writing a letter. I just take out an empty sheet from the drawer and start writing.

This made us explore further. Does it make any sense to say that my files lie in F drive? What do you mean by F drive? I have to open a folder just to have a look at my album collection? Does anyone keep albums in folders? Does anyone keep books in folders? Does anyone keep photographs in folders? (I am talking of real life folders). Albums may be placed on a shelf. Books are kept in a closet or on the top of a table. Photographs are kept in albums. Not everything in a folder. Further I don't open a table to see what is on it. I get to see what is on the top of the table as soon as I enter the room. Then why do I need to open a folder just to see what it contains. The analogy holds well when we consider real world files and folders and make an assumption that every file is placed in a folder. But does it make sense when we say that everything in this world is a file (the UNIX approach)?

This is where the present user interface fails. There is no doubt why normal persons find it difficult to visualize the file system, the files/folder approach. Just imagine how difficult it is to remember where you have stored your songs. I have to remember the path to the folder where the songs are kept. Now, consider a real world. You know for sure that your records are lying in a cabinet and the record that you just played lies on the table which houses the music system.

It is to be remembered that the normal users, who might be first time computer users, are usually ignorant of the computer jargons used. So it would be very difficult for the user to relate the concept of drives and folders to real world entities. Further, it doesn't make much sense to tell the user that a program has performed an illegal operation and will be shut down. A user who doesn't even know what a program is will start to panic on the occurrence of such messages. (Of course it is a different issue that he will get used to it soon.:). Clearly the importance of autonomic computing becomes clear.

The alternative
Let us now try to find an alternative to the windowing approach used in the current user interfaces. Ideally this is what we feel should be the next generation user interface.

The interface that we intend to develop tries to map virtual entities that are used in systems to the real life entities. It is a 3D world, much like you see in some 3D game. You can see real world objects in front of you. You can choose to move from one location to another and manipulate objects that you see around. And this user-interface redefines the OS itself! (Or may be, some layer in the OS takes care of internal mapping to the existing OSs).

As soon as the operating system boots up, the user is at some place of his choice. It is a virtual world that he sees in his screen. He can choose to be sleeping on his bed, sitting in a chair in front of a (virtual) computer or he may choose to be playing in the sand in Goa!

The room is arranged in some way that the user wishes. The room may contain objects that the user intends to use. They are placed at exactly the same location where the user needs them. Each user is the owner of a virtual house. The house may contain rooms, the kitchen, the drawing room and anything that you can imagine to be in a real-world house. The user is free to move around in the house from one place to another much like in a normal house. He is able to manipulate objects placed in the house, move them around or just throw them into an automatic trash can.

Each person has an avatar. This avatar is visible to all the other people. Now consider the situation when your friend calls up. You actually hear some phone ringing in your virtual system. You then move from your current place to the place where the phone is kept and answer the phone. (In case you see that you are too far away from the phone and you intend to move there immediately, you may use teleportation. Anything is possible in a virtual world!) Now suppose you want to chat with someone. You go to his house and knock the door. Your friend answers. You are taken to his drawing room and you exclaim, “Boy, have you designed it beautifully!”. You then ask him to show around his house. He then takes you to his hall and you follow him. You cannot pick up anything unless your friend allows you to do so. But since he is a friend of yours, he trusts you and you are allowed to manipulate anything, without requiring his consent. You are surprised by the number of gadgets that he has in his hall. You can see music players, the television, the DVD player, a cabinet full of rare Hindi film songs' collection, the telephone, among others. You ask him to play Kishore Kumar music and you like it. (Remember in the real world, you can actually listen to songs in your friend's house on your speakers!)

A final comment:
This article is half done. But I am seriously looking forward to see an interface like the one described. Until that new system comes (when I probably will be typing this blog in Virtual New-York), I will have to stick to my old PC interface :(.