Goog-411 Hanging Up

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I’m sad to see that goog-411 is shutting down on November 12, 2010. If you haven’t used it, goog-411 is a service you could dial with an 800 number (1-800-GOOG-411) to access a speech recognition system that would help you find businesses in any city and state in the US. I used it frequently on the road, to find places to eat in cities that were coming up on the map. The service was impressively accurate, simple to use, and could be used from *any* phone in the country, generally for free.

Now that I’m an Android user, I confess that Google Maps has just about wiped out the need for GOOG-411. But: I feel sad for all the non-Android folk in the country. What are they going to do now that Google is “putting all of our resources into speech-enabling the next generation of Google products and services across a multitude of languages”? Will their be tools for the non-smart phone generation?

In addition to being sad on its own merits, the shuttering of GOOG-411 is an important reminder that not all useful services can find a way to be paid for. I’m sure that part of the problem for GOOG-411 was that Google could not figure out a way to put ads onto the service without annoying its users. That’s a difficult balance; and one that I’m sad Google could not manage for its excellent goog-411 service.

John

Google TV: Finally a device that recognizes that TV is just a way of consuming content

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The Read/Write Web story on why Google TV might be a game changer (http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/google_tv_will_change_the_way_people_live_their_li.php)
does a nice job of explaining the many advantages of a television device that lets you display all of the content you have permission to display on one device. It has been an amazingly slow path to get here: producers of television content are on the one hand doing deals to get their content onto the Internet, while on the other hand working to prevent people from displaying that Internet content on their televisions! This is a crazy world! We should be focused on creating fair ways to compensate the people who create content, and then working on making the consumption of that content as free as possible. There are thousands of ways to consume a television show — most of them not invented yet — only one of which starts with the show coming over the air, down and antenna, and being displayed on a television device in real-time. I, for one, am very excited to see the Google TV, and to see how much it opens the television platform.

John

Talk to Me — in German!

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A wonderful innovation in the study of foreign languages is the use of the Internet to connect learners to native speakers. In some cases the learners write text that is commented on by the native speakers, while in other cases the two can talk with each other, such as in the Skype foreign language forums. These services provide a wonderful way for people to learn the truly important parts of a language: how to communicate with someone else from a different place and with a different background. Too often language skill acquisition is about formalisms and structure, rather than about communication.

An even more innovative way of learning language may be the ideas that Luis von Ahn is exploring in yet another one of his creative games. He is developing tools that allow native speakers of one language to help translate texts from another language that they do not know. The idea is that the tools will show the native speaker how to translate individual words, and the speaker will then fashion the result into idiomatically correct language in his or her native tongue. It is too early to know how well this will work, or if it does work whether the native speaker will actually be learning the other tongue or just volunteering his time in a useful way. In either case, the idea is fresh and interesting and I look forward to seeing how it works in practice.

Net Neutrality and Innovation

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This story in the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/05/technology/05secret.html?_r=2) discusses negotiations going on between google and verizon so that google services can get special access to Verizon’s data network. These sorts of agreements are a serious threat to competition on the Internet. The problem is that only large established players are going to be able to afford to pay for the enhanced service. Startup companies will be unable to get fast access to their services for consumers who might otherwise be interested.

The growth of the Internet is threatened if innovation can be stifled by these sorts of pair wise agreements. In order to encourage freedom and innovation we need to find a way to regulate the types of agreements that can be formed, and to ensure that others have access to the same levels of service quality. These principles are important, and they require regulation in order to create and maintain a fair and competitive marketplace of ideas.

Groundhog Day, Usability Testing, and Creativity

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There’s a lovely article about the movie GroundHog Day. The article talks about a lot of issues in the movie, but ends with the wonderful quote:

A/B testing is like sandpaper. You can use it to smooth out details, but you can’t actually create anything with it.

This thought reminds me of Don Norman’s comment that one of the risks for the field of CHI is that we become so focused on analysis that we never actually create anything new.

John