New Google Calender feature: sync with Microsoft Outlook

Just now when I was creating an event in my Google Calender (GCal) I happened to notice that Google is offering a synchronization service between GCal and MS Outlook.

Aside from this topic itself, I would have to say that Google does have some unique style of “announcing” new features. I don’t know about the situation of technology-savvy people who subscribe to Google’s announcement, but for me I don’t hear rumors, I don’t see official news, I don’t receive email notifications – the advent of a new feature is displayed merely in bold red font in the top toolbar of Google sites, and believe me there is a pretty good chance that it would be overlooked. So it is highly likely to lead to “Hmm, since when did Google begin to have this?” when you are just performing your regular routines with any Google service.

Now back to the new feature GCal offers: 2-way syncing with Microsoft Outlook. Isn’t that great? Previously we were only able to subscribe the GCal’s (assuming multiple calenders serving difference purposes) in Outlook to view them. Event editing had to be done on the server side, but now you can create and edit whichever side you want. On top of that, it is a free service.

That suddenly reminded me that I paid $65 for Spanning Sync for my Mac, which essentially (and only) performs 2-way syncing between GCal and iCal. It is simple but it does its job very well and the customer service has been very responsive. Yet truth to be told, I think $65 is a little bit too expensive for this feature. There is also a subscription option available for $25 a year, but I am just no subscription guy (part of the reason I didn’t buy .mac).

Anyway, since Google released Outlook syncing service. It could indicate that a free iCal syncing service is also in the future plan, which means I might have wasted my bucks.

Not so fast. I downloaded and installed Google Calendar Sync as instructed, but found that only my primary calender in GCal got its way to Outlook. Not surprisingly, I found this when I checked again the Getting Started page:

Keep in mind that it’s not possible to sync events on secondary calendars at this time. Google Calendar Sync will only sync events from your primary Google Calendar and your default Microsoft Outlook calendar.

Hence great new feature for one-calender-for-all users! Good news for multi-calender users because now you know at least Google is working on this 2-way syncing issue. Users who purchased Spanning Sync or BusySync (latest beta added support for 2-way syncing between iCal and GCal, for a cheaper price than Spanning Sync), let’s hope Google does not have support for iCal in the development plan.

Google OS: the omega phase of Google’s monopoly?

A Personal Conjecture

OK, I admit that it is no news since I failed to realize that gOS already entered the stage. But the way I envisioned it, Google is going to introduce their full-fledged web-based operating system sooner or later, or maybe officially sponsor gOS. In fact, it has already been promoting the mobile platform for handheld devices. Think about it, internet access is so ubiquitous that I am willing to bet that most of you cannot stand a computer without internet access. Furthermore the mundane tasks you can possibly do on a regular OS you can possibly do them online. Taking into consideration that Google which offers such unified experience of all these applications is already in a dominating position among its peers, the prediction of its monopoly is not far-fetched. Let’s take a look at what it might take to actually deploy the Google OS (most of which you might have already seen in gOS, yet it is still immature and far from state-of-the-art), when we are under the assumption that connection speed is not a concern.

Hardware Requirement

Google OS will probably require pretty much the same as other operating systems except that internet connection is mandatory. But the specification could be significantly lower.

Software Deployment

Rather than DVDs, possibly one CD is enough for Google OS and drivers since Google OS is based on a browser. Additional applications can be installed along the way.

Access Control

Hopefully it will be as simple as your normal Windows XP or OS X account plus “@gmail.com”. Forget “@google.com”, it is for Google employees exclusively.

Mundane Tasks

Google Docs already provide Office alternatives. Gmail, Google Calendar, and a not-so-full-blown To Do gadget serve to replace Outlook. For IM, Google Talk is the way to go and there are also plenty of web-based IM clients. To view PDFs, a browser plug-in is sufficient. Control Panel or System Preference? How does “Google Control Center” sound?

Entertainment

Songs and videos can be organized and played in a YouTube like fashion. Graphic-intensive games can be a problem though.

Multi-Window View

I have been looking for a dual-pane view plug-in for Firefox so if you know any please let me know. In the future you can probably drag tabbed web pages around just like what you do in regular windows-based systems. Worst case scenario is having multiple instances of the browser.

Development

There is already web based SSH client and hopefully a fully functional web based IDE will come out eventually.

Anti-Virus & Anti-Spyware

This will be worried by Google. Since pretty much everything is on the server side.

Backup Scheme

On regular operating systems you work on local data and backup to remote server/drive, while on Google OS you work on server data and backup to local drive.

There you have it, Google OS! There are might be a myriad of possibilities of implementation but they don’t really matter that much, the only question is when.

Intel trip

The opportunity came unexpectedly, I really need to thank Dr. K on this since it was my first business trip ever. After we landed in San Jose, I (and possibly Dat) was like an excited child and couldn’t calm myself when the SUV came across many big names, i.e. Yahoo, Sun, and Intel, along the highway. Although sounds a bit silly, I really didn’t realize until then that I was actually in the Silicon Valley – the mecca of technologies. Looking around with admiration, I kept imagining how great it would be to work here when I graduate.

The meeting with Intel was on the next day. As Dr. K indicated, I had mixed feelings about this trip as well. We were exposed to some of the frontier research that Intel has been focusing on. Nonetheless, it is obviously not an easy task to ask for someone else’s latest inventions. Another soothing fact was that the working condition there cannot compare with what we have in our lab, where everyone has a dual-monitor workstation.

Intel Trip

Introducing the MacBook Air

MacBook Air Close Lid Front

MacBook Air Display

MacBook Air Keyboard

Steve Jobs unveiled the ultra thin laptop that has been rumored since (or as early as) last July, and it has a nice name: MacBook Air. What an amazing coincidence (if you noticed my blog name)! Anyway, let’s take a look at its specifications first.

– Height: 0.16-0.76 inch (0.4-1.94 cm)

– Weight: 3.0 lbs (1.36 kg)

– Price: $ 1,799/3,098

– 1.6/1.8 GHz Core 2 Duo

– 2GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM onboard

– 80GB 4200-rpm PATA hard disk drive/64GB solid-state drive

– Intel GMA X3100 graphics processor

– 13.3-inch glossy screen

– Optional external USB MacBook Air SuperDrive ($99)

– Optional Apple USB Ethernet Adaptor ($29)

– Trackpad with multi-touch gesture support

– 802.11n & Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR

– 1 Micro-DVI

– 1 USB 2.0 port

– 1 Audio out (analog)

– Built-in mono speaker and omnidirectional microphone

– 5 hours wireless productivity (built-in battery is also not user accessible)

It indeed took Apple quite a lot effort to squeeze so much content into an envelope-size laptop, pushing the limit to the extreme. One of the biggest steps toward achieving the ultra slimness is the 60% smaller CPU. Giving up the optical drive is also a common practice to reduce both height and weight. The elimination of ethernet port was a surprise at first, but became reasonable when I realized that the port alone is of certain height and wireless access is much more ubiquitous now. Furthermore, having an iPhone more or less has led me to appreciate the joy among the fingertips. Simply put, the design of MacBook Air is so gorgeous that I wouldn’t want to take my hands off if I ever touch one.

But as the name implies, it is not for the pros (as in MacBook Pro). It is suitable only for those who are rich and like to show off, those who travel a lot, and last but not least, girls. First of all, I think Apple made 1.8-inch 4200-rpm hard drive as a standard option because it needs a relatively cheaper solution. Portability, performance and price, you always have to give up one of them. I have a ThinkPad X41 and a couple of my friends use X40, the 1.8-inch hard drives were giving us horrendous experience. However, I am curious to see how they perform under OS X because I am willing to believe that there are noticeable improvement but the problem is how much. Solid-state drives, although extremely fast, give the MacBook Air a whopping price tag. Note that the RAM is soldered to the motherboard so there is no space for an upgrade. Another annoying fact is that it only provides one USB port. Perhaps Apple is so confident with the trackpad that a mouse is considered unnecessary, or perhaps it is encouraging the use of Bluetooth mouse, or is it just me not getting enough USB ports? Also, analog audio out and mono speaker (comparing with the optical digital output and stereo speakers on both MacBook and MacBook Pros) may be simply the compromise to meet the design requirement, which is solely portability. Thus, if you are a serious programmer/designer, do not buy the MBA. Nonetheless if you do have (a lot) money to spare, getting one for your girlfriend or yourself is not a bad idea.

One more thing to mention, Jobs’ claim of the MBA being “the world’s thinnest notebook” is in fact arguable. I saw some post mentioning Sony VAIO X505 to be thinner than the MBA, but found out that it is really hard to tell after re-examine the specs of X505 (0.3-0.75 inch). It (1.85 lbs) is however, lighter than the MBA regardless of the difference in screen size (10.4 versus 13.3).

Jobs also announced 1.1.3 firmware upgrade for the iPhone in his keynote. I had the plan to update until I came across some early adopters’ posts reporting various problems and errors. iPhone owners shall be patient and wait for official solutions.

Big bang for official iPhone waitors in China

Since China Mobile has terminated discussions with Apple to bring the iPhone to China, the remaining possible choice of carrier for iPhone waitors in China is only China Unicom. However, due to the popularity of China Mobile I would speculate that most of these iPhone fanboys will be forced to make a decision on whether they should switch mobile carrier. And that is already under the assumption that China Unicom seals the deal with Apple.

Unfortunately, I doubt if China Unicom can even benefit from adopting the iPhone. One reason is the fact that there are already tons of unlocked/hacked iPhones out there, and why would people bother to buy a contract-binding one from a minor carrier. China Mobile has probably already calculated the money they can possibly make out of the iPhone and as a result it cannot accept Apple’s offer based on the fee sharing agreement. Moreover, the refusal would possibly aggravate the situation of purchasing and using hacked iPhones. Thus China Unicom cannot and should not rely on the iPhone to raise its marketshare. While I am curious to see its reaction toward this piece of news, I also feel pity for those who are waiting for iPhone’s official release in China.

Are computer retail stores really dying?

I couldn’t help having different thoughts after reading Dat’s latest blog post on computer retail stores. Due to the recent announcement of winding down retail operation by CompUSA, and the fact that most retail stores cannot compete with their online rivals on low prices of electronic products, he cited Apple retail stores as an exception and concluded that the retail stores are dying.

First of all, Apple stores are indeed doing a very good job on retailing by their showcase-like design. However, they should not be compared with stores like Best Buy and Circuit City taking into account the size and diversity of products. I also think that’s part of the reason why OS X appears to outstand Windows in performance. Because of the exclusiveness of the OS, Mac OS designers probably know every aspect of the hardware they are dealing with, whereas Windows has everything but hardware. Thus Microsoft probably spend far more manpower to strike a balance between compatibility and performance. It is no longer (or never) plausible to use “OS X runs faster than Windows” as an excuse of buying a Mac, you’d better state your affection explicitly “I just like their designs”.

A little off the topic, all I wanted to say is you cannot expect computer retailers to be more like Apple. They simply have too much to worry about. In his blog, Dat also writes:

Retail store as its current model offers no more than instant gratification of overpriced product fed by staff who know little more than the normal customers. For a professional who knows what he is talking about, CompUSA (and Bestbuy, Circuitcity, …) offers little to no value.

As a matter of fact, I am the kind of guy who appreciates instant satisfaction and makes impulsive purchases. Sometimes I just can’t wait for a week or even 3 days to get my hands on the goodies I buy. Moreover, I believe there are people who couldn’t care less about the price and don’t want to hassle with deal searching and mail-in rebates.

The sales staff may only know a little more than normal customers, but that is already enough. Customers who have little knowledge about computers probably don’t care and don’t want to know about the details. Another piece of truth is, people who know computers don’t need technical assistance in retail stores. They are more likely to have done a thorough research on the product they want to purchase before leaving home. Guess the ratio of computer laymen and professionals and think why hire a Ph. D. when a Master is already sufficient?

Retail stores are already evolving by having an online counterpart. In-store pickup is an awesome feature that pure online merchants cannot provide, and it is inherently easier to return merchandise in retail stores. Furthermore, when sales event takes place they offer very competitive prices. The shutdown of CompUSA is merely a bad retailing example, it does not serve to imply the depression of retail stores.

More complaints on iPhone

Here I come once again to fire some complaints toward iPhone. Don’t get me wrong though, it is still a very nice toy to play with. So despite of numerous feature requests that are already out there, let me come up my own wish list based on one month of regular usage. Correct me if I am wrong, i.e. cases where features/functions already exist it is just me being dumb.

The synchronization mechanism of iPhone defeats the whole purpose of synchronizing, it should have a more appropriate name “backup” since you can only sync the iPhone with one single computer. To make it even worse, the sync process can only be achieved through iTunes via USB connection, although bluetooth syncing for calenders and contacts while Wi-Fi syncing for iTunes libraries could sound much smarter. Also, why doesn’t it sync notes? What about To-Do list?

And what is wrong with Mail on iPhone? Do I have to actually go through each of the new mails to have them automatically marked as read? Yes it wouldn’t be a problem if you check emails often so every time there would be only a few, but one of those days when you have to go through 20+ emails just to mark them as read (probably you have already read them online) I guarantee you annoyance.

The ability to open common attachments is great. Unfortunately, you cannot save any of them, not even an image. It is natural to have such need as saving images from email attachments and web pages to your picture library. Lacking this capability, iPhone’s fancy photo viewer which takes advantage of its multi-touch screen is almost meaningless. Viewing those images that already exist on the computer? I don’t think so. Neither would I enjoy browsing photos taken by the built-in camera.

Now that the photo viewer is mentioned, iTunes seems to introduce unwanted compression to the image before uploading it to the iPhone if its resolution is larger than iPhone’s native resolution (320 by 480 at 160 PPI). This, let’s call it “feature” for now, might be intended but is not mentioned anywhere whatsoever and hence there is no way to disable it.  The consequence is when you enlarge the image it becomes blurry. It is more evident when you compare the same image opened in Safari.

There was a rumor saying that firmware 1.1.3 is coming, which will finally bring us the disk mode we have been longing for. Yet the update is still nowhere to be seen and the content was not substantiated by any credible source. Come on, Apple! Why can’t we just drag-n-drop stuff we want and then browse-n-play? Having to create a playlist for syncing songs and videos is just lame.

One last thing I can think of today is why do I have to push a single physical button, a.k.a. the Home button, every time I need to navigate among applications? On top of that are intuitive presses for unlocking the phone. I have already begun to consider how much I would have to pay to have this button repaired or should I not bother to get AppleCare for my iPhone.

I am also looking forward to the iPhone SDK which is expected to be released in February. Well, actually the most intriguing part now is how many restrictions Steve Jobs will impose on top of it.