Google just released version 17 of its popular Chrome browser. Given its rapid release schedule and its various beta and developer channels, there are no major surprises in this release. The new features in this update, however, are well worth the update. Besides the usual bug and security fixes, Chrome 17 introduces Google's download scanner to ensure the executable files you download aren't known malware or viruses. In addition, Google's browser now features smarter pre rendering when you are typing a URL into the omnibox. This update comes just one day after Google also launched Chrome for Android.
The prerendering works by trying to divine whether the URL you started to type is likely to be the one you will visit as well. Whenever Chrome is pretty sure that this is the case, it will start rendering the page before you even get to hit enter. Often, it will almost appear as if the page rendered instantly when you finally hit enter.
As Google noted when it introduced its download scanner to the beta channel in January, "malicious downloads are especially tricky to detect since they’re often posted on rapidly changing URLs and are even “re-packed” to fool anti-virus programs." To safeguard its users, Chrome checks every download against a known database of safe files and publishers. If a file isn't from a known source, it will try to figure out if the host is trustworthy or if the file is likely to be malware.
Ford today announced a major upgrade to its MyFord Touch user interface that allows drivers to control virtually all aspects of their cars infotainment system with the help of voice commands, a touchscreen and dedicated buttons on the dashboard. The earlier MyFord Touch system, which was available on a number of 2011 and 2012 model year cars, has a reputation for being overly complex and slow. The update the company announced today greatly simplifies the user experience and also offers a major performance boost, resulting in faster screen redraws and a more fluid user interface. Ford also enhanced compatibility with Bluetooth smartphones (which now offers iPad support as well), improved the voice recognition experience and upgraded the turn-by-turn navigation system.
The new system will make its debut on the 2013 Ford Escape, Flex and Taurus. Current owners will be happy to hear that Ford plans to send them a USB stick with the software upgrade by early next year. This upgrade will be free and installing it will be as easy as plugging the USB driver into the car and waiting for the install to finish.
I got a chance to test the new system out during a trip to Ford’s headquarter in Dearborn, MI last week (see disclosure below).
Driven to Distraction: MyFord Touch 1.0
With SYNC, Sync Applink and MyFord Touch, Ford was at the forefront of the auto industry to bring voice recognition, touch screens, apps and connectivity to its cars at a time when most of these features were only available in luxury cars. At the same time, though, while these new systems helped to drive sales, the company’s reputation has suffered somewhat over the last year or so as these advanced systems turned out to be somewhat too complex, distracting and cumbersome for many drivers.
Smarter User Interface
As Ford user interface design engineer Jennifer Brace told me last week, Ford conducted a number of user clinics with current MyFord Touch owners over the course of the last year and tried to address their main concerns with this update.
The new interface does away with most of the clutter that made the old one hard to use. While it keeps the same basic layout with four quadrants of the screen (Entertainment, Climate, Navigation and Phone), every single screen has been redesigned by Ford’s engineers to make using the system more intuitive. The whole system now features simpler graphics, larger fonts and just focuses on providing more glancable information to the driver without unnecessary distractions.
Other design upgrades include more obviously pressable buttons, a move towards a more standard icon set (think magnifying glasses for zooming in and out and a gear icon for changing your settings etc.), and more 3D landmarks in the maps app as well as easier to read street names.
Besides sprucing up the interface, Ford’s engineers also worked on making the whole experience faster while keeping the same hardware. Indeed, as Ford told me, the 2013 model year cars the updated system will make its debut on will actually feature the exact same hardware as the old models (partly in order to ensure compatibility for current owners). The speed updates – which are quite significant when you see the old and new software side-by-side – are solely based on optimizing the software.
The video blow explains the update and new features in more detail:
Disclosure: Ford provided this author with transportation to its Dearborn, MI headquarters, as well as lodging and meals.
A few months ago, Google launched a preview of a new look for Gmail that is more in line with the general redesign of all of Google’s products. Today, a Google employee mistakenly made a video demo of the other changes that are coming to Gmail available on YouTube (sounds like a familiar story?). That video has been set to private again now, but you can find a copy here and at the end of this post. Chances are, Google will make this update official very soon.
So what’s coming for Gmail? Besides making the current preview theme the default, Google will also roll out updates to its other themes. According to Google, the idea behind the new look is to “make it as clean, simple and intuitive” as possible.
The conversation view now also looks a bit more like the “preview pane” Gmail labs experiment the company introduced earlier this year. Among other things, the conversations view now features profile picture to, as Google says, to make your message threads more “like a conversation.”
Other updates include a redesigned advanced search menu. Instead of having to type in relatively arcane commands like “subject: Google,” the new search box gives you separate fields for searching for specific subjects and for emails from specific contacts and with certain keywords. You can also now create new filters right from the search box.
The whole site has been redesigned to fit better on any size of screen, too. The new default theme features a lot of white space that brings the information density of the default view down by quite a bit. For those who prefer to see more messages by default, Gmail will allow users to tweak these settings.
As of now, Google isn’t making it easy for developers to create apps that can write status updates to the service, but that didn’t stop Nadan Gergeo from building iSatus+, a little iPhone app ($0.99) that lets you post to Google+, Facebook and Twitter at the same time. I’m a big fan of simple apps that only do a few things, but do those right. iStatus+ is exactly that kind of app. You enter your account information for any of the networks you want to use – and if you are in the market for this kind of app, you’ll probably put in all three anyway – and start posting. It really couldn’t be any easier.
Given that Google+ isn’t actually giving developers the ability to post status updates directly yet, Gergeo had to hack his own way to do this, but it works perfectly fine. You can even choose which circles you want to post your updates to. Because of this, tough, you are currently also relegated to just posting text updates. The app doesn’t support any media uploads (yet).
As it also supports Twitter, the app is probably best suited for short updates under 140 characters, but you can easily exclude Twitter from longer updates by just tapping its icon above the keyboard.
One additional small caveats: the app doesn’t handle links very elegantly. On Google+, likely due to the nature of how it’s accessing the service, links won’t show up as snippets and there is no auto-shortening of Twitter links either (so they count as part of your 140-character limit).
Remember The Daily? The over-hyped and much-maligned iPad-only newspaper backed by media titan Rupert Murdoch? The first version of the paper’s iPad app was, to put it mildly, a disaster. There were not just major usability issues, but the app also crashed regularly and just felt half-baked.
Today, The Daily finally launched a new version of its app (iTunes link). Why it took the organization this long to fix the app isn’t quite clear. What I am sure about, though, is that if they had just launched with this version of the app instead of the original one, the majority of the original backlash could have been avoided.
A Real Table of Contents and Fewer Crashes
Indeed, this new app is actually quite good. Gone is the focus on the horrid carousel that was supposed to take the place of a more traditional table of contents. Instead, The Daily now actually features a regular table of contents. The carousel is still there and still features the same 1990s-style pixelated article previews, but you never actually have to see it.
The app also now opens to the front cover and remembers where you left off after you close the app (the original app wasn’t made for multitasking).
There are a number of other improvements, too. Commenting is now easier and the app feels stable and generally faster.
Is it Enough?
The question, of course, is if this will be enough to get people to check The Daily out again. The content, as far as I can see, hasn’t changed and still shows the general old-school mainstream newspaper mentality (including a Sudoku and horoscope section).
There is definitely a lot of potential in the idea of a tablet-based newspaper and thanks to interactive graphs, plenty of large photographs and other multimedia content, The Daily is at least trying to be at the cutting edge.
Whether people will pay $0.99 per week to give it another try, though, remains to be seen.
Last night, Color, the photo-sharing app with $41 million backing from major Valley VC firms, launched to much hype and an even greater backlash. There is no point in rehashing the discussion about it, but my personal opinion is pretty clear: the app’s concept may do well at conferences and other events (and hence I’m surprised it wasn’t launched at SXSW), but the current user experience is bad and the concept just doesn’t sound appealing to a mainstream audience. Now, however, Color’s CEO Bill Nguyen has told Mashable that “his team has heard the criticism loud and clear, and is moving fast to make changes to the app to fix its biggest problem: that people feel lonely when they use the app all by themselves.”
Here are the proposed changes:
1) if you launch the app “in the middle of nowhere,” the app simply won’t do anything – you’ll be locked out. That solves the problem of people opening the app and not knowing what to do, but it also means that 99% of potential users will face this locked down mode when they first open the app. And guess what they will do: close it and forget about it. The fact that Nguyen thinks that’s a good solution makes me doubt the future of the app even more.
2) Instead of just grouping together photos that were taken in close proximity to each other and linking the people that took it into an “elastic” group, the app will now “dynamically calculate the distance required for somebody to be considered ‘nearby.’” This, of course, waters down the whole concept of the app to the point where it’s nonsensical. If the dynamic network suddenly has a radius of half a mile instead of 150 feet, I will most likely care even less about the people who took the pictures. Sure, this will solve the “loneliness” problem – but at what cost?
The update should hit the app store by the middle of the week. The app currently has a two-star rating in Apple’s store (many users complain about crashes and – as expected – the fact that they can’t figure out what the app is supposed to do).
The Daily, News Corp.’s much hyped and buggy iPad-only newspaper just got a much-needed update. Even though the launch of The Daily was delayed by months, the first version of the app quickly turned out to be extremely buggy (I couldn’t even start it for the last few days) and quite a disaster when it came to usability. Today’s update does little to fix any of the usability problems, but at least the app loads again.
Interestingly, the release notes also point out that current users should delete the app before upgrading. Chances are that few of The Daily’s readers will actually see this note. I am not sure what the repercussions of not deleting the app are (I had actually just uninstalled the app just before the update appeared), but it’s probably best to follow these instructions. Of course, even if you never get the app to run again, you can always use this web-based index to read the main stories.
But at Least it Loads…
There is no point in repeating all the issues with the design and content we and others have found with the app. Suffice to say, today’s update does nothing to alleviate these concerns. On the positive side, though, as the release notes on iTunes note, today’s update brings “improved performance and stability.” Indeed, the app does feel somewhat more responsive – though it still feels very sluggish – and hasn’t crashed yet.
On the negative side, though, the compression artifacts that made the carousel view anything but attractive are even more pronounced now (maybe in an effort to improve its speed without having to actually change any code). Of course, delivering a new edition still takes far too long and the updates the news team sometimes pushes during the day still aren’t highlighted in any shape or form.
So while it’s good to see that the tech team at The Daily quickly fixed some of the problems with the app, today’s update does little to address any of the real concerns most of us had with the original paper. It’s still light on hard news stories and trapped in old-school newspaper thinking. Unless the team fixes the glaring usability issues and actually pushes out real news stories (instead of horoscopes and stories about how guys like cats), it’s hard to see how News Corp. can recoup its investment here once the ad-supported free version expires and readers will be forced to pay a subscription fee.