Last call for Google’s Picasa photo service

A screen capture showing Google's Picasa desktop software running on a Windows 7 computer on Thursday, March 10, 2016.

A screen capture showing Google’s Picasa desktop software running on a Windows 7 computer on Thursday, March 10, 2016.

After years of languishing behind projects like Google+ and Google Photos, Picasa is finally going to the great software and Web service cemetery beyond the clouds. Google announced last month that Picasa was being retired, and the end begins March 15 when the company stops support of the Picasa desktop app. Picasa’s online Web albums will be changing starting May 1.

I’m writing today so people may have the chance to download the Picasa’s free software for Windows and Mac before it’s taken offline. Although I started with Picasa’s Web service, the desktop software has become an invaluable way to quickly sort images and do some basic editing (although the editing tools are closer to Instagram than Photoshop). Although Google is seeking a single service that works on mobile and desktop, that solution isn’t ready today.

At first glance, Picasa is a tough sell as it was first developed when software companies were determining how to bridge software that resided on local computers with cloud services. Picasa was both a desktop app (that Google initially acquired) and an online photo service and it could be hard to explain the difference between the two to others. The two services even had different Web addresses — the app was available at picasa.google.com while the Web service was available at picasaweb.google.com.

A screenshot shows the desktop software at the top of this blog post. Readers may contrast that with a view of the Web albums below.

Here's a look at the Picasa Web Albums service as viewed in Google Chrome on March 10, 2016.

Here’s a look at the Picasa Web Albums service as viewed in Google Chrome on March 10, 2016.

Compared with modern applications and Web services, both versions of Picasa look a bit dated but they were still generally effective.

When it came to sharing photos online, Picasa Web Albums made things simple without the clutter of other photo-sharing services, like PhotoBucket. You could embed individual Picasa images on other sites or share slideshows of entire albums. These features are not currently available in Google Photos.

The biggest advantage of Google Photos is that it can store all of your photos at a usable size (Google+ Photos had a pretty small image size limit). I’ve found it extremely convenient for locating and sharing individual photos, but I’m less inclined to share whole albums. To be fair, I didn’t choose to share many albums with Picasa Web Albums, but I miss the ability to view other’s public photo profiles and share my own.

Ultimately, I’ll likely miss the desktop software most of all, especially when it came to processing screenshots. As someone whose personal computer is a MacBook, it’s easy to take cropped screenshots with the Command-Shift-4 keyboard shortcut. On a Windows PC, it’s initially easy to take the screenshot with the PrtScn key, but then you have to go to an image app like MS Paint, paste the screenshot into the image, crop it and then save it.

Picasa for Windows allowed users to skip a couple of steps. When Picasa was running, the PrtScn key captured the desktop directly to Picasa (alas, no secondary screens). With the image already saved, it was easy to go into Picasa, edit and crop the image and export it from a bitmap to a JPEG or PNG file.

The rest of the desktop app’s tools were straightforward. You couldn’t cut out or easily modify smaller elements of an image (something that had me running to Photoshop a couple times last year). The tools were useful for basic photo editing and caption information was saved in an IPTC format, which saved a lot of time for work. Users could also add text to an image, which saved me a lot of grief when I was working on my Christmas cards.

As much as I liked the desktop software, it could get a bit difficult to manage images, especially as it tried to cope with updates from other developers. For example, it was great that Picasa was able to read Apple’s iPhotos image database, but that advantage is practically wiped out when the image database splits up images by date (instead of albums or something more useful).

Ultimately, it makes sense for Google to let go of Picasa as the desktop app was last significantly updated more than four years ago. It will also reduce some of the confusion of Google’s image programs (which will still include Google Photos and the Snapseed mobile editing apps). I hope Google Photos will pick up some of the features of the Picasa services. Google Photos offers some incredible advantages, especially with facial and object recognition, but I think it has some ways to go before it can be a suitable replacement for Picasa.

Is Google Photos the future?

Is Google Photos the future?

GEL-ing with the Google Experience Launcher on a Galaxy S II

Out with the old… The old TouchWiz launcher from my Galaxy SII.

Out with the old… The old TouchWiz launcher from my Galaxy S II.

I’ve been excited to try out a new home screen, or launcher, for my Samsung Galaxy S II (Epic 3G Touch).

Since April, I’ve been using the default TouchWiz launcher that came with the S II. However, I’ve recently been intrigued to try the new launcher from Google — apparently called the Google Experience Launcher or Google Home.

Unfortunately, it didn’t seem like I was going to be able to try it out — the new launcher was part of the latest version of Android dubbed KitKat — and Samsung wasn’t planning to publish an update to my now two-year-old phone. Even if it did, there was no guarantee it would be made available on the Sprint network.

I was pleased to discover via Android Police that the tools available to enable the new launcher would work on my phone — or any phone or tablet running Android 4.1+. I needed the latest version of Google Search and the Launcher app (provided on the Android Police website). After a quick install, I was off to the races. I thankfully didn’t need to root my device or sideload from another device because they seem like too much of a hassle.

In with the new with the Google Experience Launcher, a.k.a. Google Home. A screenshot of the new launcher on my Galaxy SII.

… and in with the new with the Google Experience Launcher, a.k.a. Google Home. A screenshot of the new launcher on my Galaxy S II.

At first, the differences in the home screens are pretty subtle. It appears to run very smoothly on my S II and seems very responsive in most actions. There’s one exception — the screen seemed to jarringly jump around when dragging icons from the list of applications to create new shortcuts on the home screens.

On a positive note, it’s a bit fun that the wallpaper seems to stretch across multiple pages. The swan and the Palace of Fine Arts subtly shift as you swipe from page to page.

One of the biggest changes is that the Google search bar is now on _every_ page of the home interface (in TouchWiz, the Google bar was a widget that the user could choose to put on their phone).

Although the search bar is always there, Google did a nice job of tweaking icon sizes and layout to maximize space and it turned out I could have more apps or widgets on my primary home screen (the old widget took up four icon positions in a row).

This ever-present search bar probably won’t endear itself to those critical of Google’s increasing intrusion into people’s lives (and privacy). It’s important to note the new launcher is apparently an extension of the Google Search app, as reported by Ars Technica. Basically, the app _is_ the new home screen for phones that choose to use it.

I understand the reservations about Google blatantly taking over a user’s home screen compared with it lurking in the background. Thankfully, one can still switch between launchers, although I’ve temporarily settled on Google’s as the default for now.

Touching the Google search bar merely opens an expanded and simple search page. This is different than Google Now or the old Search app interface. I feel it would be more convenient to switch into Google Now, but that doesn’t seem to be in the cards for now.

Speaking of Google Now, it’s now accessible by swiping all the way from left to right.

I think one of the most useful changes is the ability to launch a voice search from the home screen by saying “OK Google.” Apparently, the new Moto X (and Droids) can do this while the screen is off, but it’s still useful.

Other things I noted is that not all widgets seem to work with this new Google home. The notification tags also weren’t showing up. My old Accuweather widget wasn’t available and I couldn’t view the widgets from the Yahoo! Weather app. I hope that this will be fixed (or is perhaps a shortcoming of how the app works on my phone).

Perhaps another sign of this launcher’s roots in the Google Search app is that the settings menu goes to the app’s settings and not the phone’s. I was used to the settings menu accessing the phone’s configuration and this more limited functionality was a bit of let down. I created a shortcut, but it’s not quite the same.

Also, the icons and text seem a tad too small for my eyes, but they don’t seem that much smaller compared with TouchWiz. It may be due to the apparently tighter layout because it looks more like a solid wall of icons unless I use a widget to break up the space (I have six more apps on my primary screen under Google Home than TouchWiz).

The differences between this and TouchWiz seem to be pretty subtle, but it’s nice to try something new. That is something that isn’t easily accomplished on iOS, where you’re generally stuck with whatever Apple gives you. Still, we’re talking about different, yet incredibly similar ways to display rows of icons and some widgets on a smartphone. I’m pretty happy with all three offerings.

Ultimately,  I’m happy I can give the Google Experience Launcher a shot. I can spruce up my old phone although I can’t have the full KitKat experience (at least until I can get the Nexus 5).

My phone thinks I live at a bar and other digital foibles

Google Now on my new smartphone initially thought I lived at the Madison Bear Garden.

Google Now on my new smartphone initially thought I lived at the Madison Bear Garden.

Following my last post, I’ve made the switch from Sprint to Ting and got a refurbished Samsung Galaxy SII (Epic 4G Touch). It led to a little bit of drama when the first one I received was a dud, but more on that later.

One of the joys of getting a new-ish smartphone is trying out the new bells and whistles, including updating the phone’s Android operating system to a more recent version. That upgrade allowed me to test the updated Google Search app and came away only modestly impressed — the app’s Google Now feature aims to display cards of information based on your searches, location, preferences, etc.

It’s Google Now’s virtual anticipation that recently caught me off guard. I was about to leave work last week when I checked into the app. Anticipating that I would like to know how long it would take for me to drive home, the app displayed the approximate travel time to my “home” — Madison Bear Garden.

I was a little curious at first why Google would think I live at a bar. I could think of a couple of possibilities. I used the app at the bar one evening to look up some trivial items that came up during a discussion. Because I made that search at night when many people are at home, it’s possible the app guessed my home on my evening location — at the bar.

Thankfully it asked to confirm if the location was my home and I could correct it.

These types of tech gaffes point out how digital companies try to sort out relevant information from the bushels of data we submit everyday. While it may be wise to be cautious about such data mining, these shortcomings sometimes underscore the old programming principle of GIGO — Garbage In, Garbage Out. The difference is that sometimes the computer gets garbage out of what we would consider to be relevant information.

Here are some other recent tech peeves I’ve observed:

  • At the consumer budgeting site Mint.com, the service says I’ve been spending a lot of money lately at Chico’s — a clothing store I’ve never purchased from and don’t recall ever being inside. Apparently the site skims recent purchases and tries to determine where they should go.
    In this case, it sees a purchase from “Chico CA” and assigns it to Chico’s. The site currently applies this to all Chico purchases. There is no option to change it other than manually editing every entry … which defeats the purpose of having the site easily display how a user’s money is being spent.
  • Facebook tries its best to guess certain information about its users, often to hilarious effect. At various times, the map on my Timeline said I was born in Chico and identified one of parents. That’s all fine if it were true — at the time I said Chico was my hometown, but that’s not necessarily where I was born. Also, my parent isn’t necessarily my biological one so that doesn’t make sense either.
    Another time, Facebook finally correctly identified the town I was born, but then indicated I was born at the city’s airport. Boy, that would be a fun story for my parents to tell me — again, if that ever happened.
  • The photos feature on Google+ uses technology to try to identify people’s faces (Facebook has a similar tool). Sometimes that tech fails in a cruel way:
Google+ doesn't believe there's a face in this image.

Google+ doesn’t believe there’s a face in this image.

Although some of these goofs can be annoying or time consuming to fix, I’m generally content to let these inaccuracies stand if they’re not causing any harm. I’m leery at providing too much information online. These errors can stand as reminders of what these companies are trying to do and how far they have to go to accomplish their goals.

Google’s holiday WiFi gift – 15 of 47 airports already had free Internet

I love free stuff — lots of people do. That’s probably one big reason why Google’s offer of free WiFi at 47 participating airports during the holidays (through Jan. 15) sounds so nice. But looks can be deceiving.
I didn’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth, but I peeked at the list of airports and was intrigued at what I saw — several airports where I knew they already offered free Internet (including Las Vegas, Sacramento and San Diego).
A couple dozen Google searches revealed that nearly a third of the 47 airports participating in Google’s program had pre-existing free WiFi in place (view the list). Two more airports (Seattle-Tacoma and Burbank) stated they would participate in Google’s program and then continue offering free service after Jan. 15.
Part of this rubbed me the wrong way — could Google claim credit for offering free WiFi at airports where it already existed? Could it also claim that it was offering free WiFi at other airports with free Internet (like at Chico, Calif. and Hancock, Mich.)?
According to AirportWiFiGuide.com, many airports not on Google’s list offer free Internet. Even that list is incomplete (I noticed that Chico and Hancock aren’t listed).
To be fair, someone has to pay for Internet access that is offered for “free” to the end user. According to Silicon Valley/San Jose Business Journal, the San Jose airport has had free Internet since May 2008. Officials said Google was offsetting the cost of offering the free service during the holidays.
Ultimately, I can be more jolly than Grinch-y about Google’s gift. For a limited time, Google is offering free Internet at more than 30 airports where there currently is a fee (typically about $8/day). Hopefully, more airports will pursue free Internet solutions in the future.
Also, Google will match up to $250,000 worth of donations made over the WiFi networks to three charities.
A list of the airports participating in the Google Free Holiday WiFi is available after the jump.

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Rupert Murdoch takes on Google, fair-use guidelines

Every time I see an article about copyright laws, I usually gripe about how the discussion excludes fair-use guidelines — those loose rules that outline how people can legally use selections of copyrighted works in their own productions.
Well, my wish was granted, but in a fairly horrible way — News Corp. honcho Rupert Murdoch said he believes his company can challenge fair use and have the courts strike it down.
Murdoch was speaking with Sky News Australia, a segment of which is reposted in this Boing Boing article. The Boing Boing article is a pretty strident commentary.
BBC News also had a summary of Murdoch’s comments to Sky News. Apparently, he’s willing to pursue the matter slowly.

“There’s a doctrine called ‘fair use’, which we believe to be challenged in the courts and would bar it altogether,” Mr Murdoch told the TV channel. “But we’ll take that slowly.”

Murdoch also tilted toward the search engine windmill. He is still on a course to seek payments for News Corp. Web sites and may seek to have the sites’ information removed from Google and other search sites.
Many on the Internet (like Boing Boing) think that Murdoch’s moves may be folly. Although he thinks it unlikely to succeed, longtime tech writer Harry McCracken urges Murdoch to block Google.
Some of the criticism is wrapped up in a dislike of the political leanings of Murdoch’s holdings (the News Corp. umbrella includes the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, UK and U.S. tabloids, etc.).
Setting aside the party politics, it wouldn’t be wise to underestimate Murdoch. Some of his successes have changed the industry (including the dismantling of newspaper unions in England, launching the populist FOX TV network in the United States, etc.). Even his efforts that have come up short have been spectacular.
While Murdoch’s possible moves against Google may be getting the most ink, it’s the idea of gutting fair use that concerns me most. Having News Corp. block search engines only affects the one company (and those that may follow this decision). Eliminating fair use affects everyone.
Murdoch is willing to play the long game to strip the general public of a key component of copyright law. Scrapping fair use would be detrimental to research, news gatherers and the general public.
The fair-use guidelines aren’t perfect, but at least they set some ground rules for those wishing to be legit. If these guidelines are cut, there are at least two possible outcomes:

  • Someone approaches a copyright holder for a blessing anytime he wants to use even a scintilla of information. This would give the copyright holder direct control over who uses even a little bit of their content — like the Sky News quote used in the BBC News article and this blog post.
  • Someone uses content without permission and exposes himself to prosecution. Even under fair use, there is a possibility of prosecution if copyright is flagrantly disregarded. Without fair use, the consumer/producer would have little to no protection.