Google Apps & Google Notebook

Although my enthusiasm for Google Apps for Your Domain (GAFYD) may appear lukewarm at best, I do hope that this venture leads to mass-market adoption.

Why?

Google’s intersection with office-productivity suites is likely to stimulate innovation.

For example, I’ve blogged a fair bit recently about annotation. Google has a mechanism for annotation in Google Notebook, as does Microsoft Word. GAFYD will allow annotations to be recontextualized for the Web-enabled office. In fairness, and to avoid the Google vs. Microsoft double standard, I expect all of this will also apply to Microsoft Office Live.

It’ll be interesting to watch this unfold.

Microsoft Word: A Tool for Annotation

Not too long ago I blogged about Google Notebook as a tool for annotation.

Of course, annotation isn’t a new concept, and therefore there are other tools that allow for it.

Not surprisingly, Microsoft Word is one of these tools. By use of comments, Word allows for annotation. I’ve made available Word and PDF examples elsewhere. In addition to annotations via Word comments being author and date stamped, my example illustrates how annotations via Word comments:

  • Can indicate a specific point in a document – The start or end of the orignal blog post in my example
  • Can span a number of document elements – A few paragraphs and an item of a bulleted list in my example

My example also illustrates how annotations via comments are distinct from tracked changes, the latter being another very powerful capabilty in Word.

Although Word can annotate to at least the degree described here, there is one aspect that is limiting. To be wholly useful in the context of annotation, Microsoft needs to expose its mechanism of fragment identification. This is the Word equivalent of an XPointer entry. (The same applies to Google Notebook. Microsoft and Google may have already allowed for this through some API, Application Programming Interface. I just haven’t spent any time looking for them.) Using my Mac, I converted the Word example into HTML. (Sorry, WordPress wouldn’t allow me to upload it!) Comments become linked footnotes. Although this is understandable, aspects of the annotation are lost in translation. I’ll look at an XML-based representation next time I’m at my desktop PC to see if that does any better. Stay tuned.

In closing, it’s important to note that Word is representative of current office productivity software in its ability to convey annotations. In other words, I would expect that OpenOffice and others could do the same. Somewhat related Adobe Acrobat also allows for a similar capability in the case of PDF documents.

Google Notebook: A Tool for Annotation

According to one source, “… annotation means adding information (such as notes, commentary, links to source material, and so on) to existing web-accessible documents without changing the originals.”

Wikipedia defines it this way: “Annotation is extra information associated with a particular point in a document or other piece of information.”

My introduction to the term occurred when I worked for Platform Computing. While I was there, we worked on several projects whose aim was to annotate genomes.

Later on, working with Keith Aldridge of York University, I became interested in annotating data from The Global Geodynamics Project (GGP). Briefly, GGP data is collected by instruments called Superconducting Gravimeters (SGs). These instruments are incredibly sensitive to relative changes in Earth’s acceleration due to gravity. GGP is in fact a network of SGs that are distributed across the planet. Each instrument, each month provides three data files:

  • Gravity and pressure data – The primary observables sampled regularly in time
  • Auxilliary data – Complimentary observables (like groundwater levels) sampled regularly in time
  • Log data – Other observables (like service events) that occur at irregular intervals

When Keith and I first started work on introducing an XML-based data model for the GGP, we thought it made sense to automatically represent each of these files separately, and then combine them using XIncude or XSLT. (This XML-based data model is described in detail elsewhere.) After additional exposure to the XML spectrum, XPointer emerged as another option. (I alluded to this in a follow-up paper with Keith.) XML Pointer Language (XPointer) is “… the language to be used as the basis for a fragment identifier for any URI reference that locates a resource …” It’s not by coincidence that the Wikipedia definition for annotation reads similarly to this definition of XPointer from the W3C. XPointer is the W3C’s vehicle for annotation.

It’s still my take that adoption of XPointer is rather slow. For example, the only Web browser that I know of that supports annotation is the W3C’s Amaya. When browsing annotated Web pages with Amaya, clickable icons of pencils provide a link to the annotations.

The utility of annotations, taken together with the poor adoption of XPointer in mass-market Web browsers, makes for exciting possibilities for Google Notebook. What follows are a few data points on Google Notebook:

  • “Google Notebook makes web research of all kinds – from planning a vacation to researching a school paper to buying a car – easier and more efficient by enabling you to clip and gather information even while you’re browsing the web.”
  • Google Notebook lives in your Web browser
  • Google Notebook organizes, in an easily accessible way, your Web findings
  • Google Notebook is accessible from any Internetworked computer
  • Google Notebook is another prototype emerging from the Google Labs
  • Google Notebook is searchable (of course, doh!)
  • Google Notebook is publishable – click here for an example

In other words, Google Notebook is a tool for annotation!

Enthusiasm aside, I must note that:

  • Google Notebook is not standards based – I assume it’s based on proprietary Googleisms, but this requires further research (Please see the comments on this post for additional dialog on this point.)
  • Google Notebook is not a fragment identifier – The degree of granularity is the Web page itself, not a fragment on a Web page
    (Please see the comments on this post for additional dialog on this point.)
  • Google Notebook is targeted at Mozilla Firefox only – It’s enabled as a plugin (Please see the comments on this post for additional dialog on this point.)
  • Google Notebook makes use of a simple model of authentication – Username and password form the basis
  • Google Notebook doesn’t allow for Access Control Levels (ACLs) – Published notebooks are accessible by anyone who picks up on the lengthy, randomly generated URL

On balance, Google Notebook is useful, and allows for an excellent introduction to annotation. I highly recommend investigating Google Notebook, and providing your feedback to Google on it.