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01 March 2008

Google’s Googlies

People were happy when it became the most popular search engine. When it offered virtually unlimited space in email accounts, only the competitors cribbed. Then it scared Governments with GoogleEarth and mobile phone operators with Rs 4,000 web-surfable cellphones. Here are two of its latest ‘Googlies’

Google is coming up with Google Health, its latest service — this time of personal health records management.

This is how the service will appear on your computer monitors. You first have to be a ‘user’; in web service’s parlance this means registering at the site with personal details — in this case, your medical history as your physician has diagnosed. On the right section of the screen, the user’s health profile will appear in a sidebar containing the medical conditions he has experienced, the medications he has used for treatment, allergies (if any) and procedures adopted for cure.

On the left hand side will appear another sidebar with URLs to the subscriber's profile data, medical contacts, health notices and drug interaction warnings, that is, side effects, if any.

More information, however, needs to be fed to the user’s profile, a purpose that will be served by the central column with buttons enabling you to add information to Google Health, import health records, find online health management tools and search for doctors.

Only for American users as of now, the web service’s screenshot will have a widget for appointments with doctors and chart describing the treatments as offered by the Cleveland Clinic with which Google announced a pilot programme to test its online health records system two weeks ago. From this it is believed that when this facility is made available worldwide, in developing countries like India Google is likely to seek collaboration from a few major hospitals.

Will any Government hospital be a part of the project? If yes, can they handle the fast data entry that the programme will demand? If no, it will not do justice to Google’s business approach of playing with large volumes or, in other words, catering for the masses. Private hospitals may be ‘smart’ but they aren’t for the middle class, let alone the poor.

Then there could be legal hassles. Personal health records are not protected by privacy and security laws and putting PHRs online raises a number of privacy risks. Individuals will be largely inconvenienced if their diseases were available for public scrutiny. In cases like HIV/AIDS, it also opens up the possibility of persecution by society.

However, Google Health will not include advertisements, at least initially. So, at the moment, advertisers cannot use health information to target the sick.

Enthusiasts argue that Google Health may be likened to Google News insofar as providing value and helping drive more searches are concerned. Well, Google Health may work on a similar strategy. But it’s difficult to digest the company’s claim that one’s medical information open for scrutiny by anyone is the same as looking for health-related information through Google Search. Of course, there is assurance from the company that Google has undertaken not to sell or share users’ data without their explicit permission.

But this isn’t about the company’s magnanimity. It is to avoid litigations. While giving individuals ‘complete control’ over their data sounds assuring, it would protect Google from liability should the revelation of health data lead to discrimination against or embarrassment for a user. That is, except for abject negligence on Google's part, Google Health users will have no one but themselves to blame if, say, they misdirect their health records to unintended recipients or leave their Google Health page on-screen while away from their desks.

An interesting twist in the story is that whatever Google does, Microsoft does it too. To give competition a fair chance, Microsoft does have its own health service, too: HealthVault. Announced last October, it is a private search experience, a secure online data repository and a health information management application. That is, owing to MSN’s search options being less popular than Google Search, HealthVault is a less publicised me-too Google Health.

All said and done, Google Health does mark a new chapter in the field of delivery of health-care services. Let’s hope, it does not wreck society by exposing individuals’ medical data.

Taking on Wiki:
For a couple of years now, Wikipedia has become an intriguing source that many researchers use to know what, when, why, where and how of everything. Open to tinkering by anyone who begs to differ with the content or wants to add stuff to it, Wikipedia has become quite a headache for both teachers and heads of Government institutions who have been at pains to explain to their students in schools and subordinates in offices which Wiki content to rely on and which not to. Google Sites could make it worse.

The plan for Google Sites was announced on February 28. It’s an addition to Google Apps that provides simple yet intuitive tools to create websites in collaboration. Based on the Wiki technology developed by JotSpot, which Google acquired in October, 2006, Google Sites will be as easy to edit as Wiki, but will look as good as a website. Even though working on Wiki is easier than working with HTML, it is essentially made by geeks and fiddled by geeks. The end-user is rarely the one who pokes his nose in what the Wikipedia says about anything or anybody.

Google Sites, on the other hand, can be edited in groups. Users can put up sites in minutes and, without any advanced technical skills, post a variety of files including calendars, text, spreadsheets, and videos for private, group, or public viewing and editing.

As questionable as information furnished on Wikipedia is, contents on Google Sites cannot obviously be used for scholarly works. Only the security of your system will be better: Though users can edit the HTML of their pages, controls are in place to prevent malicious code from being included. That means no IFRAMEs and limited JavaScript. Google Analytics, which uses JavaScript to gather Web site usage statistics, would work with Google Sites.

How personal you can make Google Sites depends on whether or not you pay Google. There are general services for the ‘Team’ and ‘Standard’ (both free) packages as well as customised services through ‘Premier’, a package that can be bought for $ 50 per user, per year.

For students there is good news. The Education Edition is free with Google Apps. The service includes 10 GB of storage. Google Apps Premier users receive an additional 500 MB per user account in the domain. That's in addition to the 6.4 GB and 25 GB of e-mail storage offered to Google Apps Standard and Premier Edition users respectively.

Here again there is competition with Microsoft SharePoint. Companies are likely to weigh Google Sites against SharePoint and Google may win some customers who are looking for a hosted solution. SharePoint so far has just been offered as on-premises software.

In terms of cost, licensing fee for the paid version of Google Sites and Microsoft SharePoint are comparable. But Google Sites does not impose the maintenance cost of in-house servers and people who tend them.

Feared by rivals, panned by critics:
Google, which had started basically as a search company, is now no longer just a techies’ darling. It is feared by its rivals and challenged in court for its aggressive hiring tactics. This writer, for one, happened to be called by a placement agency last year for an aptitude test to be conducted at the basement of an obscure building in Delhi’s South Extension. From its three follow-up calls to ensure I would turn up to several more to ensure I would join Google, I kept wondering whether Google was at all going to be my employer, so confusing were the nature of the intermediaries and the way they described my possible job profile. Eventually, those who joined had educational and professional backgrounds no better than those of call centre ‘executives’.

In February 2005, Google showed its hypersensitivity for the first time when it fired an employee over his blog postings, which included criticisms of the company. Later, another employee sued Google, claiming that she was wrongfully terminated before being hired again and then demoted after the company learned that she was pregnant.

Among other aspects of the company, nobody is actually sure of which hornet’s nest Google wishes to stir next. Google was once dragged to court by adult website Perfect 10 over the search company's use of photos in its image search database, and Google agreed to change the name of its Gmail service to Google Mail in the UK after being threatened with a copyright lawsuit there.

Google antagonised the Association of American Publishers and the Authors Guild that took the company to court, complaining that its plan to scan and digitise major library collections would violate copyright law. Google defended its plan by saying it won't expose more than snippets of in-copyright books.

But nobody can deny one big merit of Google. With its services, the people are spoilt for choice: Google Video, Google Mini (a budget enterprise search appliance), Google Earth with its 3D satellite images, Google blog search (an RSS reader), Google Talk (a voice-enabled instant-messaging program) and Google Base (a repository for any information that a user may want to turn into keywords for web-search). The last was a project many thought was an attempt to get into the lucrative online-classifieds market. It’s not far from being there.

Google, as secretive as always, was for two years being speculated to be interested in unused fibre-optic cable (ill known as ‘dark fibre’) because it wanted to build its own global network. Just last week it was announced that a consortium of six international companies, including Google, is to build an ultra high-speed submarine fibre optic cable system linking Japan and the US.

Following the outcry in 2004 over Gmail’s privacy — for the end-users, there just wasn’t a better free e-mail service — several other Google products stirred similar concerns, namely Web Accelerator and My Search History.

The Web Accelerator promised to reduce the waiting time in web-browsing mostly by a combination of caching and pre-fetching. But it appeared as if the accelerator was sometimes serving up the wrong cached page, showing you a page with someone other than you logged into the site, for example. It also effectively acted like a proxy and, among other things, allowed users to bypass China's firewall. While that firewall is quite bothersome, China must have been miffed at that development. Finally, with My Search History, what are the privacy implications of Google knowing almost most pages each user has ever visited anywhere on the web and the full contents of those pages?

But let’s for once look at the brighter side. Google is a hell for liars. It knows what you did last summer. Wink! Wink!

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Surajit Dasgupta treats no individual, organisation or institution as a holy cow.