I rarely find myself praising anything I find online, but there are a few standout websites that I visit regularly that are genuinely helpful to me on a regular basis. These sites, for the most part, are free to use, and the advertising is not that intrusive. For years, I used Altavista as my main search engine, but these days, Google is my number one choice in search engines. When they began their public beta (testing) period for their mail service, Gmail, I signed up early on and giave it a fair try. Since then, they have added numerous other free services for end users, and they are just now beginning to charge corporations for use of these services in an enterprise setting. Google has come a long way, and I felt I should share some of my discoveries in case you may have overlooked them.
Today, Google has many services available, and for end users they are all available free of charge.
Gmail: Google’s mail service. Their online mail application was one of the first online services to use AJAX to keep information updated. Rather than having you reload your browser, your inbox is automatically “pushed” your incoming mail, so you do not have to refresh a page. AJAX technology also makes the mail application fast–only the parts of the page that need refreshing are retrieved from the server. You can flag your incoming mail with special tags to sort it, but generally, you do not store your mail in folders as you do in other services: you simply “archive” it. Since your mail archives are tied into a Google search of your mailbox, you can retrieve results instantly. Incoming messages can be filtered and then deleted, forwarded or archived. You can also use different return addresses, after you have verified them. Also, if you begin an e-mail exchange with another person, these messages are all aligned as a “discussion”, where your e-mails are treated as a single entity and you can read all the replies inline with each other. Google’s spam filtering is among the best I’ve ever seen: very little gets through! In addition to reading mail online, you can use POP3 to retrieve your Gmail to your favorite mail application on your computer. Overall, the mail application is easy and intuitive, and is easy enough for novice users to find their way around.
Google Talk: Google’s instant messenger application. What’s nice about Google Talk is that it is based on the open source Jabber protocol, so you can use Google’s standalone application, the Google Talk applet inside your Gmail (where you can also save your conversations for future reading or searching), or any other Jabber IM application. It offers few frills, but for basic chat, it has very low overhead and is simple to use. It is nice to be able to use it inside Gmail, especially when you are away from your usual computer.
Google Calendar: this is an online event-based calendar that you can use for scheduling your own appointments and managing your time, but it has the added bonus of being able to retrieve data from other public calendars as well as the calendars of family and friends on Google. You can choose that your calendar be public or private, and share it if you need to.
Personalized Google Home Page: Google gives you the ability to sign in with your Gmail login information to create your own personalized Google home page. This page is module based, where you can select any modules you want on your home page, then drag and drop them around, and customize them, to meet your needs. To tie in a lot of your Google applications, you can link to them on your personalized page. You can insert your Gmail inbox on your page, and see the last few new messages on your screen. On my own page, I have added modules for the weather forecast, quotes of the day, horoscope, my Google Calendar, a list of bookmarks, and a Sudoku game. Since I can add additional tabs, I created a second page with only news items on it.
Google Maps: this is far and away the best online mapping resource I have ever used. Google’s maps are smooth and easy to read. If you are searching for a business location, you can type that into the search bar and get a series of closely matching results, including address and phone number. They are also shown as pinpoints on the map, and clicking on one of ttem pops open a balloon with the same information in it. Like other maps, you can zoom in and out, and the map looks good at any zoom level. Driving directions are also available. One additional feature is the ability to overlay satellite photography (!) on your map–you can view as a map, as satellite photos, or a hybrid of both. It is great for visually seeing where your destination is located…and in some metro areas, you can zoom in close enough to pick out your parking spot! http://maps.google.com
Docs & Spreadsheets: Google’s surprise for me a couple of months ago came when I received an MS Word document in e-mail. Gmail asked me if I wanted to open the document with Google Documents. Turns out that Google has a nicely-featured word processing application that you can use online, saving your documents in your Google account or sharing them with others for collaboration. The spreadsheet application is also nicely done. Both programs don’t have all of the advanced features that MS Word and Excel do, but be honest: most users probably only use about 10% of those programs’ features. (And one could argue the majority of those features are useless for the majority of everyday users.) In Gmail, look for the Docs & Spreadsheets link at the top of the page.
Picasa Web Photos: Google now has a free service where you can upload your own photos for sharing, viewing or ordering prints from. You can download the Picasa application and upload from it, or upload your own photos using the online forms available to you. In Gmail, find the Photos link at the top of the page.
There are many other free Google services, which I will detail at a later time. These are the most significant, and ones that I use regularly. Enjoy–they’re free!