Ho Ho Ho! Follow Santa's journey around the world on your phone

Tuesday, December 22, 2009 | 11:44 PM

Like most kids, all I wanted to do on Christmas Eve was stay up and wait for Santa to arrive. One year, I went downstairs in the middle of the night and sat down in front of the Christmas tree to wait for Santa. Unfortunately, I soon fell asleep. When I awoke on Christmas morning the presents were under the tree and the milk and cookies I left out for Santa had been eaten. I had missed him. But next to the plate of crumbs, there was a note... from Santa himself! He thanked me for trying to wait up for him. I was so excited that I got a note from Santa that I forgot all about having fallen asleep and missing him. Every year after that I made sure to go to bed extra early to make sure that Santa stopped by.

This year, no one needs to go to bed early to make sure Santa comes over. Since NORAD is tracking Santa's journey around the world, you can find his current location on the 24th. If you see he's getting close by, just hop into bed. And if he's already passed by your house but you don't yet see presents (or coal!) under the tree, rest assured he'll be looping back once you're asleep. Read more about how NORAD tracks Santa on our Official Google Blog.

To make following Santa's journey even easier, you can find him on your phone too. Make sure you have Google Maps for mobile (available for most phones). Then just search! Just as you'd put in a query for "pizza" to find pizza places, or "San Antonio" to find it on a map, you can search for "Santa" to find where he is at the time. This way, you can stay up to date whether you're lounging by the fire at a ski lodge, stuck in traffic en route to Grandma's (get your kids to look it up for you!), or at the dinner table. To get started, go to m.noradsanta.org on your mobile phone, or just search for "Santa" in Google Maps for mobile on December 24th.

Matt Aldridge, Mobile Elf

The Iterative Web App: Feature-Rich and Fast

Thursday, December 17, 2009 | 10:26 AM

Every mobile engineering team -- including Google's -- struggles to make its applications available to all users on all devices. Even if you scope your work to today's smartphones, you're left with no less than five major operating systems. But we pay this cost because native code is often the only way to build an app that's rich enough and fast enough to meet users' needs. Enter the mobile web.

A growing number of mobile devices ship with an all-important feature: a modern web browser. And this is significant for two reasons:

  1. As an engineering team, we can build a single app with HTML and JavaScript, and have it "just work" across many mobile operating systems. The cost savings are substantial, not to mention the time you can re-invest in user-requested features.
  2. Having a web application also means we can launch products and features as soon as they're ready. And for users, the latest version of the app is always just a URL and a refresh away.
Of course: what sounds good in theory doesn't always materialize in practice. So back in April 2009 our team began re-building Gmail for mobile for today's modern browsers. We wanted to know: Could the mobile web support Gmail's basic and advanced features? Could we stuff the app with functionality while still keeping it fast and responsive? Today, and for the first time, we have answers to both questions.

Over the past 8 months we've pushed the limits of HTML5 to launch a steady string of Gmail features, including:
So yes, HTML5 and the mobile web are clearly up to the task of building rich and powerful apps. But speed is arguably the most important feature of any application. And we've remained unsatisfied with Gmail's performance on the mobile web. Until now.

As of today, and thanks to numerous optimizations, I'm happy to report that Gmail for mobile loads 2-3x faster than it did in April (see Figure 1). In fact on newer iPhone and Android devices, the app now loads in under 3 seconds. So yes, the mobile web can deliver really responsive applications.

Figure 1: Best and Worst Case Gmail for mobile start-up times, April 2009 vs. December 2009. All figures recorded on an iPhone 3G with EDGE data access.

The Gmail for mobile team isn't done, of course. We've focused primarily on performance over the past few months, but many other features and optimizations are on the way. So keep visiting gmail.com for the latest and greatest version of the app.

Looking ahead, it's also worth noting that as a worldwide mobile team, we'll continue to build native apps where it makes sense. But we're incredibly optimistic about the future of the mobile web -- both for developers and for the users we serve.

An Android dogfood diet for the holidays

Saturday, December 12, 2009 | 8:58 AM

At Google, we are constantly experimenting with new products and technologies, and often ask employees to test these products for quick feedback and suggestions for improvements in a process we call dogfooding (from "eating your own dogfood"). Well this holiday season, we are taking dogfooding to a new level.

We recently came up with the concept of a mobile lab, which is a device that combines innovative hardware from a partner with software that runs on Android to experiment with new mobile features and capabilities, and we shared this device with Google employees across the globe. This means they get to test out a new technology and help improve it.

Unfortunately, because dogfooding is a process exclusively for Google employees, we cannot share specific product details. We hope to share more after our dogfood diet.

Tis the Season to be Merry and Mobile

Friday, December 11, 2009 | 3:47 PM

Holiday season is in full swing (again). And we want to help you take advantage of everything your mobile device can offer to help deck the halls or hit the malls. If you're like us, you'll probably use your phone to research products and check out reviews, locate stores, purchase gifts, or capture holiday memories with a photo or video. In fact, a recent study estimates that 19% of consumers will use their phone for holiday shopping research, coupons, or purchases (a number that's likely much higher for our mobile-savvy blog readers). So we've posted a 'Holiday Help' section in our Mobile Help Center to share tips and tricks for using Google's mobile products during the holidays. Take a peek if you want to learn some new tips and tricks to help you get through the season. Happy holidays!

New version of Google Mobile App for iPhone in the App Store

Wednesday, December 9, 2009 | 4:32 PM

Hello, iPhone users! We have just received the good news that our new version of Google Mobile App for iPhone was approved and is now available on in the App Store everywhere.

In this version, we have a redesigned search results display that shows more results at once and, more importantly, opens web pages from the results within the app. This will get you to what you need faster, which is always our goal at Google.

For those less utilitarian and more flamboyant, we've exposed our visual tweaks settings called "Bells and Whistles" - some of our users had discovered this already in previous versions. You can style your Google Mobile App in any shade: red, taupe, or even heliotrope. If you're on a faster iPhone, like the iPhone 3GS, you may want to try the live waveform setting which turns on, as the name suggests, a moving waveform when you search by voice.

On the subject of searching by voice, you can now choose your spoken language or accent. For example, if you're Australian but live in London, you can improve the recognition accuracy by selecting Australian in the Voice Search settings. And now both Mandarin and Japanese are supported languages as well.

If you don't have Google Mobile App yet, download it from the App Store or read more about it. If you have any suggestions or comments, feel free to join in on our support forums or suggest ideas in our Mobile Products Ideas page. You can also follow us on Twitter @googlemobileapp.

Mobile Search for a New Era: Voice, Location and Sight

Monday, December 7, 2009 | 11:30 AM

Editor's note: today Google held a launch event at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA. Fresh off the stage, we've invited Vic to highlight the mobile team's announcements, and the unique set of technologies that make them possible. (All [video] links point to event footage that will be viewable later today.)

A New Era of Computing

Mobile devices straddle the intersection of three significant industry trends: computing (or Moore's Law), connectivity, and the cloud. Simply put:
  • Phones get more powerful and less expensive all the time
  • They're connected to the Internet more often, from more places; and
  • They tap into computational power that's available in datacenters around the world
These "Cs" aren't new: we've discussed them in isolation for over 40 years. But today's smartphones -- for the first time -- combine all three into a personal, handheld experience. We've only begun to appreciate the impact of these converged devices, but we're pretty sure about one thing: we've moved past the PC-only era, into a world where search is forever changed.

Just think: with a sensor-rich phone that's connected to the cloud, users can now search by voice (using the microphone), by location (using GPS and the compass), and by sight (using the camera). And we're excited to share Google's early contributions to this new era of computing.

Search by Voice

We first launched search by voice about a year ago, enabling millions of users to speak to Google. And we're constantly reminded that the combination of a powerful device, an Internet connection, and datacenters in the cloud is what makes it work. After all:
  • We first stream sound files to Google's datacenters in real-time
  • We then convert utterances into phonemes, into words, into phrases; and
  • We then compare phrases against Google's billions of daily queries to assign probability scores to all possible transcriptions; and
  • We do all of this in the time it takes to speak a few words
Over the past 12 months we've introduced the product on many more devices, in more languages, with vastly improved accuracy rates. And today we're announcing that search by voice understands Japanese, joining English and Mandarin.

Looking ahead, we dream of combining voice recognition with our language translation infrastructure to provide in-conversation translation [video]-- a UN interpreter for everyone! And we're just getting started.

Search by Location

Your phone's location is usually your location: it's in your pocket, in your purse, or on your nightstand, and as a result it's more personal than any PC before it. This intimacy is what makes location-based services possible, and for its part, Google continues to invest in things like My Location, real-time traffic, and turn-by-turn navigation. Today we're tackling a question that's simple to ask, but surprisingly difficult to answer: "What's around here, anyway?"

Suppose you're early to pickup your child from school, or your drive to dinner was quicker than expected, or you've just checked into a new hotel. Chances are you've got time to kill, but you don't want to spend it entering addresses, sifting through POI categories, or even typing a search. Instead you just want stuff nearby, whatever that might be. Your location is your query, and we hear you loud and clear.

Today we're announcing "What's Nearby" for Google Maps on Android 1.6+ devices, available as an update from Android Market. To use the feature just long press anywhere on the map, and we'll return a list of the 10 closest places, including restaurants, shops and other points of interest. It's a simple answer to a simple question, finally. (And if you visit google.com from your iPhone or Android device in a few weeks, clicking "Near me now" will deliver the same experience [video].)

Of course our future plans include more than just nearby places. In the new year we'll begin showing local product inventory in search results [video]; and Google Suggest will even include location-specific search terms [video]. All thanks to powerful, Internet-enabled mobile devices.

Search by Sight

When you connect your phone's camera to datacenters in the cloud, it becomes an eye to see and search with. It sees the world like you do, but it simultaneously taps the world's info in ways that you can't. And this makes it a perfect answering machine for your visual questions.

Perhaps you're vacationing in a foreign country, and you want to learn more about the monument in your field of view. Maybe you're visiting a modern art museum, and you want to know who painted the work in front of you. Or maybe you want wine tasting notes for the Cabernet sitting on the dinner table. In every example, the query you care about isn't a text string, or a location -- it's whatever you're looking at. And today we're announcing a Labs product for Android 1.6+ devices that lets users search by sight: Google Goggles.

In a nutshell, Goggles lets users search for objects using images rather than words. Simply take a picture with your phone's camera, and if we recognize the item, Goggles returns relevant search results. Right now Goggles identifies landmarks, works of art, and products (among other things), and in all cases its ability to "see further" is rooted in powerful computing, pervasive connectivity, and the cloud:
  • We first send the user's image to Google's datacenters
  • We then create signatures of objects in the image using computer vision algorithms
  • We then compare signatures against all other known items in our image recognition databases; and
  • We then figure out how many matches exist; and
  • We then return one or more search results, based on available meta data and ranking signals; and
  • We do all of this in just a few seconds
Now, with all this talk of algorithms, image corpora and meta data, you may be wondering, "Why is Goggles in Labs?" The answer -- as you might guess -- lies in both the nascence of the technology, and the scope of our ambitions.

Computer vision, like all of Google's extra-sensory efforts, is still in its infancy. Today Goggles recognizes certain images in certain categories, but our goal is to return high quality results for any image. Today you frame and snap a photo to get results, but one day visual search will be as natural as pointing a finger -- like a mouse for the real world. Either way we've got plenty of work to do, so please download Goggles from Android Market and help us get started.

The Beginning of the Beginning

All of today's mobile announcements -- from Japanese Voice Search to a new version of Maps to Google Goggles -- are just early examples of what's possible when you pair sensor-rich devices with resources in the cloud. After all: we've only recently entered this new era, and we'll have more questions than answers for the foreseeable future. But something has changed. Computing has changed. And the possibilities inspire us.

Keep your starred items in sync with Google Maps

Wednesday, December 2, 2009 | 7:50 AM

(cross-posted with Google LatLong Blog)

Google Maps for mobile has long allowed you to add stars on a map to mark your favorite places. You may have noticed a few months ago that Google Maps for desktop browsers introduced the ability to star places as well. Unfortunately, there was no way to keep these starred places in sync with Google Maps on your phone. With today's release of Google Maps for mobile 3.3 on Windows Mobile and Symbian phones, you'll now be able to keep the starred places on your phone and on your computer completely synchronized. It's like magic, but magic that you can use. Let me show you how:

My colleague Andy is at his desk right now, and he wants to check out some comedy in London tonight. Google Maps lists the 4th result as Upstairs at the Ritzy -- it sounds like a great spot: cheap, fun and comfortable. With one click, Andy stars the item and he's done. When he walks out of the office and turns on Google Maps on his Nokia phone, Upstairs at the Ritzy will be the top place in his list of Starred Items, and it will show up as a star on his map. From there he can call the theater, get walking directions, or even SMS the address to a friend.

Starring on Google Maps for desktop computers and Google Maps for mobile

Starring places also works great when you're out on the town and you find cool spots using your phone. I was in Paris with my wife recently. We visited the obvious tourist spots like la tour Eiffel and le Musée du Louvre, but we also found a few interesting places we hadn't expected. While wandering the streets of Paris, we stumbled upon a cafe...the sort of place you'll remember forever, but immediately forget the name. I started Google Maps on my Nokia phone, searched for the name of the cafe (Les Philosophes) and starred it, knowing that when I come back to Google Maps on my computer at home, it will be starred, right there, on my map. How cool is it to create a trail of interesting places from your phone?!

For users upgrading from an older version of Google Maps for mobile, you'll be asked, when you log in, whether you'd like to synchronize your existing starred items with your Google Account. This means you can preserve all the work you've put into customizing your map on your mobile, and have it show up, conveniently, in Google Maps in your desktop browser.

To enjoy the benefits of all this mobile synchronization goodness, download Google Maps for mobile for your Symbian or Windows Mobile phone by visiting m.google.com/maps in your mobile browser. And don't worry, we're busy building this same functionality into our other mobile versions of Google Maps -- so sit tight.