[Paleopsych] NYT: An Update on Stuff That's Cool (Like Google's Photo Maps)
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Business > Your Money > Techno Files: An Update on
Stuff That's Cool (Like Google's Photo Maps)
April 17, 2005
By JAMES FALLOWS
THIS is a "where are they now?" report on some products and
innovations previously described in this space.
Let's start with Skype. This is the system that allows anyone with a
computer and a broadband connection to call mobile or land-line
telephones almost anywhere on earth for pennies per minute. When two
people are at computers running Skype, they can talk to each other
(using a headset or microphone) as long as they want, with sound
quality far better than that of telephones, absolutely free. Skype
conference calls can include up to five participants - I have used
this feature to talk simultaneously, from Washington, with people in
England, New Zealand and California, at no cost to any of us. Working
out the time zones was the real challenge.
Skype resembles Google, the gold standard of modern computing, in
several ways. Its adoption rate has been phenomenal. When I wrote
about it last September, it had been downloaded a total of 21 million
times. Now the total is 100 million, and at any given moment more than
two million Skype conversations are under way. Like Google, Skype
keeps introducing new features - for instance, "SkypeIn," released two
days ago, which allows users to create a local phone number and have
all calls to that number forwarded to the user's Skype connection,
wherever in the world that might happen to be. As with Google, once
you get used to Skype, it's hard to imagine doing without.
Also as with Google, Skype's problems mainly arise from its rapidly
growing worldwide reach. For Google, the problem has been how much to
tailor its results to varying political sensibilities: its versions in
Germany and France, for instance, screen out many neo-Nazi sites.
Skype has had to cope with the abundance of fraudulent credit cards.
For the time being, it declines most credit cards and prefers payment
Next, Google itself. In February, it introduced Google Maps, a faster
and better-looking alternative to MapQuest and other online mapping
sites. Last month it added a touch that made Google Maps different
from any competitor: high-resolution aerial photos of the area covered
by the maps, which visitors can zoom in on for a closer bird's-eye
view. (These photos came from Keyhole, a company Google bought last
year.) Go to www.maps.google.com, enter a ZIP code or address, and
then click the "satellite" button to switch from map to photo. In
either view you can get driving instructions from one point to
another, as with other map sites. But when the route is traced in the
photos, the turns and waypoints are much more vivid.
But don't try this until you have an hour or two to spare. It is
difficult to resist the temptation to zoom down to your own house,
then your childhood elementary school, then Honolulu, then Disneyland.
Not all of the country is shown in super-high-resolution: in general,
the greater the population density, the sharper the image. After a lot
of prowling around, I've found only part of the American landmass
where the aerial view is deliberately obscured - and it's not the
White House. (Answer next time.) If you click on the screen, you can
pan from place to place, as if flying. A waste of time, perhaps, but
The real importance of Google's map and satellite program, however, is
not its impressive exterior but the novel technology, known as Ajax,
that lies beneath. About that, and its implications for Google and
other companies, there will be more to say in a future column.
Next up, public access to publicly financed data. Previously I
mentioned the Bush administration's admirable decision to let the
National Weather Service keep distributing its data on free Web sites,
rather than funneling it through commercial services. But now the
administration is proposing an enormous step in the opposite
The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, or N.G.A., is the main
map-producing office in the Pentagon. Its detailed topographic
studies, produced at public expense, have for decades been the basis
of many other products; in particular, virtually every chart used by
the nation's airlines relies on the agency's data. Citing security
concerns and a few other reasons, the administration now proposes to
withdraw all of its aeronautical material from public use on Oct. 1.
Through June 1, the N.G.A. will accept comments on this proposal at
its Web site, www.nga.mil. Check out its arguments, plus the case
for continued openness, made at the press-release portion of
www.cartographic.com, and let the agency hear from you.
Finally, mind mapping software, the focus of last month's column. Most
of the correspondence about that column addressed an apparent anomaly:
if mind mapping is so great for putting ideas in visual form, why was
there no mention of programs designed for the leader in visually
intuitive computing, the Macintosh?
The narrow answer is that the two programs I praised, MindManager and
ResultsManager, will (like most other Windows software) run on the Mac
under the Virtual PC utility that Microsoft sells for $129. Also,
Robert Gordon, chief executive of the company that makes MindManager,
says that it is "seriously considering" producing a native Mac
version. (Impatient Mac users: write to him, not me.)
BUT the broader answer is that programs to collect information and
organize ideas are so numerous, varied and rapidly proliferating that
a list of the good ones soon grows very long.
Want a mind-mapper designed specifically for the Mac? There's
Inspiration ($69 from www.inspiration.com; PC version available
too), which is mainly marketed to schools but is also useful for other
writing projects. Or FreeMind, which lacks a few advanced features,
but is free (from freemind.sourceforge.net). Or ConceptDraw Mindmap
($149, from www.csodessa.com), which runs on the Mac and is made by
a company in Ukraine. MindGenius - yes, the names do get sort of
creepy - is a mapper for the PC that costs $59 and comes from
www.mindgenius.com in Scotland.
NoteTaker ($69.95 from www.aquaminds.com) is an attractive and
powerful Mac-only data organizer. Axon Idea Processor is an
unattractive and powerful PC-only organizer. It is $135, from
web.singnet.com.sg/~axon2000 in Singapore.) I hope to say more
about these in the future - along with the likes of: BrainStorm ($75,
from www.brainstormsw.com in England); ADM or Advanced Data
Manager ($129, from www.adm21.net in Canada); Tinderbox ($165,
Mac-only, from www.eastgate.com/tinderbox in Massachusetts); Omea
Pro ($49 from www.jetbrains.com in the Czech Republic); Zoot ($99
from www.zootsoftware.com in Florida); and whatever promising
newcomers have appeared by then, from whatever odd corners of the
world. In the meantime, try them yourself.
James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly.
E-mail: tfiles at nytimes.com.
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